In the five years since A.P McCoy won, the average starting price of the winning horse has been 33–1

By Julian Muscat

The great thing about the Grand National is that it habitually denounces efforts to stereotype it. Myriad changes have been made to Aintree’s special fences, prompting professionals to declare the race would lose its character, yet recent winners have been harder to predict than winning numbers in the National Lottery. In the five renewals since A. P. McCoy won on the 10–1 favourite Don’t Push It in 2010, the average starting price of the winning horse has been 33–1— so much for the notion that fences more easily jumped would see the race won by the classiest horse in the field.

Just when you think certain trends have become too persuasive to ignore, they crumble. Don’t Push It started a sequence in which horses approaching the veteran stage (aged 10 or over) won five successive editions, only for eight-year-old Many Clouds to romp home last year. Yes, the world’s most famous race retains the capacity to surprise. The 169th running on Saturday, sponsored by Crabbie’s for the last time, has attracted a herd of quality horses.

The start time has been pushed back to 5.15pm, ensuring the race has the stage to itself on the busiest sporting day of the week. By 5.30pm, we will learn whether Willie Mullins will be the first Irish trainer to win the trainers’ championship in Britain since Vincent O’Brien in 1954

The dominance of Mr Mullins, who saddled the 2005 Grand National winner Hedgehunter, has been a talking point all season. His frequent raiding visits to English racecourses mean he approaches the Aintree Festival with a small prize-money deficit on Paul Nicholls, who has won the championship in nine of the last 10 seasons. With its winner’s purse of £560,000, a Grand National victory for either man would all but seal the deal: collectively, runners from their Somerset and Co Carlow stables will account for a quarter of the 40-strong field.

Mr Mullins is expected to field four runners. Each has plausible prospects, but none stands out and his rival appears to have the stronger hand. Mr Nicholls will saddle up to six runners (the field will be officially declared tomorrow), with the pale-chestnut Silviniaco Conti carrying the stable pennant.This dual winner of Kempton’s King George VI Chase is favourably weighted in the handicap, but, with a field of 40, his aggressive running style threatens to undermine him. Unioniste appears best of the rest, but was outrun by Many Clouds at Kelso recently. Many Clouds is trained in Lambourn, west Berkshire, by Oliver Sherwood, who finished eighth in the 1983 Grand National on Venture To Cognac when an amateur rider of some distinction.  His wife, former professional jockey Tarnya, also rode in the race. Mr Sherwood’s first four Grand National runners all failed to complete the course, but Many Clouds was footperfect in winning 12 months ago. He seems in equally robust health now and looks sure to run well. However, it won’t help his cause that he must give weight to every other runner.

No horse has prevailed with top weight since Red Rum defied 12 stone in 1974. Opinion is divided on whether The Druids Nephew would have beaten Many Clouds last year but for falling at the fifth-last fence when in the lead. Saddled by a young trainer, Bath-based Neil Mulholland, the nine-year-old bay gelding has been targeted at the 2016 Grand National ever since and will be produced in mint condition.

However, for the winner, the suggestion is The Last Samuri, a horse that left The Druids Nephew toiling in his wake when winning at Doncaster last month. This strikingly progressive eight year old is owned by Paul and Clare Rooney, who are relatively recent arrivals to the sport of kings. They also own champion jockey-elect Richard Johnson’s ride Kruzhlinin, but The Last Samuri flaunts stronger credentials.

Victory for either horse would be hard felt by Grand National royalty, as Donald McCain (son of Red Rum’s trainer Ginger McCain)—who saddled Ballabriggs to win in 2011—trained both horses until the Rooneys removed their large string from him last year. The Last Samuri now runs from the Cotswolds stable of Kim Bailey, who won the 1990 Grand National with Mr Frisk. A reprise, 26 years on, is eminently possible. That’s the theory, anyway.

The Aintree Festival starts today (April 7); tickets for the Grand National (April 9) start at £26 (0344 579 3001; http://aintree.thejockeyclub.co.uk)