Aintree on horizon for classy Merigo

Scottish-trained stayer's Ayr triumph paves way for crack at Grand National

MERIGO'S connections already have their eyes on next year's John Smith's Grand National following his win in the Scottish equivalent at Ayr on Saturday.

Ending a 28-year barren streak for locally-trained runners, Merigo enjoyed a superb staying performance at the weekend to be crowned Scottish Grand National winner. Ken Oliver's Cockle Strand had been the last Scottish-trained horse to bag the country's premier jumps prize back in 1982.

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Trained at Lockerbie by Andrew Parker, Merigo was sent off an 18-1 shot for the four-mile marathon and the result barely looked in doubt after jockey Timmy Murphy kicked on after the fourth-last fence.

Connections are now hoping the handicapper will raise the Ray Green-owned nine-year-old's rating high enough for him to make the cut for next year's Aintree spectacular.

"That will be him done now and we'll probably leave him a little later coming in next season," said trainer Andrew Parker. "What we'll probably end up doing is run him in a hurdle race either side of Christmas, possibly the Eider, and then try to have a tilt at Aintree.

"We've got nothing to lose and he should get in the weights now.

"We wanted to try to win a race with him this year before the Aintree weights came out, but the way the weather went, every race we went for was abandoned so we never got up that extra 10lb we wanted to. Hopefully the win at Ayr will take care of that now."

There were plenty of casualties in Saturday's race with the pace-setting According To John crashing out at the fourth fence, taking a couple of others, including fellow Sir Robert Ogden-owned runner That's Rhythm, with him.

However, Murphy managed to avoid any trouble and was firmly in the driving seat some way out, committing Merigo before the turn for home and building up a handsome lead.

Last year's runner-up and 15-2 favourite Gone To Lunch emerged from the pack and set out in pursuit, but Merigo had already flown. He passed the line with nine lengths in hand while No Panic was a further 19 lengths back in third, with Razor Royale edging out Dom D'Orgeval by a nose for fourth.

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Green, who is also Murphy's father-in-law, said: "It's fantastic to win Scotland's greatest chase and it ranks alongside Sparky Gale winning for me at the Cheltenham Festival. It was so frustrating last year when we took him out of the race because the ground was a bit too quick, but they have done a fantastic job with the conditions today and we were happy to let him take his chance.

"Everything hasn't gone to plan, we intended to run him in the Welsh National but we were snowed in and then he was favourite for the Eider at Newcastle only for the meeting to be abandoned.

"The other idea had been to run him in the John Smith's Grand National at Aintree but he needed another win to get in the handicap but we couldn't find a race for him. I managed to get him in here today on 10st and Andrew and Timmy have down the rest and the plan now is to get him in the Aintree race next year."

An equally delighted Murphy said: "He jumped and travelled well and it is great for Andrew and particularly for Ray and Anita to have won this. They are patriotic Scots and it is great for them to win the country's biggest chase."

Despite having to settle for second for the second successive year, Jeremy Scott is already planning another crack at the race with Gone To Lunch. He said: "This time he was only about six or seven lengths down turning into the straight while last season he was 20 lengths adrift. We may be banging our head against a brick wall but we will come back again and hopefully one day he will win."

In the shorter term, Gone To Lunch could go for the Britannia Summer National at Uttoxeter on 27 June.

"He's in at Punchestown on Friday but I think that could be a tall order after Saturday," said Scott yesterday. "There's the Summer National at Uttoxeter, so we may just keep him ticking over then we've got that as an option. He enjoys the better ground and the sun on his back. He may just have been short of match fitness on Saturday. I think we have him fairly straight, but he hadn't raced for a while."

Third-placed No Panic caused some concern after the race as he was suffering from heat exhaustion, but trainer Peter Bowen expects him to make a full recovery.