The greatest horse race is just a week away. The Grand National was first run in 1839, and founded by William Lynn the proprietor of Waterloo Hotel. He leased land in Aintree from the 2nd Earl of Sefton, and the National was born. In the 1840’s Lynn’s health took a turn for the worse and a member of his syndicate, Edward Topham, took over the lease and with it control of the race. The Topham family bought the course outright a century later. In the mid-1950’s Vincent O’Brien dominated the event, saddling the winner in 53, 54 and 1955. A year later Devon Loch famously jumped an invisible object halfway up the run-in with the race at his mercy. The Queen Mother’s horse sank to his stomach and was unable to complete the race leaving E.S.B. to claim the coveted prize. In 1967 Foinavon caused a huge upset when winning the race at a price of 100/1. A loose horse swerved across the front of the 23rd fence, causing interference and a huge pile-up. Foinavon plotted his way through the mayhem, jumping clear of the opposition. Although many jockeys remounted and gave chase, none were able to catch John Buckingham’s mount. In 1984 the infamous obstacle was named in his honour. The 1970’s heralded the arrival of the Grand National’s greatest ever contestant. Red Rum won the race in 1973 and 1974. After finishing runner-up in 75 and 76 he returned to the winner’s enclosure for the third time in 1977 at the age of 12. As the years pass it becomes harder to believe that a horse could be capable of such a feat. His record was truly remarkable and his achievements will never be repeated. The race distance of four miles and three and a half furlongs make the race a unique spectacle, but it is the fences themselves that make the Grand National so special. In recent years those fences have been modified in an attempt to make the race safer for the horses. People have varying views over the merits of such changes, but there is no doubt that the race still captivates the nation like no other. Becher’s Brook, Valentine’s and The Chair remain famous and daunting obstacles, testing the ability of both horse and rider. On the morning of the race, betting shops around the country will be full of punters hoping to pick-out the winner. Numerous systems will be employed in an attempt to find that one special horse from the 40 contenders. The colour of jockey’s silks, a favourite number, or maybe a catchy name will all come under consideration when selections are made. This year’s renewal will see the sport’s greatest jockey saddling-up for the final time, as AP McCoy takes the ride on Shutthefrontdoor. Sure to go off a short-priced favourite, many will place their hopes along with hard cash on the retiring Champ, praying for one final hurrah. Those who like to think they know a little about the sport will look to the form-books and historic race trends, as they attempt to form a list of the most likely contenders. That list may still be a considerable one, and that’s when the ‘lucky pin’ will be deployed. And so, armed with a host of books, websites and other paraphernalia, I will now attempt to narrow the aforementioned field to a mere handful of likely winners of this year’s Aintree showpiece. In recent times the winner has been aged 9, 10 or 11, with a 12 year-old winning back in 2004 and an eight-year-old taking the prize in 2002. It’s pretty clear from this particular trend that both experience and maturity are crucial factors in such a demanding contest. (The race favourite is an eight-year-old that has only run over fences on six occasions.) Only three horses have carried more than 11 stone to victory since 1983, with Neptune Collonges carrying 11-6 to a narrow win in 2012, and AP getting his famous victory off 11-5 aboard Don’t Push It. Of the last 24 winners, none had been off the track for more than 55 days leading up to the race. (Both Shutthefrontdoor and Balthazar King have been off since November.) The age trend alone allows us to disregard half the field, and the weight carrying trend probably points to Rocky Creek being the highest handicapped contender. With these trends in the forefront of our minds we turn to race-form and a ‘gut’ feeling for those horses that are well-handicapped, or maybe still on the upgrade and capable of staying the marathon trip. Rocky Creek is one such horse who appears to be well-handicapped and most certainly improving. He won well off his current mark at Kempton last time and has been trained specifically for the National this year. There has to remain a slight concern over his ability to see-out the trip, after he faded late-on in last year’s race. His trainer has had a winter to remember and Nicholls is adamant that the horse is stronger this time round. Balthazar King has also been trained with this one day in mind. He is a horse that goes well fresh, but the stats suggest his lay-off may play against him. His run last year was terrific, but he came into the National of 2013 off an identical break to this season, and finished down the field behind Auroras Encore. McCoy has hinted that he will retire immediately should he win on board Shutthefrontdoor. The scenes after such a victory are hard to imagine, and it would be a fitting conclusion to an incredible career. The concern has to be that Jonjo’s horse is still a very inexperienced eight-year-old. He’s also had the dreaded long-break and therefore taking account of race trends he has to be rejected. Night In Milan is an interesting contender. He has the right kind of profile and should get his preferred sound surface at Aintree. He’s either won or been placed in 13 of his 18 chase starts, and ran a terrific race at Doncaster in January behind the subsequent RSA fifth If In Doubt. One negative has to be his very limited experience over extended trips, with a third at Catterick his only real run at a marathon distance. But I like him as an each-way proposition, especially at 40’s. The Druids Nephew is tempting but he is yet another eight-year-old, and that means that I should really put a line through his name. He does have a fair amount of experience having run 13 times over fences, and his form behind Sam Winner earlier in the season coupled with his win at the Cheltenham Festival make him hard to dismiss. But if I started bending the rules for this eight-year-old, where would it all end? Godsmejudge is one that I simply cannot ignore. He is the right age and has the right kind of experience having won and been runner-up in two Scottish Nationals. He ran a cracker in the Bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown last April off his current mark, and a race weight of 10-8 looks perfect. I believe he has an outstanding chance and he is currently priced at 20/1. Al Co is another that comes under consideration. He won the Scottish National last April, though he was in receipt of 5lbs from Godsmejudge. He too looks a thorough stayer and is a ten-year-old running off an attractive race weight. His odds of 33/1 make him a decent each-way proposition. And that just leaves the trainer of last year’s winner. Dr Richard Newland hit the jackpot last April when Pineau De Re won the World’s Greatest Steeplechase, and although I feel the reigning Champ will struggle this time round, his trainer has another live contender in Royale Knight. Tried and tested over marathon trips, he needs a decent surface to be seen at his best. He looks likely to just scrape in at the bottom of the handicap, and if he does he could run a huge race. I’m not sure he quite has the class to win, but he rarely runs a bad race, and will be doing all his best work in the latter stages. At 25/1 it will be hard to resist an each-way punt on this nine-year-old. And there you have it. No need for the ‘lucky pin’ after all. My ‘famous five’ for this year’s Grand National are: Godsmejudge Rocky Creek Al Co Royale Knight Night In Milan Good luck to all that battle their way through the door of their local betting shop. Be sure to enjoy this most prestigious race as the drama unfolds. It’s sure to be a thriller.
There are three things in life that have the potential to make me leap out of bed in the morning; a round of golf, the Grand National and house fires. With the former two being preferred, this is an incredibly exciting time of year for me with the Masters at Augusta and the world’s greatest horse race, the Grand National. My first experience of the national was in 1992 at the age of 8 (nearly) when Party Politics reigned victorious. My granddad was fanatical about horse racing and his enthusiasm for racing and the Grand National in particular clearly rubbed off on me in a big way. In the years that followed I remember waking up in the early hours of the morning begging my father to go to the shops to buy the newspapers so that I could pick my horses. I would spend all morning looking through them trying to find the winner and nothing much has changed to this day. My imagination was set alight by the Grand National and I was buzzing for the whole day; particularly if I had found the winner. In actual fact I had a fairly prolific strike rate as an adolescent having backed Royal Athlete, Rough Quest, Earth Summit, Red Marauder and Bindaree. My thought process back then was simply to identify a horse which was likely to get round and would appreciate the marathon trip. Recent renewals have not been quite so kind, having backed only 3 winners in the last ten years, my finest of which was Amberleigh House when relieving William Hill of a nice amount using a £50 free bet as a student. No prizes for guessing what the money was invested in! Some people will argue that the Grand National is a lottery, but not me. I am a purist and believe that it is the ultimate analytical challenge for horse racing fanatics like myself. Furthermore, there are few things in life that can bring a nation together, but the Grand National is certainly one of them and this is one of the many reasons that the race is so special for me. This year’s renewal is as always hugely competitive and the modifications to the course in recent years have really opened up the winner’s enclosure to a new batch of potential Grand National winners. There is now less of a premium on sound jumping and more on having the ability to travel through the race. Sound jumping is still important but not as crucial as it has been in the past. A sound attitude and good level of concentration is also critical as incidents will happen around you and the electrifying atmosphere and nature of the course can set some horses alight. You need a horse that is likely to settle and that comes with experience, particularly at the course. Another increasingly important factor in finding big races winners is the nature of their preparation. My preference is to identify horses that not only have the requisite skills for the race in question but have also been laid out for the race. After all, success occurs when opportunity meets preparation. We only have to look at the number of big race Saturday winners that Paul Nicholls has had recently to know that this is true. Yes you need to be coming into the race with good form, but equally important is to arrive fresh and well. Other sports provide evidence for this point too. Tiger Woods in his prime had a very select campaign where he would prepare his game almost exclusively for the major championships. Likewise we see in football with the Champions League and Europa League that it is very difficult to perform at the top level in Europe midweek and then deliver domestically on the weekend. With this in mind I have focussed my attentions on six leading contenders for this year’s Grand National, most of which have been prepared for the race by trainer’s with a rich history of preparing horses for the big day. In my opinion there is no better trainer to prepare a horse for this race than Paul Nicholls, who won the race for the first time recently with Neptunes Collonges. All of his contenders are interesting, however Unioniste and Rocky Creek stand out for me. Both horses have had this race in mind for a long time. Unioniste ran a solid race when finishing sixth in the Hennessy on his first run of the season. That was a hot race and it was impressive that he was able to run so well on his seasonal debut given the way the form of the race has worked out, with the likes of the Druids Nephew and Djakadam in behind. He then went to Sandown and won a valuable handicap chase in grand style. Unioniste then ran in the Denman Chase at Newbury and you would have been forgiven for thinking he was a little disappointing at the time when finishing third to Coneygree. However, we now know that he simply ran into an extremely talented horse and was conceding weight to him. Ultimately he wasn’t beaten that far and so the form of that race has now been turned on its head. At only seven years old and appearing to be a dour stayer he ticks all the right boxes. Being by Dom Alco he would benefit from softer conditions but connections are confident that it isn’t crucial. He has a lot of weight to carry but does have a touch of class. Rocky Creek also arrives with a strong chance and should arguably be favourite for the race on recent form. He made his seasonal debut at Down Royal where he chased home subsequent Gold Cup third Road To Riches. He ran disappointingly in the Hennessy at Newbury when pulled up, for which there was no real explanation. However, his most recent performance when winning the BetBright Chase at Kempton was breath-taking. He was foot perfect, breezed through the race and won with any amount in hand. That run was the ideal prep run in my opinion on a flat track with sufficient time to recuperate. Paul Nicholls insists that he wasn’t finishing off his races last year and having had a wind operation he is now fulfilling his potential. He ran a super race in the national last season when leading until the second last and he arrives in better health and form than ever before and runs from a 2lb lower mark; he simply must have an outstanding chance. Phillip Hobbs also knows how to get one ready for the big occasion and has strong chances in the form of Balthazar King and Chance Du Roy. Balthazar King has run in the race twice and has finished 15th and 2nd. He is clearly adapting to the challenge of the course and his recent form in Cross Country races has no doubt helped him in this regard. When second last year he had previously won the Cross Country at the Cheltenham Festival and had carried top weight. That race simply must have left its mark on him and he surely could have gone even closer had he not run at the Festival which is the case this year. Furthermore, he covered more ground than any horse in the race, running out-wide for the vast majority of the race. He has been laid out for the race this season having run only once when winning a Cross Country race at Cheltenham in November. He runs from a 3lb higher mark and on decent ground he will be thereabouts. Chance Du Roy is my idea of a lively outsider for this year’s Grand National. You always need to have one of these on your side particularly with a light weight and Chance Du Roy fits the bill perfectly. He was sixth in the race last year having been hampered at Valentines on the first circuit. He won the Becher Chase in 2013 and ran well to finish fifth in the same race on his seasonable debut this year, staying on nicely in the closing stages. He then ran in a hot handicap chase at Exeter where he finished fifth behind the David Pipe trained Soll. That run would have put him spot on for this and the four horses that finished ahead of him that day were all winners next time out so the form couldn’t have worked out better. With the benefit of last years’ experience under his belt, slight relief from the handicapper and a targeted campaign this season he looks massively over-priced at his current odds of 40/1. He also goes on any ground. Grand National favourite Shutthefrontdoor has also been laid out for the race by trainer Jonjo O’Neill. He won the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse last season in good style. He has only had on prep run this season when winning a graduation chase at Carlisle impressively. Connections clearly belief that he is still on the right side of the handicapper and he is almost certain to go off favourite. In my opinion he will go off the shortest price favourite in recent history eclipsing the 5/1 starting prices about Clan Royal, Master Oats and Moorcroft Boy. The ‘McCoy effect’ is always pronounced in the Grand National but with the enhanced media coverage surrounding his retirement, the world and his wife will be set to back the Champion jockey in what could be his final race. My advice would be to put a significant bet on Shutthefrontdoor at around 8/1 (hopefully) on Betfair on the eve of the race and then lay it off a few minutes before the race for a nice risk-free profit (or to fund more selections!). Please be careful as you won’t be able to do this on the antepost market on Betfair as this will be suspended when the day of the race market is put on site and therefore you will not be able to trade out. Our final contender The Druids Nephew was tipped up by myself at the Cheltenham festival as being a well handicapped horse and he certainly didn’t disappoint when winning cosily at a nice price. He goes to Aintree as probably the best handicapped horse in the race. The manner of his performance at Cheltenham was hugely impressive. He traveled and jumped extremely well and was waited with until it was no longer possible. He eased to the front and won with plenty in hand. That race was clearly his target though and he will need to have recovered quickly for this extreme test of stamina. If his he jumps well he could go well for a very long way but ultimately I feel that despite being the best handicapped horse in the race fatigue will tell and he no longer has the services of Barry Geraghty who is side-lined with injury. All in all a fantastic renewal and let’s hope to have some luck with our selections: 2pts win ROCKY CREEK at 10/1 (General) 2pts win BALTHAZAR KING at 12/1 (General) 1pt win UNIONISTE at 25/1 (William Hill, Ladbrokes, Stan James) 1pt e/w CHANCE DU ROY at 40/1 (Betfair, Boylesports, Bet365) 5 places
Across The Bay enjoys the fences but appears to have lost his enthusiasm. Al Co is an in and out performer capable of good performances on his day. Won the Scottish National in 2014 and showed a return to form over hurdles recently. Meets many of the stats with a good record in April/May. Alvarado finished fourth in the 2014 renewal. Just the one run so far this season; however, he will fit a lot of stats if turning up for the fun. Balthazar King has a remarkable record in cross-country races. Ran a fine race to finish second in 2014. Missed Cheltenham to arrive a fresh horse. 8lb more to carry this time; cannot be discounted, especially on good or good to soft. Cause Of Cause won the four-miler at Cheltenham. Stamina should not prove a problem though at seven-years he may be a year or two early for this assignment. Chance Du Roy finished sixth in 2014. He won the 2013 Becher Chaser and enjoys Aintree. Stamina may prove an issue when push comes to shove in the closing stages. Corrin Wood has claims on his best form which has not been seen for a while. Much the same chance as Dolatulo at the weights. Court By Surprise is well weighted and goes well fresh. Stamina is a possible concern. Dolatulo produced a career best when running away with the Rowland Meyrick Chase at Wetherby last Boxing Day. Enjoys flat tracks and ran a fair race in the 2014 Becher Chase. Sure to be considered for this year’s renewal though may need another year’s experience. First Lieutenant had been a disappointment this season. However, that has led to a more than viable handicap mark. He has run well on the Melling course and generally shows his best at this time of the year. Bred to stay he could run well for a trainer that saddled two of the first four home in the Irish National. Gas Line Boy stays well and usually race close to the pace. Won twice this season and deserves his chance. Godsmejudge has run with credit in several top staying handicap chases. Winner of the 2013 Scottish National, he finished second the 2014 renewal before a gallant third in bet365 Gold Cup. This will be his first sight of the Aintree fences. Hadrian’s Approach is a capable handicap chaser on his day. Whilst his fencing has let him down more than once, he produced a good performance to land the 2014 bet365 Gold Cup. Much will depend on how he takes to the early action. Lord Windermere has failed to sparkle this year. Visual evidence does not support the trainers assumption jockey was to blame for poor Gold Cup run. Many Clouds reported to have run flat at Cheltenham. Whilst he is a game and talented horse, this may prove one race too many off a big weight. Monbeg Dude finished an honourable fourth in the Welsh National having won the 2012 renewal (Run in January 2013). Ran a fair race to finish seventh to Pineau De Re; mistakes at Bechers and the Canal Turn did not help matters. Interestingly, his five highest RPR’s came at Cheltenham and Chepstow, venues close to his stables. Mon Parrain is useful on his day but has had plenty of problems through his career. Finished second in the 2011 Topham Trophy. Mountainous won the 2013 Welsh National. Things have not gone according to plan since then including two disappointing efforts this season. Night In Milan is a useful handicap chaser with an excellent record at Doncaster. He usually races up with the pace jumping boldly when at the top of his game. The flat track will suit, while he could be an exciting if taking to the fences. Oscar Time has finished second and fourth in previous Grand Nationals. Approaching the veteran stage, he ran out the worthy winner of the 2014 Becher Chase last December. Despite his advancing years, he looks sure to give a good account of himself if returning for another crack. Owega Star is a fair chaser at best. Nothing in his profile to suggest he will stay this far. Pineau De Re ran home a game winner of the 2014 renewal. Leading at the second last, he drew clear on the run-in. A disappointing run over hurdles at Cheltenham preceded an equally disappointing display at Carlisle. One will be looking for a post-Christmas revival if he is to return to Aintree with a viable chance. Portrait King is a former winner of the Eider Chase. Stays well handles good ground and sharpened up by recent hurdle run. Rebel Rebellion is at the top of his game and 7lb well in at the weights. Closely matched with Soll and Chance Du Roy on Exeter form. Rocky Creek finished fifth last season and second in 2013 Hennessy Gold Cup. Back to form when an easy winner of the BetBright Chase; he will be 9lb well-in following that success. Has to be a serious player if his stamina holds out. Rubi Light is another in-form horse that arrives 4lb well in. Profile suggests potential stamina issues. Royale Knight is an improving staying chaser in the care of last year’s winning trainer Dr Richard Newland. His best form has come on good or good to soft. A nine-year-old, he proved he stayed four-miles when successful at Kelso in December 2013. Returned with a promising effort over hurdles. Saint Are is one paced but stays all day. Ran well in the Becher Chase, enjoys flat tracks. Much improved for his new stable. Shutthefrontdoor returned to action with a workmanlike win at Carlisle. He ended the 2013/14 season with a decent run at Cheltenham followed by victory in the Irish Grand National. Not seen since November, he will be AP’s final ride in the race. Misses out on several important stats. Soll seventh in 2013. Arrives in top form having joined Martin Pipe this season. 7b well in having won since the weights were published. Sure to run well though may find things going as quick he would want on the first circuit. Spring eeledHHeeled ran out an easy winner of the 2014 Kim Muir Chase at Cheltenham, before finishing fifth in the bet365 Gold Cup and fifth in the Galway Plate. His best form has come on good ground. Looks sure to find further improvement following a pleasing return from a well-deserved break. Super Duty has not regained the form shown for his previous trainer. The Druids Nephew ran out an impressive winner of the Festival Chase at Cheltenham. He will race off a 10lb lower mark than he will do in future races. Huge chance on ratings but is without Mr Geraghty who honed his jumping skills. The Rainbow Hunter enjoyed the fences until departing the fun at the ninth fence last year. No recent worthwhile form. Tranquil Sea has been a decent chaser in this time. Lightly raced these days and now in the veteran stage. Unioniste has been touted for the race since his impressive win at Sandown Park. Ran a decent race behind Coneygree in the Denman Chase. Stayed on well having lost his position mid-race. However, as with several others, another year on his back would be welcomed while soft ground would enhance his claims Wyck Hill stays all day, in his own time! Might become outpaced and detached on the first circuit.
FSF Ratings The Package 175 Spring Heeled 168 Maggio 165 Rebel Rebellion 174 Cause of Causes 168 First Lieutenant 164 Rocky Creek 174 Chance Du Roy 168 Pineau De Re 164 Soll 174 Double Ross 167 Hadrian’s Approach 164 Any Currency 174 Godsmejudge 167 Night In Milan 164 The Druids Nephew 173 Monbeg Dude 167 Carlito Brigante 164 Many Clouds 170 Super Duty 167 Portrait King 164 Rubi Light 170 Balthazar King 166 Saint Are 162 Wyck Hill 169 Oscar Time 166 Lord Windermere 162 Goonyella 169 Alvarado 166 Dolatulo 162 Mountainous 169 Gas Line Boy 166 Mon Parrain 162 Broadway Buffalo 169 Al Co 165 The Rainbow Hunter 161 Unioniste 168 Shutthefrontdoor 165 Royale Knight 160
Timeform 183 The Druids Nephew 182 The Package 181 Rocky Creek 180 Broadway Buffalo 178 Soll 177 Any Currency 177 Many Clouds 176 Spring Heeled 176 Double Ross 175 Shutthefrontdoor 175 Cause of Causes 175 Gallant Oscar 175 Godsmejudge
175 Mountainous 175 Super Duty 175 Theatrical Star 175 Back In Focus 174 Chance du Roy 174 Rebel Rebellion 174 Monbeg Dude 174 Roi Du Mee 174 Rubi Light 174 Maggio 173 Balthazar King
173 Hadrian’s Approach 173 Rolling Aces 173 Gas Line Boy 172 Lord Windermere 172 Wyck Hill 172 Pineau De Re 172 Unioniste 171 Alvarado 171 Oscar Tim 170 First Lieutenant
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The 2015 Crabbies Grand National weights were revealed on Tuesday at the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden. There were 96 entries for Phil Smith to scrutinise with 2013 runner up Cappa Bleu being retired at the weekend and Qulinton failing to qualify due to his handicap mark not reaching the minimum requirements.
The first question to ask before going through the field is who will likely be top weight on the day itself?
This year is more difficult than most to assess who will carry top weight as last year’s Gold Cup victor Lord Windermere and Irish Hennessy winner Carlingford Lough are the pair alloted joint top weight of 11-10. The latter would be likely to miss the race after a bid at the Gold Cup whilst the former was a surprise entry but his participation isn’t likely. Many Clouds (11-09) goes for the Gold Cup and will definitely miss the race so that potentially leaves the top weight spot open to several below him.
Sam Winner (11-08) has had Aintree as a target since a gruelling success carrying top weight at Cheltenham’s Paddy Power meeting, but like Many Clouds, he also heads to the Gold Cup after improving again with a Listed win at Aintree on the Mildmay course and a third last time in the Lexus Chase behind Road To Riches. His trainer Paul Nicholls made positive noises about going to Aintree, but he also has six others he could depend on including Unioniste (11-06) who has looked an ideal candidate for the race for a while although age is a concern.
To answer the question posed above, I’d expect Sam Winner to carry top weight meaning the weights would rise a further two pounds. The main concern with him is how would he handle forty runners, especially as he can race on and off the bridle.
Nicholls has stated his best chance is Rocky Creek (11-03). For a horse who lacked experience last year, he ran an excellent race and was the only horse carrying above eleven stone to finish in the top ten. He was also struggling to finish off his races last season and a wind operation should help him in that regard. He needed his first outing at Down Royal when runner up to Road To Riches before putting in a disappointing effort in the Hennessy Gold Cup where he never travelled. No excuses emerged from that and we could see him enhance his credentials in Saturday’s Betbright Chase at Kempton.
The current ante-post favourite and the one likely to start clear favourite on the day is last season’s Irish National winner Shutthefrontdoor (11-02) who is most likely to be AP McCoy’s twentieth and last ride for his retainer JP McManus and trainer Jonjo O’Neill. The same team combined with Don’t Push It back in 2010 for a famous success. The son of Accordion has only been seen once this campaign in November when taking a graduation chase at Carlisle in taking fashion.
Due to the yard’s drop in form, he has been kept with a Spring campaign in mind and it is hugely significant that connections withdrew him from the Gold Cup, highlighting Aintree as the main target. Even at this moment in time, he looks plenty short enough when looking at the and it’s entirely possible that he could be sent off a similar price to Red Rum back in 1975 when runner up to L’Escargot when sent off 7/2f. Whilst a fan of the horse, this could come a year too early as he still lacks relative experience. Factor that into his current price and what he is likely to go off at and he is worth opposing, although he deserves plenty of respect.
Apart from Double Seven who is sidelined through injury, the placed horses from last year’s race reoppose. Winner Pineau De Re (11-00) has had a fairly quiet season but showed at both Cheltenham and most recently at Exeter that he still retains a fair level of his form. That run qualified him for the Pertemps Final at the Festival where he was third last year before his big success. The plan is to go the same route and even off an eight pound higher mark, he should give another bold account, even though his jumping left something to be desired.
Runner up Balthazar King (11-02) is just a model of consistency and adaptable between conventional handicaps and cross country races where he dominates the division. His win in November signified he is as good as ever and that win was made even more impressive considering how testing the ground was on that occasion. Connections have stated that they will miss the Festival and go straight to Aintree, a decision that looks negative as you tend to want a horse who is racefit as opposed to an extremely fresh horse coming off a break. He should run his usual honest race but he will find it difficult off a career high mark.
ALVARADO (10-03) was given a very patient ride when finishing fourth and you wonder would he have finished closer given a more forceful ride by Paul Moloney. He had a preparation run yesterday at Doncaster and another one in March would benefit him massively. He could have a big say off the same mark as twelve months ago. The price of 50/1 before the weights were revealed was an insult but he’s still best priced 40/1 in a few places such as Titanbet, Winner and betway which still looks a tad big.
Monbeg Dude hasn’t ran a bad race all season including when fourth in both the Hennessy Gold Cup and the Welsh National. He caught the eye at the weekend when third in the Grand National Trial at Haydock and that effort should have put him spot on for Aintree. The only slight doubt I have is whether he truly saw out the trip in last year’s race, but he did take well to the course considering his chequered jumping issues in the past.
Potential Grand National newcomers include Godsmejudge (10-08) who has been a long term fancy of mine for the race. The 2013 Scottish National winner missed last year’s race due to being a week behind in his work but ran two excellent races in the Scottish National when second to Al Co and in the Bet365 Gold Cup behind Hadrian’s Approach. The son of Witness Box has the right attibrutes to win a Grand National. He is a very sound jumper, is an uncomplicated ride and has a strong suit of stamina. This looks one of Alan King’s strongest chances for Aintree success and for rider Wayne Hutchinson who has an excellent association with the horse.
Another that made my shortlist of four is Merry King (10-05) who has been called a fair few names in his time but you cannot deny he is extremely consistent in big staying handicap chases, albeit placing rather than winning. His third in the Hennessy Gold Cup behind Many Clouds was made all the more noteworthy due to AP McCoy reporting he had an issue with his wind. Although he disappointed over hurdles at Newbury last week, that will have blown away the cobwebs and one more run between now and Aintree should bring him to his peak. The slight risk with him is he seems the type of horse that will either love or hate the experience of Aintree.
Other English contenders of note include Dr Richard Newland’s other runner Royale Knight (10-03) who was a very easy winner of the Durham National at Sedgefield and Saint Are (10-07) who has been revitalised for a change of yards to Tom George this season. The former would be his highly shrewd trainer’s second runner after Pineau De Re and it wouldn’t surprise to see him go very well whilst the latter’s win at Catterick has ensured that he will get his chance in the race but whether he can find more improvement to win the Grand National remains to be seen.
The Irish challenge looks to be headed by Spring Heeled (10-13). Specifically trained for the race by an astute operator in Jim Culloty who rode Bindaree to success back in 2002. Winner of the Kim Muir at last year’s Festival, he then ran well enough in the Bet365 Gold Cup when fifth, before getting outpaced in the Galway Plate when fourth to Road To Riches. He hasn’t ran all season to protect his chase mark but the question mark that lingers over him is stamina. He is a strong traveller though and it wouldn’t be surprising if he was cantering all over the field crossing the Melling Road for the final time. What happens from thereon is another matter.
For a yard with the firepower of Willie Mullins, it’s surprising that he has so few entries. His main hope looks to be 2013 National Hunt Chase winner Back In Focus (10-13) who missed last season due to injury. He has looked an ideal candidate for this race since his chasing debut at Listowel in September 2012, with relentless galloping a feature of his performances. Whilst he is a safe jumper and getting on in years, a lack of experience would be the worry having only had five runs over fences. One with plenty of experience is First Lieutenant (11-03) and on his old form he looks very well treated but he needs to show a fair amount of improvement.
Living Next Door (10-10) could represent Tony Martin who has entered a couple of others including Buddy Bolero and Gallant Oscar. Out of those, Living Next Door looks his best chance. He threatened last season to win a big staying handicap and duly obliged over Christmas in the Paddy Power Chase when getting the better of Foxrock. He is another that has slight stamina concerns having not seen out the distance in the National Hunt Chase at last season’s Cheltenham Festival. Connections may have a right to also feel hard done by, especially with the way handicapper Phil Smith can treat Irish entries. Home Farm (11-02) is another not treated too well. He ran respectably in the Irish Hennessy behind Carlingford Lough and is definitely an interesting contender but on his form where he beat Foildubh, he doesn’t exactly look well in.
My other selection at as big as 66/1 with Stan James and Betway is THEATRICAL STAR (10-02) who is well worth a second look. He is unexposed over marathon distances and has shaped on his last two efforts at Warwick when second to Hawkes Point in the Classic Chase and Sandown when filling the same spot behind Le Reve, that a test like the National could suit very well. At the right end of the handicap, he looks to have potential improvement, appeals more than most in the field and should just make it in the field being number 70 on the current list.
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Whilst I like the claims of both Godsmejudge and Merry King at shorter prices, they won’t dramatically shorten for a while so it seems worth taking bigger prices about ALVARADO and THEATRICAL STAR with both likely to make the cut and at the right end of the handicap. Others that deserve consideration include Rocky Creek, Spring Heeled, Royale Knight and Saint Are.
1pt E/W – Alvarado – 40/1
1pt E/W – Theatrical Star – 66/1
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