1.45 Aintree – Gaskells Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3)
With novices having won six of the last ten renewals of this race, it could be a good idea to look for an unexposed improver – the likes of No Comment, Doesyourdogbite and No Hassle Hoff fall into this category. However, it’s also noticeable that 11 of the last 29 winners had been chasing earlier in the season, so at the other end of the scale, Barney Dwan, Golden Doyen, Splash Of Ginge and The Tourard Man get positive mentions here.
Despite being unrepresented in three of the last 15 years, Jonjo O’Neill has won this race four times, so Forthefunofit, Holywell and Doesyourdogbite all need respecting here.
Age-wise, five-year-olds have only won this twice in 29 years, big red flags for Leoncavallo, No Hassle Hoff, Doesyourdogbite and Duke Street, while half of the last ten winners have been six-year-olds. For Good Measure, Golden Doyen, Mr McGo and No Comment are the only four of that age here.
Six of the last ten winners have gone off at 10/1 or shorter, so No Hassle Hoff and Barney Dwan, being the only runners under that threshold at the time of writing, get another tick in their boxes. However, Dan Skelton’s charge falls foul of the stat that tells us only five of the last 29 winners didn’t run in March – that also is a negative for Mr McGo and Joe Farrell.
The Tourard Man
Splash Of Ginge
With five horses tied at the top of the trends table, it’s tough to separate some of them. The Pertemps Final at Cheltenham throws up two interesting contenders in Barney Dwan and The Tourard Man – the former ran a cracker to finish second, while the latter bounced back to form in a big way to grab fourth. Barney Dwan has gone up 5lb for that effort and that could make it difficult for him to win here despite clearly being in rude health, but The Tourard Man has been left on the same mark. With Kevin Dowling’s 10lb claim a massive help, he could be there or thereabouts at a big price (22/1 at time of writing).
Forthefunofit looks to be Jonjo O’Neill and JP McManus’ #1 in this race and with Aidan Coleman on board, could well continue his upward curve of improvement. However, he was raised 10lb for a comfortable win in his last race and would certainly prefer a softer surface so it could be a big ask for him to win this.
One horse who has been an admirable contender over the years is Nigel Twiston-Davies’ Splash Of Ginge. His mark has slipped back to 140 now and back on a flatter track, he could run much better than his odds of 33/1 suggest, especially with Jamie Bargary taking a valuable 3lb off his back.
2.25 Aintree – Betway Mersey Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 1)
This race as upgraded to Grade 1 status in 2014 following a high class roll of honour, including the likes of Peddlers Cross, Spirit Son and Simonsig in recent years. Willie Mullin has won the last two renewals with Yorkhill following up Nichols Canyon success in 2015.
A trend that reflects the quality of the race is that fifteen of the last nineteen winners started favourite or second favourite. The market leader this year is Finian’s Oscar, who is unbeaten in four career starts. The next horse in the betting is Brio Conti for defending champion trainer Paul Nicholls and the stable has to be respected in this race. Nicholls and his rival for the title Nicky Henderson have won six of the last thirteen runnings of the Mersey Novices’ between them. Henderson saddles Lough Derg Spirit and Cultivator in a bid for further success this time around.
Cheltenham form is also a strong guide to the race as fifteen of the last twenty winners recorded a top-seven finish at the Festival. The placement of the two festivals, just three weeks to a month apart, gives most horses a good amount of time to rest and recover from their Cheltenham exploits, especially novices’ who in general seem to bounce back fairly quickly from hard races. There are two in this year’s race who fit the bill – Messire Des Obeaux and La Bague Au Roi. The former put up a good performance to finish third in the Neptune, with the latter-named finishing seventh having attempted to make the running in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle.
Messire Des Obeaux
Brio Conti is second in the betting and has to be respected for trainer Paul Nicholls in this race. The six-year-old has progressed through the season, making it successive victories in his last two starts. On his previous run he readily landed a Class 2 handicap at Kempton, travelling smoothly into contention before going clear. He will be looking to continue on his upward curve at Aintree on Saturday.
Messire Des Obeaux, trained by Alan King, boasts strong Cheltenham form to his name having finished third in the Neptune behind a smart pair. The five-year-old already has a Grade 1 win to his name as well, gaining success in the Challow at Newbury in December last year. A reproduction of this form would give him a good chance in this race.
The favourite for the race is Finian’s Oscar for the Colin Tizzard yard. This lightly-raced five-year-old is unbeaten in four starts, including three over hurdles. There has been hype about the horse’s potential having been bought for £250,000 after his Point-to-Point win. The son of Oscar has lived up to expectations so far, landing the Grade 1 Tolworth at Sandown in January, but unfortunately had to miss Cheltenham due to injury. He is a major player here looking to gain another Grade 1 success.
3.00 Aintree – Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase (Grade 1)
This race has been a good stepping stone for further big-race success since its upgrade to Grade 1 status in 1995. Three winners have subsequently gone on to win the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, with the victories of Finian’s Rainbow and Sprinter Sacre coming in the last five years.
The starting point with regards to trends for the race has to be the Arkle Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival. Eighteen of the last twenty-two winners contested the Arkle (bar the abandoned Festival). Looking to confirm this form in this year’s edition are Charbel and Forest Bihan. The former was in the process of running a big race, benefitting from a well-judged front-running ride from David Bass, as he was half a length up on Altior when falling two from home. There has been much debate about what the result would have been had Charbel managed to stay on his feet. Forest Bihan finished fifth in the race but trainer Brian Ellison has always thought highly of him.
Paul Nicholls saddles two in the race this year in a bid to continue his fine record in the contest. The champion-trainer has won the Maghull five times since 1999, with seven of his horses finishing runner-up. Therefore, Politologue and San Benedeto have to respected as the chosen pair targeted at Aintree. Another trend that should suit Politologue is that seventeen of the last eighteen winners raced handily from the outset, so his prominent style could the make the difference here. However, he is likely to face competition for the lead from Charbel, who could try to repeat his front-running performance from Cheltenham.
Another strong trend for the race is that there has only been one winner sent off outside the first three in the betting since 1996. The betting this time around is headed by Charbel, followed by Politologue and Forest Bihan. This shows that the horses who have ran at Cheltenham are fancied to do well following that up at Aintree.
Politologue has to be respected being trained by Paul Nicholls in this race and has good form from Cheltenham last time as well. The six-year-old was a decent fourth behind Yorkhill in the JLT and this drop back in trip could help his positive style of running. The grey had previously landed a Grade 2 at Ascot in December, before then finishing runner-up in another Grade 2 at Haydock, losing little in defeat giving weight away to the Malcolm Jefferson-trained Waiting Patiently. He could put up at bold performance at Aintree on Saturday. However, he will likely face competition up front from Charbel, who could prove tough to get the better of. The Kim Bailey-trained six-year-old was in the process of giving Altior something to think about when falling two out in the Arkle, and a reproduction of that run would see him be a strong contender at Aintree on Saturday.
3.40 Aintree – Betway Handicap Chase (Listed Race)
With six of the last seven winners being rated between 134 and 140, that gives us an excellent starting point when it comes to eliminating some horses from this puzzle – the top 3 in the weights, Our Kaempfer, Starchitect and Emerging Force all fall foul of this statistic, as do the bottom two, Takingrisks and Man With Van.
In conjuction with that, only one horse has won this race carrying more than 11st in the last 13 years, so with the quality of the race rising year on year, that leaves us with just three remaining contenders based on the weight and rating trends – Lamb Or Cod, I Just Know and Smooth Stepper. However, thanks to Jonathan Moore’s 3lb claim, Relentless Dreamer also drops into this category.
Still, it’s worth exploring the other trends in the race, especially the one that tells us that eleven of the last 20 winners ran at the Cheltenham Festival. Relentless Dreamer and Lamb Or Cod both fit this trend, as do plenty of the field, including Potters Legend, Starchitect, Henry Parry Morgan and Our Kaempfer.
Irish-trained horses have only one this race once in the last 40 runnings, so you should be wary of the likes of Ruben Cotter, Full Cry and Rightdownthemiddle, while trainers with a good record in the race include Philip Hobbs, who saddles Lamb Or Cod here.
Two of the last five winners were also novice chasers, again reinforcing the strong trend of novices improving throughout the season and being at their best here. Potters Legend, Relentless Dreamer and I Just Know all fit the bill here and get another boost.
I Just Know
Lamb Or Cod
An interesting field for this race this year, with over half the field aged less than eight and many fitting the appealing profile of a lightly-raced improver over fences. Four top the trends table, a nice number for our shortlist and one of those improving young chasers is I Just Know, trained by Sue Smith. After comfortably winning his last two races by six lengths, the handicapper has put him up a total of 21lb and in this better race on quicker ground, it could make it hard for him. Still, he’s in cracking form and can’t be ruled out.
Lamb or Cod has been around the chasing scene much longer than that rival, but looked to be back to his best when winning at Chepstow on good ground in December for Philip Hobbs. Although he’s been a little lacklustre the last twice, including when midfield in the Kim Muir at Cheltenham, his mark’s fallen down to 136 and he could be an outsider to cause a surprise back on a sounder surface at a bare three miles.
A horse that is hugely interesting to me is Rebecca Curtis’ Relentless Dreamer, who was last seen finishing seventh over an inadequate two and a half miles in the Close Brothers Novices Handicap Chase at Cheltenham. He fits all the big weight/rating/recent run trends (thanks to his excellent jockey’s 3lb claim) and he looks primed to run a cracker at a big price back on genuine good ground. He was hampered twice at Cheltenham and still finished just twelve lengths away from some much faster, better positioned horses, so everything points to him outrunning a 20/1 price tag.
Although Potters Legend carries more weight than ideal here, he ran a belter in the Kim Muir and will appreciate the nice fast ground he’ll get here. The handicapper has only put him up a pound for that run at Cheltenham and combined with the assistance of Leighton Aspell – on board for all of his wins over obstacles – he could go very nicely indeed if he’s over his Festival experience.
4.20 Aintree – Ryanair Stayers Liverpool Hurdle (Grade 1)
Whilst some horses may be suited to the demands of Cheltenham, the same can be said for Aintree, as certain horses have saved their best form for this venue in the past. Looking at this race specifically, we can see that nine of the last ten winners had won or finished second at this meeting in the past. Perhaps surprisingly in a field of eleven, only two of this year’s field can boast such form, Ballyoptic who won the Sefton Novices’ Hurdle at last year’s meeting and Cole Harden, who chased home Beat That in the Sefton in 2014, before chasing home Whisper in this race the following year.
Perhaps not surprisingly given the many similarities, the Stayers’ Hurdle at Aintree has proved an excellent guide to this race, with eight of the last ten winners having achieved a top four finish in Cheltenham’s 3m hurdling highlight. Nichols Canyon landed the spoils this time around but skips this engagement along with the second and third but the race is represented by the fourth-placed horse Cole Harden.
In terms of class, only one of the last ten winners had not won a Grade 1 or 2 hurdle race prior to landing this contest so we should focus our attentions on those with proven form at this level. There are only three of the field who fail on that score this time around, namely Aux Ptits Soins, Supasundae and Different Gravey.
Proven stamina is also an important consideration with Whisper being the only winner in the last decade to win having not won over at least 2m6f in the past. There are a few in this year’s field with questions to answer on that score, so it might be worth steering clear of Yanworth, Supasundae, Taquin Du Seuil, Three Musketeers and Different Gravey.
A final factor to consider is the betting and with seven of the last ten winners having been sent off favourite or second favourite, it seems this isn’t a race in which it is worth taking the market on. The biggest-priced winners in that time were Whisper and Blazing Bailey who were both sent off at 5/1, so it doesn’t seem worth looking for one at a bigger price.
Warren Greatrex’s Cole Harden has bounced back to form this term following a spell over fences, running Unowhatimeanharry close in the Cleeve Hurdle in January, before running a fine race to finish fourth in the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham last time. The ground just didn’t come right for him on the day but the sound surface he is likely to encounter here is likely to be much more in his favour. He is fitted with a visor for the first time in a bid to eke out further improvement and having run well here in the past, it is hard to see him finishing out of the frame.
Ballyoptic won at this meeting twelve months ago when landing the Sefton but he has had his fair share of misfortune since then, falling on two of his last five starts. He returns to Aintree on the back of being pulled-up in the Stayers’ Hurdle, but if he can bounce back to form, he shouldn’t be too far away.
5.15 Aintree – Randox Health Grand National (Grade 3)
Historically one of the trickiest puzzles to solve in the racing calendar, the Grand National fills plenty of punters’ hearts with dread but there are a number of trends that we can use to narrow down the field.
The first thing to consider is age and whilst it may seem like a good idea to look for a young unexposed runner, history tells us it might be best to focus our attention elsewhere. horses aged ten and older have held the upper hand in recent years having been successful in 17 of the last 27 renewals, a good sign for some of the veterans in this year’s field. At the other age of the spectrum, only two eight-year-olds have won in the last 33 years and no seven-year-old has won in 77 years, not good news for the trio of seven-year-olds in this year’s field Shantou Flyer, Le Mercurey and Double Shuffle.
Another thing which may seem obvious in a race of this nature which is often overlooked is stamina and that is backed up by the fact that every winner since 1970 had won over at least three miles prior to winning here. The myth that 2m4f chasers win the Grand National is long gone so be sure to steer clear of those without proven stamina on their side this time around, namely More Of That, Ucello Conti, Ballynagour, Stellar Notion, Doctor Harper, Le Mercurey and Cocktails At Dawn.
Race fitness can also play a crucial role in the outcome of a race and whilst it may seem logical to think it is best to side with a horse returning from a long break, the stats suggest otherwise. In the last 36 years, only two winners hadn’t run in the last 50 days prior to lining up at Aintree not good news for the likes of Drop Out Joe and Highland Lodge, who are both returning from lengthy absences on Saturday.
Good jumping is also a valuable asset in a Grand National contender as the fences present a unique test for the equine athlete. It is therefore no surprise that all but two of the last twenty winners had fallen or unseated no more than twice during their career, prior to winning here. On the whole, this year’s field look to be sound jumpers but there are a few who fall foul of this stat, Saint Are, Gas Line Boy, Wonderful Charm, Saphir Du Rheu, Bishops Road and Cocktails At Dawn, so it may be best to steer clear of this sextet.
It may seem trivial for some punters to consider breeding when it comes to National Hunt racing, especially when you consider that arguably the greatest Grand National winner Red Rum was bred to be a flat horse. However, recent renewals have showed us that those bred in Ireland hold the upper hand, having been responsible for 13 of the last 18 winners of the race. They are well-represented this time around with just over half of the field but given their record is superior to that of their British and French rivals, it is worth bearing in mind when it comes to making a final selection.
Some of you may not be aware that the weights for the Grand National are decided in February and as a result, that means that horses can often race here off lower marks than they would in a normal handicap. Some horses may have won or performed well since the weights were the published which normally result in their handicap mark going up but with the weights already set, they are considered to be ‘well-in’. These horses have won three of the last ten renewals from very few representatives and they hit the post last year when The Last Samuri was touched off by Rule The World in the closing stages. There are eight horses considered to be well-in this time around, namely Just A Par, Definitly Red, Double Shuffle, More Of That, Tenor Nivernais, Vieux Lion Rouge, Blaklion and Saphir Du Rheu, so it may be worth keeping a close eye on their performance.
One final interesting fact to consider is that nine of the last fourteen winners had run over hurdles at some point during the season that they were successful. An outing over hurdles can often be less taxing on horses than jumping the larger obstacles and Pineau De Re completed his Grand National preparations in the Pertemps Final before landing the prize in 2014. There are only a handful of runners to have had a hurdles run this term and they are Definitly Red, Raz De Maree, The Young Master and Ucello Conti.
Just A Par
Raz De Maree
The Last Samuri
With all things considered, one who comes out very well on the trends is Just A Par who bounced back to form when winning a valuable veterans’ chase at Newbury last month. Paul Nicholls’ ten-year-old looked to have a lot to do early on but stamina is his forte and he came home strongly under a fine ride from Harry Cobden to win going away at the line. He has been around the Grand National before and although he was well-beaten under Sean Bowen last year, he wouldn’t be the first horse to improve his placing on his second go at the race. He is one of the well-in horses and with just 10st 9lb on his back, I think he can run better than his odds suggest.
Another lively outsider with a chance is Raz De Maree who won the Munster National for a second time in November at the grand old age of 11. He managed to sneak in towards the bottom of the weights in 2014 and ran a fine race to finish eighth behind Pineau De Re and he runs off a similar mark this time around. He ran a big race to finish second in the Welsh National in December and having had a prep run over hurdles a few weeks ago, he seems to have plenty going in his favour.
One of the leading fancies as far as the market is concerned is Definitly Red and the trends seem to support the idea that he has a leading chance. Brian Ellison’s eight-year-old won on his return to action over hurdles in October and he has twice won over fences subsequently, winning the Rowland Meyrick at Wetherby before running away with the Grimthorpe Chase at Doncaster last time. The latter has proved a useful guide to the Grand National in the past and this improving performer has to be high on any shortlist.
The final horse to make the shortlist is last year’s runner-up The Last Samuri who carries top weight this time around. Kim Bailey’s nine-year-old ran a mighty race in the Becher over these fences in December and whilst he was beaten a long way at Doncaster last time, I think he is a good deal better over the National fences. Having been ahead of the handicapper this time last year, life is going to be more difficult for him with top weight this year but he has been round here before and it would be no surprise to see him run well again.
6.15 Aintree – Pinsent Masons Handicap Hurdle
The curtain comes down on the meeting with the handicap hurdle for conditional jockeys and it looks as competitive as ever. The weights are headed by Dan Skelton’s Born Survivor who has largely flattered to deceive so far this season and it is interesting that connections have decided to drop him back in trip here. In fairness, he ran well at Cheltenham last time in the hands of Bridget Andrews and if he can back that effort up, he could run well despite his big weight.
Also towards the head of the weights is Wakea who led the field for much of the way in the County Hurdle before being swallowed up by the principals in the closing stages. It is worth noting that he was only beaten just over five lengths at the line and with Aintree’s finish less stiff than the one at Cheltenham, he may have a better chance of holding off his rivals if making the running.
Seamus Mullins’ Chesterfield has been well-backed on a couple of occasions this term and having been keen early on, he probably struggled to get home in the soft ground at Newbury last time. This bigger field should help him settle better early on and with Daniel Sansom taking a useful 10lb off his back, he has to come into the mix.
Cousin Oscar arrives here in search of the hat-trick having landed back-to-back wins at Bangor and might just have been let off light with a mark of 130 on his handicap debut. The McCain yard has enjoyed a much better time of it this year and with James Cowley more than capable in the saddle, I’m sure that the family would be keen to have a winner at this meeting.
There are a couple of four-year-olds who are also of interest, the first of which is Zalavados who runs from 2lb out of the handicap. Oliver Greenall’s gelding is still a maiden over hurdles but has some useful form behind some of the leading juveniles this term and he gets weight from all of his rivals here. Charlie Deutsch is one of the more experienced conditionals riding in the race and he shouldn’t be too far away.
The final one to mention is Ian Williams’ So Celebre who ran out a ready winner of a juvenile handicap hurdle at Ascot on Sunday. He is turned out quickly here under a penalty and David Noonan has been booked to ride. You would have to think that he will get more than a 5lb rise for his latest success so he could be well-in and as long as last week’s exertions haven’t taken too much out of him, it would be no surprise to see him go well here under a penalty.