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Last Updated: 07/12/12 1:44pm
Ballabriggs: Won't find it easy
Ballabriggs returns to the scene of his finest hour as he kicks off his season in the Betfred Becher Chase at Aintree on Saturday.
The 11-year-old provided trainer Donald McCain with a memorable Grand National triumph in 2011 but could finish only sixth in his title defence when saddled with an extra 10lb in April.
Ballabriggs is once again primed to tackle the National fences this weekend and despite conditions being against him, McCain is anticipating a good show.
He said: "He's in good nick, but obviously heavy ground and 11st 12lb is not ideal - it's going to be hard work.
"He's not getting any younger but he's a horse who's not had a lot of racing, he's been saved for one day for the last two years so there's not much mileage on the clock.
"He's in good form and we're looking forward to running him, but it's not going to be easy."
McCain has a second string to his bow in Fabalu, who successfully negotiated the National fences when 13th in the two-mile-five-furlong Topham Chase last season.
The 10-year-old returned to action in a veterans' chase over the regulation fences at Aintree in October and McCain expects the longer trip to be more to his liking this time.
"He jumped round there last year but the trip was really too sharp for him in the Topham," he added.
"He's got some form on very soft ground and he's in there with a good racing weight and is in good shape."
West End Rocker was an impressive winner of the race last term and returns to defend his crown off a 5lb higher mark.
The 10-year-old crashed out at the second fence in the National itself, while a subsequent outing in the bet365 Gold Cup saw him pulled up.
Trainer Alan King was heartened by his recent third on his return at Wincanton and is hoping the more relaxed nature of the Becher can see him bounce back to his best.
He told www.alankingracing.co.uk: "Rocker won the race by 22 lengths last year and is only 5lb higher, so if he can reproduce that form he must have a solid chance of staging a repeat.
"Obviously, the National was a big anti-climax. He got up there in good form, but the whole hullaballoo of the race seemed to get to him, and he got no farther than the second fence,
"The Becher is a different type of race, so, hopefully, he will bounce back.
"We were pleased with his comeback run as Wincanton would not have been his track."Paul Nicholls will be seeking a fourth Becher success in the last 10 years as he saddles Join Together.
The seven-year-old was third in the Mildmay Novices' Chase at the track in April and was down the field on his return at Ascot last month.
Nicholls said: "Join Together is in good form. I was a bit disappointed with him at Ascot but hopefully with different fences and a different day, he will do better.
"I don't think he is particularly well handicapped but he will probably be suited by the fences and, if he is, I will give him an entry in the National."
Daryl Jacob, who rode Neptune Collonges to National victory last term, will be aboard the Nicholls representative.
He said: "Testing ground is ideal for me, he wants it soft as he stays forever.
"He usually jumps well so I'm very much looking forward to it."
David Pipe saddles two runners with Swing Bill and Problema Tic flying the flag for Pond House.
Swing Bill was a winner at Cheltenham last time and finished 10th in the National last season, while Problema Tic was fifth in a Grade Three event at Prestbury Park on his return.
"Swing Bill ran in the race last year (when pulled up) and is not getting any younger. But he ran in the National and seems to like Aintree, although I wouldn't want the ground too soft for him," said Pipe.
"Problema Tic is another who does not want conditions too soft. I was pleased with him at Cheltenham on his comeback."
Big Fella Thanks will be having just his second start for Tom George as he has another crack at the National fences.
The 10-year-old was fourth in the 2010 Grand National when trained by Nicholls and seventh a year later when handled by Ferdy Murphy.
He was off the track after that outing until returning in the same veterans' chase as Fabalu and Mumbles Head, when he unseated Paddy Brennan at the eighth fence.
George said: "It didn't quite go to plan last time, but maybe that was to our benefit as he is still off the same handicap mark this time.
"He's been round there a few times now so he can certainly jump the fences but I don't think he quite gets home over the National trip.
"The three miles and two furlongs tomorrow will probably suit him better."
Any Currency will finally get to tackle the National fences after narrowly missing out on a place in the big-race field last year.
The nine-year-old was a winner at Wincanton in October before finishing a place in front of Problema Tic at Cheltenham last time.
"He has been in really good form since his run at Cheltenham," said trainer Martin Keighley.
"He had a wind operation over the summer which seems to have really helped him because he used to hit flat spots in his races.
"He missed getting in the National by one last year and it will be good to see him over those fences as it will be a real test in the ground and I can see him running a big race.
"The testing conditions will be fine for him as he stays so well and Aidan Coleman gets on really well with him, so he must go there with a big chance."
Peter Bowen is hoping Mumbles Head will develop into a Grand National challenger as he tries to build on his recent third at the Merseyside venue.
"He has been in very good form and I thought it was a good effort up at Aintree last time," said Bowen.
"He has had a lot of problems in the past but think there could be more improvement in him because he is very lightly raced and doesn't have many miles on the clock.
"The Grand National is the target but obviously we have to see how he performs on Saturday first."
Bowen also has a second string in Ballyvesey, who finished third in the race last year but races from over a stone out of the handicap.
"He is in good form and although he is out of the handicap, he loves the course and has run well out of the handicap there in the past," said Bowen.
Minella Theatre is another who is a stone 'wrong' in the handicap but has course form after finishing sixth in the Topham.
"He really enjoyed it last time. David (Bass) was very strong on him because he was a little bit lazy but once he got going he ran on like anything at the end," said trainer Lawney Hill.