Nicholls ready to roll the dice with a nap hand of contenders
Paul Nicholls has ground to make up on Nicky Henderson in the trainers' championship but knows a victory with any of his five challengers could wrest the title race firmly back his way.
Nicholls saw off Henderson's challenge in exactly that way when Neptune Collonges landed the Grand National in 2012, and another grey Saphir Du Rheu leads his team this time, after producing a career-high performance in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Nicholls said: "Saphir had a hard enough race in the Gold Cup, as anyone who runs a career-best in that race would do. It's a good trial for the National, but I just hope it's not too soon after.
"Wonderful Charm ran in the Foxhunter, staying on really well, and likes better ground. It was too soft for him last year but if he enjoys it he's the sort who could run on through horses late on.
"Le Mercurey has some good form and ran very well here behind Many Clouds. He was second in the Denman Chase behind the Gold Cup third [Native River]. Put a line through his last run, when the ground was so bad at Kelso, but seven-year-olds don't win the race."
He continued: "Vicente won the Scottish National last year and has been trained all year for this. He's good in his coat for this time of year and the better the ground the better for him.
"Just A Par didn't run as well last year when he didn't really like the soft. He then ran well in the bet365, staying on strongly. It depends what mood he's in really."
Le Mercurey runs in the silks of Patricia Thompson of Party Politics fame, while Just A Par carries the colours of her son Richard.
Highland set for another fling
Having finished first and second in two editions of the Becher Chase, Highland Lodge – a third string to the bow of the Thompson family and another running in Patricia Thompson's colours – is one of the best-qualified runners on National course form.
He has been purposely restricted to a single run this season by trainer Jimmy Moffatt, in which he went down by a short head to leading hope Vieux Lion Rouge in December.
Moffatt said: "He's done everything we've asked of him. This has been a long-term plan. He's fit and well, looks hard and has been freshened up.
"He hadn't run for the best part of eight months before the Becher Chase. That showed the horse runs well when fresh, I'm very happy with him. He's done several serious grass gallops.
"There is a palpable undercurrent of excitement."
Sam out to master fences again
With six wins over the big green fences, Aintree amateur ace Sam Waley-Cohen boasts a remarkable record that also includes a second in the Grand National. He bids to boost that record still further on the Neil Mulholland-trained The Young Master, whose owners include the rider's father Robert.
Sam Waley-Cohen, who guided The Young Master to a valuable victory in last year's bet365 Gold Cup, said: "This has been the horse's objective ever since we first saw him, so it's really exciting. It has been his target all season and we couldn't be happier with him."
Sam Waley-Cohen’s winners
over the National fences
2005 Foxhunters’ Katarino
2006 Foxhunters’ Katarino
2006 Topham Liberthine
2014 Foxhunters’ Warne
2014 Becher Oscar Time
2015 Topham Rajdhani Express
Cocktails bids to be in mix
The Grand National is the race Nicky Henderson covets above all others, but Cocktails At Dawn will have to defy form that includes more letters than numbers if the trainer is to add the world's most famous race to his bulging CV.
However, the nine-year-old pleased Henderson when schooling alongside More Of That over the National-style fences in Upper Lambourn under Nico de Boinville last week.
"I don't think stamina's a worry," said Henderson, who has got closest to National glory with Zongalero and The Tsarevich, second in 1979 and 1987.
"He's in good form and he did school very well over those fences," he said. "This is one we want to win, so let's go for it."
Saint sporting blinkers
The Grand National would not be the Grand National without Saint Are lining up, but for his fourth assault on the race a notable change has been made.
Tom George, who also saddles stable jockey Adrian Heskin's choice Double Shuffle, is equipping first-time blinkers to the 2015 runner-up, this year the mount of Davy Russell.
"Saint Are is coming here in exactly the same form as when he was second," said George. "He does hit flat spots, but I've been waiting for the right moment to use blinkers. I've been keeping them up my sleeve until now."
He added: "Double Shuffle is a funny horse and a tough horse with a bit of character, which is probably what you want in the National."
Another stellar experience?
Last year he came to Aintree for the first time as a Grand National virgin. He left as a Grand National winner.
This time 20-year-old jockey David Mullins, victorious aboard Rule The World 12 months ago, is on another Irish outsider, the Henry de Bromhead-trained Stellar Notion, who gives high-profile owner Roger Brookhouse a first runner in the race.
"I can't wait," said Mullins. "I thought I had a chance last year and I think Stellar Notion is the same sort of horse as Rule The World. He jumps, he travels and, for me, he ticks a lot of boxes."
Warrior goes into battle
Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown House Stud, successful with Rule The World last year, is again heavily represented, including by a pair trained by Noel Meade, whose Wounded Warrior and Measureofmydreams will be ridden by Sean Flanagan and Donagh Meyler.
Meade said: "I've always thought of Wounded Warrior as a National type. He stays well and is a good jumper who has schooled well over National-type fences.
"So has Measureofmydreams, who was third in the four-miler at Cheltenham last year. Stamina won't be a problem."
Encore takes to big stage
JP McManus has two of the National's leading fancies in More Of That and Cause Of Causes but he also has an outsider in the shape of Gold Cup-winning jockey Robbie Power's mount Regal Encore, who although usually pulled up did win a £100,000 contest at Ascot in December.
Trainer Anthony Honeyball said: "After he won at Ascot someone mentioned his odds for the National and I laughed because at the time I wasn't convinced he was a National horse.
"We've warmed to the idea and when we schooled him over National fences he was alert and showed a sense of self-preservation.
"If he jumps economically and settles there's no reason why he wouldn't have a decent chance."
Will Tenor know the score?
Venetia Williams and Liam Treadwell combined for a 100-1 Grand National stunner with Mon Mome in 2009 and they unite – assuming the rider passes the doctor after a fall in the Topham Chase on Friday – once more with runaway Ascot winner Tenor Nivernais.
Williams, who also rode in the 1988 National, is doubly represented, with Charlie Deutsch taking the mount on Houblon Des Obeaux, one of those runners who might conceivably benefit from the watering taps being left on through the night.
Aspell looks to Windermere
Lord Windermere attempts to become the first Cheltenham Gold Cup winner to win the Grand National since L'Escargot, and although he has not won since his finest hour, jockey Leighton Aspell conquered Aintree in back to back years on Pineau De Re and Many Clouds.
"I'm hoping decent ground will bring about improvement in Lord Windermere's recent form," said Aspell. "He's run some decent races over the winter but has just struggled in the ground."
Lee pleased pair can run
Kerry Lee attempts to follow in the footsteps of Jenny Pitman, Venetia Williams and Sue Smith, the only female trainers to have won the National, when saddling Bishops Road and Goodtoknow.
"Both horses have been trained for the race all season and both their preparations have gone well," said Lee.
Firsts all round with Maree
The 12-year-old Raz De Maree, who finished eighth two years ago, is a first runner for trainer and farrier Gavin Cromwell. Jockey Ger Fox is also making his Grand National debut.
"He's in great nick," said Cromwell. "The ground drying out isn't ideal as he lacks a gear and might struggle with the pace early on. He should be doing his best work towards the finish."
Flyer overpriced says Curtis
Rebecca Curtis can't believe the odds of Shantou Flyer. "I'm surprised he's as big a price as he is," the trainer said.
"Many people think he won't get the trip but I think the further he goes the better he'll be. All he does is stay. I was shocked he was 66-1. We bought him for this race."
On his RSA Chase-winning form O'Faolains Boy would be right in the mix, and he seems well after the latest of numerous wind operations.
Curtis said: "O'Faolains Boy has had lots of problems. He was quite unsound in the autumn. He seems as good as we've had him now.
"He did have a small wind op about six weeks ago. For his last two runs the ground was horrible. If he came back to within a stone of his old form he'd have a bit of a squeak."
Turning on the gas
Gas Line Boy got no further than the first fence two years ago but Ian Williams, who now trains the veteran, said: "Hopefully he can improve on that. His jumping is quite solid, although on the face of it he's running off quite a high mark."
Drop Out Joe back in
Drop Out Joe is running for the first time in 286 days, an absence explained by the stifle injury he suffered in the field following a win at Uttoxeter in the summer.
Part-owner Robert Aplin said: "The injury was so serious that, even at Christmas time, we didn't think he'd race again, let alone run in a race like the Grand National.
"He's made a remarkable recovery and all the staff at Donnington Grove vets in Newbury were brilliant."
Hoping for a perfect effort
Paddy Brennan bounced back from the disappointment of Cue Card's second consecutive Gold Cup fall to win the Midlands Grand National the following day.
He now attempts to win the actual Grand National on Perfect Candidate, trained by his good friend Fergal O'Brien.