2 March 2003

Class will out. Shotgun Willy had top weight in Haydock’s Red Square Vodka Gold Cup and he had not run since finishing second in the Scottish National last April. But a tremendous wet-sail effort snatched the race on the run-in and put him at the head of Grand National betting.

This was 2½ laps, 22 fences, 3½ miles, round Haydock. It was still a mile and eight fences short of the Aintree ordeal the whole world will watch on April 5 but was test enough for the sort of bottomless qualities needed for Aintree. Indeed, without them he would have been lucky to have been closer than third.

For while Ruby Walsh had been getting a good, easy jumping tune out of Shotgun Willy, he looked to be struggling when the field swung into the uphill, three-fence Haydock straight. By then the leader Jocks Cross was having to accept that this final race of his career was not going to be a winning one.

Shotgun Willy’s Welsh National-winning brother, Mini Sensation, had bowed out early on the final circuit, and the eye was taken by the Martin Pipe pair Iris Bleu and You’re Agoodun.

Iris Bleu was favourite but out on the left the orange-visored You’re Agoodun was positively storming along under Robert Thornton. Going to the second-last he seemed to easily have the legs of his rivals. A dramatic, right-handed plunge at the fence did not seem to stop him, neither did a repeat performance at the last, and You’re Agoodun set off up the run-in with Iris Bleu and Shotgun Willy in seemingly vain pursuit.

But what is a long, daunting haul for the hare becomes something of an opportunity for the hunter and on Shotgun Willy, Walsh was beginning to close on the kill. As so often the real struggle is to reach the leader. Walsh admitted he had been “niggling away” for miles, but when he finally got to You’re Agoodun 50 yards from the line, he gobbled him up to have almost a length in hand at the line.

Time was when it would be inconceivable to produce a horse to win a race of these dimensions after an 11-month lay-off. But as Walsh himself pointed out afterwards, “with Paul (Nicholls) you always know they will be fit when they get to the racecourse.” Nicholls is adamant Shotgun Willy will improve from the race but equally insistent he will not run again before Aintree. The trainer’s system is paying better dividends than ever as witnessed by Shotgun Willy now being quoted 10-1 joint favourite for the Grand National with stable-companion Ad Hoc.

Iris Bleu’s effort in finishing third earned him a 20-1 Aintree quote. Goguenard’s slugging victory a race earlier also booked him a Grand National place but the day’s most significant other pointer came from Gunner Welburn at Newbury.

This bold jumping chesnut had a big reputation as a hunter chaser and his move to Andrew Balding’s Kingsclere stable was very much with Aintree in mind. His defeat in the Welsh National suggested a stamina doubt but the way he ploughed home yesterday suggests he could still be a live contender, especially if the ground came up soft. He is a 14-1 chance.

But for now, all the focus sharpens on Cheltenham in nine days’ time and the Jonjo O’Neill stable is running into a full tide of form, clocking up five winners around the country and riding the swings and roundabouts of last-fence luck. Putsometnby dumped Lee Cooper at Doncaster’s final obstacle only for the stable’s Clan Royal to benefit from an equally unhappy experience for the young amateur Alan O’Keefe off Jasmin Guichos at Newbury.

You are never safe until you are past the post.

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