- Associated Press - Friday, April 4, 2014

An impulse purchase four years ago could pay handsome dividends for England rugby star Mike Tindall in Saturday’s Grand National Steeplechase.

When Tindall raised his hand to start the bidding for a tiny 5-year-old horse called Monbeg Dude in the late stages of a bloodstock auction at Cheltenham in May 2010, the last thing he expected was to be paying out 12,000 pounds ($20,000) for him later that evening.

“I thought I would be out-bid,” Tindall said. “But the bidding suddenly stopped.”

As it turns out, “The Dude” is proving to be an absolute bargain for Tindall and his fellow owners - professional rugby players James Simpson-Daniel and Nicky Robinson.

The winner of the Welsh Grand National in 2012, the gelding has since claimed two victories at Cheltenham and is now one of the favorites for the Grand National at Aintree, the world’s most famous and grueling horse race whose prize money has jumped to 1 million pounds ($1.65 million) this year for the first time.

The 40-horse race is known as the toughest test of jumping in the world, with 30 fences over a 4½-mile (6,400-meter) course.

A sell-out crowd of 71,000 fans will be at Aintree for the 167th running of the National, the highlight of a three-day festival that began on Thursday. The race will be screened to a worldwide TV audience of about 600 million and bookmakers estimate about 350 million pounds ($580 million) will be bet on it in Britain alone - five times more than is wagered on the English Derby.

The National is always under scrutiny because of the potential for horse fatalities but modifications to the course ahead of the 2013 race, which included softening the high fences and improving landing areas and course irrigation, appear to have improved the situation.

Last year, all 40 horses returned safely and only two fell. Only 17 horses finished the race but there was no repeat of the carnage that marred recent Nationals, with two horses dying in the 2011 and ‘12 editions. Twenty-one horses have died over the Grand National fences since 2001.

Tindall, a member of England’s World Cup-winning rugby team in 2003, only became interested in horse racing once he started dating Zara Phillips, the granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II. They married in 2011.

Phillips, who won a silver medal in equestrian in the London Olympics in 2012, called her then-boyfriend an “idiot” for getting into a position where he had to buy a horse he didn’t want. But she has played a part in Monbeg Dude’s rise, helping the horse with his jumping technique, which was deemed to be his biggest weakness.

“The progression is there to see, now he bounces over his fences,” Tindall says. “He travels a lot better now and is conserving his energy and speed.”

Because of his back story, Monbeg Dude is generating a lot of interest ahead of the National. His current odds are 14-1 but they have come down considerably.

The favorite is Teaforthree, who was third in last year’s race - won by 66-1 shot Auroras Encore - and is bidding to become the first Welsh-trained winner of the race since 1905. He finished eighth in last month’s Cheltenham Gold Cup, but that race was used as something of a practice run ahead of a shot at the National.

“I think he has all the attributes you need for the race,” part owner Nigel Roddis said. “He jumps and stays and seemed to be really enjoying it last year.”

Tidal Bay is another of the favorites and, at age 13, is seeking to become the first horse older than 12 to win the National since 1923.

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