04/04/2002 1:00AM

Improved Grand National expected

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Saturday's Grand National steeplechase in England looks sure to be a total contrast to last year, when it was ruined by foul weather.

The going was heavy that day, and the race was run in 11 minutes, more than two minutes longer than the record.

Of the 40 starters last year, only two completed the 4 1/2 miles over 30 fences without mishap, and only two others finished at all. Most of the remaining 36 were out of the race before the halfway point.

There are 40 runners again this year, but the going will be on the fast side.

The leading Irish steeplechaser, Florida Pearl, won't be racing Saturday, but his trainer, Willie Mullins, will be represented by Alexander Banquet, who was sixth to Best Mate in the Cheltenham Gold Cup on March 14.

Also entered is Marlborough, who carries top weight of 166 pounds, one more than Alexander Banquet, who was fourth in the Gold Cup, and What's Up Boys, at 160 pounds, who ran fifth. All three are available at 14- or 16-1.

Alexander Banquet leads a group of six Irish challengers, while the French-trained Djeddah tries the race for the third consecutive year.

Sir Robert Ogden, champion owner in the 2000-01 season, has three of the six top weights - Marlborough, Kingsmark and Ad Hoc - while champion trainer Martin Pipe runs eight, including Blowing Wind.

- International Racing Bureau