04/07/2005 12:00AM

Hedgehunter the favorite in jump epic


Britain's annual exercise in courage and stamina, the $1.31 million Grand National Steeplechase Handicap, will be run Saturday at Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool over 30 of the world's most daunting fences covering a grueling 4 1/2 miles.

The highweight in the full field of 40 is Le Coudray at 168 pounds, but he has been off form of late. The 10-1 defending champ, Amberleigh House, whose trainer, Ginger McCain, sent out Red Rum to three Grand National triumphs in the 1970's, has not won since his Aintree heroics of a year ago.

The 8-1 favorite, Hedgehunter, was a close third after falling at the last fence last year and has prepped with a sharp score at Fairyhouse. Take the Stand, second to Kicking King in the Cheltenham Gold Cup three weeks ago, has some appeal at 20-1, especially as he has won over 4 1/8 miles.

Clan Royal, runner-up last year, will have top rider Tony McCoy aboard, but he has not run since December.

The Grand National can be viewed live on the Internet at www.the-national.co.uk at 11:10 a.m. Eastern.