Just like my love for Cheltenham, my love for Aintree knows no bounds. They are polar opposites but I adore them both, unashamedly and unreservedly. My yearning for a particular corner of North Liverpool began at an early age. My parents would allow me to miss school for the Cheltenham Festival but if Aintree fell outside the Easter holidays then it was lessons only for me on the Thursday and Friday. I would sit quietly seething in a French lesson, learning how to order a basket of vegetables when I could have been watching the Martell Cup (Betfred Bowl) and the Foxhunters. As soon as the clock struck 3:30pm; I would be out of the school gates quicker than the Nunthorpe field leaves the stalls to sprint home to watch the video recording in splendid isolation.
I have been lucky enough to work for Aintree; I spent five happy Grand National meetings there. I was 22 years old when I walked into the racecourse for the first time. As I walked towards the old weighing room, the opening scene of Champions flashed before my eyes and I was in heaven. I still remember the feeling of “Wow, I’ve finally made it here”. Since then, just like Cheltenham, Aintree has pushed me to the limit but still I return. I’ve laughed there, I’ve cried there, I’ve ended up in hospital there and I’ve even fallen in love there. I’ll have the biggest smile in Liverpool as I turn off the M57, through Walton and into Aintree itself.
The eyes of the nation will be on the World’s Greatest Steeplechase; some scathing, some adoring, Mine will be alight with wonder come 4:15pm on Saturday afternoon. There is still something immensely satisfying about picking the winner of the Grand National. My shortlist consists of:
Imperial Commander – My head and my heart are in unison, he can do this. There is a new pilot in the shape of Sam Twiston-Davis, who rides the National fences with that perfect mix of brains and balls of steel. The equine talent and the fight are still very much there judging by his narrow defeat in the Argento. The time is now and I am behind connections 100%; you snooze you lose. He jumps, he travels, he served it up to and defeated the wonderful old guard of Kauto Star and Denman. Nigel Twiston-Davies believes he is three stone well in and he should know; Earth Summit and Bindaree speak for themselves. Tradition depicts that if a Gloucestershire trained winner wins the Grand National, then a bonfire should be built on Cleeve Hill in celebration. As I make my way back down the M5 on Saturday night, I hope to see a blazing beacon in the distance, that burns brighter with every mile I travel closer to home.
Join Together – Forget the pulled up last time out, he was badly hampered which ended any chance he had. The run behind Hello Bud in the Becher Chase screamed Grand National. He looked like one of those horses that sees the National fences for the first time and the penny really drops. Prior to the Becher Chase, the run at Ascot behind Roberto Goldback again suggested 4m3f will be a delight for him. After being hampered, he ran on from the last when all chance of victory had been erased. He is brought to you by the team responsible for last year’s victory and the yard need a change in luck. There has been resurgence in stable form since Cheltenham and I am not surprised to see them bullish about the chances of this eight year old.
Chicago Grey – After watching Chicago Grey win the National Hunt Chase in 2011, I wrote Grand National next to his name. He was brought down at the fifth last year and the more I look at his form for this season, the more I am convinced this has been the master plan. He is terrifying on 10-7 and to say the Gordon Elliot stable is on fire would be an understatement plus the ground was good when he scored at the Festival two years ago, so there are ticks in every box. His win in the 2m4f Red Mills Chase wasn’t as surprising on replay as it was on paper as the ground was horrendous and stamina came into play. He’s a street fighter with a touch of class and these days that’s what the Grand National is all about.
“Who knows if we will win, God knows we won’t give in” – Carl Davis – Champions 1983.