Catherine Austen picks potential winners in the 2018 Grand National.

Aintree in April is where National Hunt racing emerges from its muted, wintery greens and browns into a riot of colour. You’ll still see a pocket of tweed around the winner’s enclosure, particularly on the first day when hunting people come to watch the great amateur challenge, the Randox Health Fox Hunters’, but, by Saturday, the joyous crowd resembles the brightest of rainbows.

The Grand National meeting is pure fun. Trainers who were pale and grim-faced at Cheltenham a month ago are smiling and relaxed. ‘Liverpool is a party town,’ observes Jonjo O’Neill, who trains the top weight for the race, Minella Rocco, runner-up in the 2017 Cheltenham Gold Cup.

The race may have had some of its edge knocked off it in valiant attempts to improve horse welfare, but it remains a genuinely thrilling spectacle. Even the most hardened racegoer’s heart will thump wildly as the 40 horses line up, transfixed by the sight of them firing over the unique fences.

The first winner of the Grand National, in 1839, was a horse called Lottery and nothing could have set the tone better. The number of runners, long distance and imposing obstacles mean anything can happen. The 100–1 shot your great-aunt backed because she liked the name might romp home and the horse your clever brother spent weeks carefully selecting according to every past statistic possible could unship its jockey at the first fence. And in 1967 that’s more or less exactly what happened when Foinavon was less the winner, and more the last horse standing.

Grand National

Foinavon won the 1967 National after a huge pile-up at the 23rd fence — amazingly all the horses and jockeys were uninjured

At the time of writing, the ground remains an unknown, but highly influential, factor. It’s likely to be soft, but a week of sunshine could change everything. Minella Rocco, a big horse with a long stride and a sweet temperament, could struggle with his burden of 11st 10lb in the mud and, anyway, his trainer provided the great story only eight years ago when Don’t Push It gave champion jockey A. P. McCoy his first victory.

Could the 2018 story be a female jockey? Katie Walsh is the highest-placed woman in the race’s history with her third on Seabass in 2012; she rides the seven-year-old mare Baie Des Iles, trained in Co Kildare by her husband, Ross O’Sullivan. That would smash every glass ceiling you can think of. Bryony Frost, who’s had a storming season and captivated racing followers with her open manner, takes the ride on the Neil King-trained Milansbar.

There’s always the potential for an amateur’s big moment – journalist Marcus Armytage was the last, 28 years ago – and Sam Waley-Cohen, set to partner The Young Master, trained by Neil Mulholland, is accomplished over the Aintree fences.

The youngest jockey is James Bowen who, at 17 and one month, would break the record – 17 years and three months old – set by Bruce Hobbs in 1938 on the tiny Battleship. Bowen, whose brother, Sean, had his first National ride at the same age, rides Cheltenham runner-up Shantou Flyer for trainer Richard Hobson, whose small yard is punching above its fly-weight.

Outside the mighty battalions sent forth by dominant Irish trainers Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins, who carved up the Cheltenham Festival between them (together, they have 11 National entrants), there are snipers with a single bullet that just might hit home.

Regal Encore may be owned by the prolific Irish gambler J. P. McManus, but, unlike many of his entries, is trained in a small Somerset yard that boasts only 25 or so horses. Anthony Honeyball, whose father John was a trainer and master of the Taunton Vale Foxhounds, is an out-and-out horseman and Regal Encore, eighth in the 2017 National, has a real chance.

Last year, One For Arthur, trained by Lucinda Russell, scored Scotland’s first victory in the National since 1979 and Seeyouatmidnight has a shout at giving the nation a second consecutive win. Sandy Thomson, who trains the horse from his farm in Berwickshire, played rugby for his country and his family knows all about Aintree: his grandfather, Moffat Thomson, trained MacMoffat to finish second in 1939 and 1940.

Heart-warming as it is when a small operation – such as GP Dr Richard Newland with Pineau De Re in 2014 – wins the Grand National, it remains the ultimate elusive target for even the most successful trainers. It’s no secret that Nicky Henderson, who has captured the sport’s most glittering prizes,
still longs for a first National win. He saddles Gold Present. Imagine the headlines…

Four to follow

  • Anibale Fly (trained by Tony Martin)
  • Regale Encore (Anthony Honeyball)
  • Tiger Roll (Gordon Elliott)
  • Total Recall (Willie Mullins)

Four good names

  • Chase The Spud (Fergal O’Brien)
  • Delusionofgrandeur (Sue Smith)
  • Go Conquer (Jonjo O’ Neill, below)
  • A Genie In Abottle (Noel Meade)

Four housewives’ choices

  • Bonny Kate (Noel Meade)
  • Alfie Spinner (Kerry Lee)
  • Phil’s Magic (Tony Martin)
  • Out Sam (Gordon Elliott)