1:30 World Famous Just Eat Mersey Novices’ Hurdle
Fourteen runners is a good turnout for this Grade 1 novice hurdle over 2m4f and, of the last 18 winners, 13 recorded a top-seven finish at the Cheltenham Festival. The Neptune winner, Windsor Park, isn’t here as he is racing on the Flat later today at Gowran Park but the second and third, Parlour Games and Nichols Canyon, are and they set the standard. We really ought not to be surprised that the Cheltenham Festival equivalent of this race has been the key guide and a couple of top-four finishers in the Neptune since 2002 (Classified and Tidal Bay) have come on to win here in addition to Neptune winners. This year’s Neptune was a bit of a crawl and that didn’t suit Nichols Canyon who was too keen and also made a mistake at a crucial time. He had it all his own way when he won the Deloitte beating Windsor Park but won’t be able to dominate so easily here and I fancy Parlour Games can confirm Cheltenham placings on a course and ground that should suit him well.
Seven of the last 18 Mersey Hurdle winners were stepping up to 2m4f for the first time and top-six finishers in the Supreme have a pretty good record with Best Mate (2000) and Spirit Son (2011) going one place better here and Paul Nicholls has won this race twice with horses beaten in the Supreme. He runs As De Mee this year who has a different profile having bypassed Cheltenham. Nicholls also runs Port Melon but he looks like a three-miler to me. The Supreme is represented by Seedling who unseated his rider early on having won at Cheltenham earlier in the season under a double penalty.
Nicky Henderson easily won the 2011 and 2012 runnings with Spirit Son and Simonsig dismantling their rivals. They both ran great races at Cheltenham but he tackles this prize with Days Of Heaven who bypassed the Festival as they felt he might get too geed up by the atmosphere as he is not the most straightforward. I can’t see it being any less of an atmosphere for the opening race on Grand National Day. I also suspect that they just think he is better suited to this flat track at a meeting his owner likes and he was a ready winner of the Dovecote but he does look to have pace so the step up to 2m4f isn’t necessarily a positive. Three Musketeers is the other British-based pattern race winner who bypassed Cheltenham for this meeting having won the Leamington at Warwick in January. I am not sure it was a good Grade 2 he won though.
In addition to Nichols Canyon, Willie Mullins sends over Mckinley who looks in need of a break having been on the go since the summer and whose Grade 1 win hasn’t worked out. He runs for Giggingstown as does Sub Lieutenant whose defeat of Milesean looks better form now than it did at the time after the runner-up then finished second in the Albert Bartlett. It is very probable that Milesean improved plenty for a real stamina test at Cheltenham though. Ballyboley won the bumper at this meeting last season and impressed winning a novice hurdle here under an aggressive ride so this course clearly suits him and I can see a bold bid. Whether he is quite classy enough though is the question.
Days Of Heaven
It is very possible that PARLOUR GAMES and Nichols Canyon have a class edge over their rivals and they should head the market. On this track and ground, I prefer the better finishing kick of Parlour Games. DAYS OF HEAVEN is no cert to stay but this is a race in which horses moving up in trip have a good record as does his trainer and he looked classy when winning at Kempton so he rates as a big danger. BALLYBOLEY looks the best each-way horse of the rest given how well he has run Aintree in the past and is also a potential improver for the step up in distance.
2:05 Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase
No Un De Sceaux which will be annoying to those connections who bypassed this meeting or ran in the Manifesto Chase on Thursday as they were too frightened to take him on. That leaves just six runners and a weak renewal. Sixteen of the last 17 winners could be found in the first three in the betting (and 11 of the last 12 in the first two in the betting) so this is not a race to actively go in search of an upset.
Without question the Arkle Trophy has to be the starting point as 17 of the last 20 Maghull winners contested that two-mile novice chase championship at the Cheltenham Festival if we exclude Ballinclay King in 2001 when Cheltenham was abandoned due to the outbreak of Foot And Mouth. That said, those three winners have come in the last five years (Tataniano, Special Tiara and Balder Succes) so perhaps this trend is not quite as strong as it first appears. Gods Own was a good second to Un De Sceaux at Cheltenham and the record of placed horses in the Arkle is good as runners-up such as Squire Silk, Ashley Brook, Kalahari King and Finian’s Rainbow all gained compensation here since the race was upgraded to Grade 1 status and three Arkle thirds have also won since 2000; Cenkos, Armaturk and Foreman. The other Arkle runner is Court Minstrel who finished fifth but flat tracks in the spring are when he has excelled in the past and I can see him reverse with Gods Own under a stalking ride and beating him for a turn of foot.
Paul Nicholls has been unrepresented for the last two seasons but has saddled five winners and seven runners-up from 18 runners since 1999 and he runs Solar Impulse and Art Mauresque with Sam Twiston-Davies aboard the first named who has been beaten into second by Josses Hill and Three Kingdoms on his last two starts. Art Mauresque made his debut for Nicholls last month at Kempton having been racing in France and won easily in a first-time hood.
Traffic Fluide has won his last two starts for Gary Moore beating the same horse into second but he is worth a crack at this. A far bigger threat however looks to be Sizing Granite whose connections were considering the Arkle for but they ran Smashing instead. Henry de Bromhead missed the Arkle with Special Tiara before he caused a surprise in this race and Sizing Granite looks a better novice at this stage of his career than he did.
Gods Own deserves favouritism on his Arkle second but I am not sure Aintree’s faster 2m is ideal for him and fancy COURT MINSTREL can reverse places as the better ground and flatter course are right up his street. Not many hold-up horses have won the Maghull but I fancy that can change this year and if he is close enough at the final fence, his turn of foot can be key. Solar Impulse will hopefully set a strong pace to set it up for him. SIZING GRANITE is my idea of the main danger for Henry de Bromhead whose novice chasers generally jump like stags. He deliberately bypassed Cheltenham for this as did his same yard’s winner of this race two years ago and has some smart form in Ireland notably when beating the dual Grade 1 winning hurdler, Lieutenant Colonel, on his chase debut.
2:50 Silver Cross Stayers’ Hurdle
Of the 11 winners to date, nine contested the World Hurdle. Let’s go one step further, of the 11 winners, nine finished in the first four in the World Hurdle (132411111) so trends suggest we should look to Cole Harden (1st) or Zarkandar (3rd) rather than Whisper (5th), Un Temps Pour Tout (6th), Jetson (9th) or Blue Fashion (12th). The winner can leave their Cheltenham form behind here as was the case with Iris’s Gift who also followed up his World Hurdle win here but he had to work very hard to justify odds of 4/7 in fending off a five-year-old novice and the three-time World Hurdle winner, Inglis Drever, was beaten on all three starts at this meeting after he won the World Hurdle, two of which in this race. Did Cole Harden get an easy time of it leading from start to finish at a meeting where front runners galore won? Hard to say as it is a race in which front runners previously had a shocking record but I do believe that Zarkandar would still have been on the bridle at the final flight on his tail ready to pounce had he not made an awful mistake two out when cruising after he had jumped so slickly up to that point. What he would have found when push came to shove is up in the air but this flat track, on which he won the Aintree Hurdle two years ago, you would think would suit his high cruising speed and I fancy him to reverse places.
I am struggling to make a case why Un Temps Pour Tout, Jetson or Blue Fashion should reverse with the winner and third but I have a very healthy respect for last year’s winner, Whisper, who was fifth in the World Hurdle on his first start over timber this season having had one novice chase earlier in the season. I suggested before the World Hurdle that it wouldn’t surprise me if the World Hurdle was being used to put him spot on for a repeat in this race given his lack of racecourse action earlier in the campaign. Previous Grand National Meeting experience has been a significant factor as ten of the 11 winners since this race was switched from Ascot and had won or finished second at this meeting before (and eight had won at the course before) so clearly that is in Whisper’s favour. Cole Harden was second in the Sefton at last year’s meeting so we know he also likes it here and Zarkandar has won twice at this particular meeting. All 11 winners have started in the first three in the betting, nine of which started favourite or second-favourite, and the biggest-priced winner thus far is 11/2 so more and more it looks like a contest between Cole Harden, Zarkandar and Whisper as they are the trio who head the market. Ten of the 11 winners had won a Grade 1 or Grade 2 race and been successful over a minimum of 2m6f – more ticks for the aforementioned trio.
The second-best guide has been the Cleeve Hurdle which has featured five of the last 11 winners in which Saphir Du Rheu beat Reve De Sivola, neither of which take their chance, and in which Un Temps Pour Tout was third with Cole Harden well beaten and then sent off for a wind operation which worked wonders. The Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury in which Medinas beat Cole Harden and the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot where Reve De Sivola beat Zarkandar, both sit on four winners apiece but, when we consider that it was Big Buck’s who was responsible for all six of their eight collective wins, that takes the shine off their performance as a guide.
Of the trio that didn’t contest the World Hurdle, the horse that I thought shaped with most promise in the Pertemps Network Final was the top weight and 50/1 outsider that day, Henryville. The Harry Fry-trained seven-year-old was having his first race since November as he appreciates good ground and travelled as well anything for the most part and fared best of those that were held up, he will interest me if he runs at Aintree or anywhere else this spring on a decent surface but I was thinking more in terms of a handicap than a Grade 1. Brother Brian was two places behind in sixth that day. Crack Away Jack completes the field but at the age of 11 he is on the wane.
Cole Harden has to be consideed but I believe ZARKANDAR would have beaten him so powerfully was he moving until he made a terrible mistake two out and fancy him to exact his revenge on a course where he has won two Grade 1s at this meeting before. I expect WHISPER to build on his fifth in the World Hurdle which I fancy might have put him spot on for today as he bids to win this race for a second year and rate him the main danger but he does need to improve as his length defeat of At Fishers Cross in last year’s renewal is unlikely to be quite good enough this time in a better race. HENRYVILLE really caught my eye with the way he travelled off a longish break off top weight in a handicap at Cheltenham. I would have been keener on him for a handicap off a big weight than a Grade 1 but he makes each-way appeal. Harry Fry doesn’t usually run horses out of their class.
3:25 Betfred Handicap Chase
This staying handicap chase wouldn’t be the strongest of trends races and ten runners is a little disappointing. Buywise has been shaping like a horse crying out for a step up to three miles and this is his chance to come good. Not for the first time at Cheltenham he flew in the closing stages over 2m5f when hitting the rising ground to finish fourth in the Plate only beaten 3l and this extra half mile could easily more than offset being raised 3lb for that fine run in not the strongest of handicaps for the prize money on offer. Evan Williams also won this race with State Of Play. I am being kind, it is a poor race for the money on offer with so many out-of-form horses and so few potential improvers. The only other in form horse is Your Busy and he is aged 12 and that good run last time was in a moderate handicap hurdle.
Paul Nicholls’ top weights in good handicap chases have had a great time of it this season and Wonderful Charm could have the class to be another. He does seem a better horse in the first half of the season however and ran moderately in the Ryanair and tackling the King George, so he is taking on altogether different level of opposition today and this trip might now be what he needs. Edgardo Sol won the Red Rum at this meeting three years ago for Nicholls and is third top weight but he has shown little for Emma Lavelle in his last three runs. He has a chance on his Old Roan second to Wishfull Thinking here in the autumn though.
Duke of Lucca is trying to win this race for the second year running but has been disappointing in cross country races and I prefer Vino Griego who he was beaten only a head into last year in this race and is handicapped to go very well if he finds his form off a 7lb lower mark. I was at a Cheltenham Festival Preview night when Jamie Moore who told us that he was in great form at home and he fancied him to run a big race in the 3m handicap chase on the opening day but he was not declared. Perhaps they decided to wait for this valuable but easier prize instead knowing he went so close last year?
I reckon this has been the plan for Bobowen. Richard Newland is a top target trainer and gave him his first run since June last month which might have been a tee up for this. He was a good winner of the Summer Plate in 2003 and is just 2lb higher here and the ground is ideal for him. He is not a certain stayer though and could well be ridden from well off the pace to get the trip. Of the rest Mart Lane is out of form, Raajih has left Gordon Elliott to join Richard Woolacott since he last ran 11 2 days ago and Action Master is 10lb out of the handicap.
BUYWISE will be popular after he ran on strongly in the Plate and is now up in trip and looks the obvious favourite as the whole world and his wife spotted it and have been waiting for him to go over 3m. I couldn’t put you off but BOBOWEN might be a bit of each-way value against him as his form this season (only two runs) is nothing to speak of but I suspect his shrewd trainer has laid him out for this and the ground has come right for him. It’s a question of whether he stays so expect a hold up ride from Will Kennedy. VINO GRIEGO is most interesting of all because if he is back to his best, and connections were talking him up last month, then last season’s narrow runner-up is well handicapped.
4:15 Crabbie’s Grand National
The quality of the race continues to improve and this year will feature the 2014 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, Lord Windermere, this season’s Hennessy Gold Cup winner, Many Clouds, two winners from this season’s Cheltenham Festival, The Druids Nephew and Cause Of Causes, the last two winners of the Scottish Grand National, Godsmejudge and Al Co, last year’s Irish Grand National winner, Shutthefrontdoor, and seven of the first eight horses home from last season’s Grand National headed by the winner and runner-up, Pineau de Re and Balthazar King. Carlito Brigante is a non runner (lame) but it is too late for a reserve to take his place.
Can an 11-year-old win for the fourth year in succession? The odds are more in their favour than you might think as horses aged 10+ have won 17 times in the last 25 years. Eleven-year-old contenders are Balthazar King, The Rainbow Hunter, Wyck Hill, Across The Bay and Chance du Roy. I am taking the view that Balthazar King had his best chance last year when he was 9lb well in and finished second as he is not well in this year. He has also not run since November which is a big statistical negative. The Rainbow Hunter has failed to complete on both starts in the race but was unlucky on each occasion. I am not keen, however, that he has had just one start this year as all winners since 1981 had run at least three times earlier in the season.
The ground looks to be too fast for the slogger, Wyck Hill, to keep up and Chance du Roy was my fancy last year when he was sixth but I didn’t think he stayed and, to the best of my knowledge, they haven’t shortened the course. He was hampered a couple of times but I think he’s had his chance. Across The Bay interests me most of the 11-year-olds and was the unlucky horse of last season’s race as he was leading the field a merry dance until a loose horse carried him out heading on to the second circuit. Initially given 10st 6lb like five winners going back to 2006, he was running well until brought down in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival last month which has been the decent guide to the Grand National down the years.
You will notice I mentioned the poor record of horses with less than three chase starts this season and having not run during the same calendar year, well, both of those comments apply to Shuttthefrontdoor. With A P McCoy riding him in his final Grand National, bookmakers are predicting that he could start the shortest price favourite in the race since Red Rum was sent off at 7/2 in 1975 when chasing a hat-trick of victories. I’m not sure about that (but suggest you back him on Betfair if he is your fancy) but there have been four winning favourites or joint-favourites in the last two decades. This will only be Shutthefrontdoor’s seventh chase start, however, and no winner has had less than ten chase starts for decades. Numbersixvalverde (2006) is the least experienced winner in the last 30 years with ten chase starts at the time. That statistic is also against Corrin Wood and Ely Brown.
Six-year-olds are no longer eligible to run but it has still been a huge struggle for horses aged seven as their last winner was Bogskar in 1940. Not ideal for the likes of Unioniste and Cause Of Causes then and especially when we consider that no seven-year-old has even placed in the first four since 1971 and only nine of their 45 contenders have completed the course since 1992. Although there have been nine 12-year-old winners stretching back to 1962, no teenager has won since Sergeant Murphy in 1923 and no horse aged 13+ has placed since Rondetto in 1969 which is against the 14-year-old former runner-up and fourth, Oscar Time, who also won the Becher Chase over these fences in December, and the 13-year-old, Tranquil Sea.
Run over 4m3½f, the Grand National is the longest race in Great Britain so possessing sufficient stamina levels is clearly still a prerequisite and the last 43 winners had all previously won over at least three miles. Contenders yet to have achieved this feat under National Hunt Rules are Rebel Rebellion, Ballycasey, Rubi Light, Owega Star, Super Duty, River Choice and Baileys Concerto so I can not be entertaining any of that sextet though I should point out that Rebel Rebellion has won a point-to-point over 3m and Super Duty was only narrowly beaten in the Kim Muir two years ago and clearly stays 3m well. Of the last 18 Grand National winners, as many as 12 had won or finished placed in a National of one description or another further underlining how key an attribute stamina is. Three of the last six winners contested last season’s Scottish Grand National in which Al Co beat Godsmejudge into second and both of them make my short list. Both have been trained with this day in mind since so I am not bothered about their lack of form this season at all.
Only one winner since 1977 has carried over 11st 5lb and only two winners since 1983 have carried over 11st 1lb. horses set to carry over 11st 5lb this year and therefore up against it on trends are Lord Windermere, Many Clouds and Unioniste. If Unioniste wins as a seven-year-old carrying a big weight he will certainly be a trends buster and I also have concerns about him on this ground as he looks like a soft ground horse to me. The ground also very much concerns me regards Many Clouds who also had a hard race in the Gold Cup. I reckon if it was down to the trainer alone then he wouldn’t be running and be trained for next year’s race and miss Cheltenham but his Aintree-loving owner, Trevor Hemmings, who owned Hedgehunter and Ballabriggs, looks like he has called the shots on this one. Lord Windermere bids to become just the third Gold Cup winner to win the Grand National after Golden Miller and L’Escargot. He didn’t have a hard race in the Gold Cup this season as he never went a yard after it rained overnight and the ground will suit him much better here. He is built to carry a big weight and I see him running well.
The ground has also come right for Lord Windermere’s stable mate in the same ownership, Spring Heeled, who has been trained for this one day. At the age of eight he is a little younger than I prefer but he is a prominent racer who jumps well and I see him running a bold race and being the best of the Irish. Just two starts this season is less than ideal though. A total of 24 Irish-trained horses have won the Grand National but seven years have passed since we witnessed the last Irish-trained winner when Silver Birch (2007) was successful which has to be considered as a mini drought given that they had plundered six of the nine runnings between 1999-2007. Those six victories followed a 41-year span when they won just once courtesy of the dual Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, L’Escargot (1975), who beat Red Rum into second. Their previous winner was Mr What (1958) who remains the last novice to win. Cause Of Causes is officially a novice although a second-season chaser. Although unsuccessful since 2007, they have supplied three runners-up and I can see a potential gamble on Nina Carberry’s mount, First Lieutenant, a Grade 1 winner for whom the ground has come right and he has his first run in a handicap. His lack of wins is more down to taking on better horses and racing right-handed (he is better this way round) rather than being irresolute and I can see this spring horse return to form. I do wonder if he will stay though. I don’t fancy Ballycasey for Mullins and Walsh much as he has looked sour of late and doesn’t appeal to me as a stayer.
The National Hunt Chase winner Cause Of Causes is one of the better-fancied Irish challengers for Gordon Elliott who has trained the winner before but his age (7) is a concern and just one Cheltenham Festival winner has won since 1961. I didn’t think he won a good NH Chase either and the Handicapper didn’t even raise his rating for his victory underlining that point so he is not officially well in, which is an angle I like since the Grand National has become more normalised. Three winners and two runners-up in the last eight years were officially at least 5lb well in having improved since the weights were unveiled in mid-February. The Druids Nephew (10lb well in) after he won the Festival Handicap Chase is officially the best handicapped horse ahead of Rocky Creek (9lb), Rebel Rebellion (7lb), Rubi Light (7lb) and Soll (7lb). He does have the ‘Cheltenham Festival winner in the same season’ stat to overcome though, but Seagram won both races in 1991. I like Rocky Creek most of the well in horses. He would not have been out of the place in the Gold Cup but he was not entered as connections’ plan since he finished fifth in last year’s Grand National has always been this race and having easily won the Betbright Chase at Kempton since the handicap weights were published, he looks a much improved horse. He didn’t look to last home after taking it up last year turning for home but Paul Nicholls has since given him a breathing operation which he thinks will remedy that in addition to be a year older and stronger. That was only his eighth chase start in last year’s race. A few of the leading hopes were out of the race early on at Kempton but the way Rocky Creek moved through the race impressed especially having raced wide and on softer ground than he enjoys. Soll is 7lb well in after winning at Newbury and he is a stronger horse at the age of ten for David Pipe having finished eighth in this race two years ago for Jo Hughes.
Soll has won twice this season which shouldn’t be a bad thing but since Lord Gyllene won in 1997, only Ballabriggs of subsequent winners had won more than once earlier in the season and those successes were achieved over hurdles. horses attempting to buck that trend are Many Clouds, Balthazar King, The Druids Nephew, Oscar Time, Bob Ford, Gas Line Boy and Court By Surprise.
Seven of the first eight horses past the post in last season’s race return headed by Pineau de Re who beat Balthazar King into second with Alvarado also hitting the frame finishing fourth one place ahead of Rocky Creek. Pineau de Re made it onto last year’s short list when he won at 25/1 and is bidding to become the first horse since Red Rum in 1973/74 to win the race in consecutive seasons. Five of the last 14 winners ran in the previous season’s Grand National so we should also name check Chance du Roy (6th), Monbeg Dude (7th) but the ground may be going against him, Raz de Maree (8th), Across The Bay (14th) and The Rainbow Hunter (u.r). However, since Hallo Dandy won in 1984 having finished fourth the previous season, of the 70 subsequent top-four finishers to return the following year, only Amberleigh House has won. Top-four finishers from the previous year have an excellent completion record though, with 45 of those 70 successfully completing the course again 12 months later with ten of the placed horses going on to place in the first four again. Back to Pineau de Re and he ran out a fairly comfortable winner of last season’s Grand National despite not jumping as well as he can so an 8lb raise does not look unduly harsh. The big question is whether he retains the same ability at the age of 12 and whether he can be got to the race in the same heart? Like last year he prepped in the Pertemps Network Final where he finished eleventh (was third last year) but unlike last season where he ran 11 times earlier in the campaign, this time he has had four starts, all of which over hurdles so he became the busiest winner for many a year winning on his eleventh start of the campaign (no other winner since 1989 had run more than eight times since the start of August). In victory last season, he was recording his first win on a left-handed course and although he is aged 12, he is fairly lightly-raced for a horse of that age having missed two years with a tendon injury. The recent record of the defending title holder reads 0262F236. Certainly do not dismiss Pineau de Re’s stablemate though, Royale Knight, who will stay having won the Durham National, and has sneaked in as the bottom weight.
Only three winners in the last 18 years had fallen or unseated their rider more than three times earlier in their career which is against The Rainbow Hunter (though two of those were unlculy exits in this race) and Saint Are who was third in this season’s Becher Chase. He was also third in the staying handicap chase at Cheltenham’s November Meeting one place but a long way behind The Druids Nephew, a race which has featured two Grand National winners in the last seven years.
Nine of the last 12 winners had run over hurdles at some point earlier in the season, the latest being Pineau de Re who, like Don’t Push It four years earlier, had his previous start in the Pertemps Network Final at the Cheltenham Festival, a race in which he prepped again last month as did Dolatulo who ran just okay in the Grand Sefton over too short a trip over these fences and has since won the Rowland Meyrick.
Of the remainder, Night In Milan is a bold jumping, front runner who can give his supporters a good run for a long while but whether he can last it out given his enthusiasm I have some doubts, the former Topham second Mon Parrain will be ridden by Sean Bowen who only qualified to ride last weekend with a tenth chase start win and I have even greater doubts about his stamina and the former Eider winner, Portrait King, jumped terribly in this year’s renewal and this ground looks too quick for him.
Across The Bay
ROCKY CREEK looks to have the strongest credentials as he is 9lb well in having won the Betbright Chase since the weights were published and represents the champion trainer, Paul Nicholls, who saddled Neptune Collonges to victory three years ago. In addition, he took to these fences like a duck to water in last year’s race finishing fifth after leading the field into the home straight at the age of eight, which is a little young looking at the winner’s Roll of Honour when having just his eighth chase start, and he is now a year older and stronger. AL CO represents Peter Bowen whose Mckelvey was a close second in 2007 and, aged in double figures like 17 of the last 25 winners, he also has ‘National’ experience having won last season Scottish Grand National (the best recent guide) and course experience having ran in the Becher Chase in December. The ground has come right for him. ACROSS THE BAY was loving it in front last season until a loose horse carried him out and was running a good race at Cheltenham last month until brought down which would have been a tee up for this. GODSMEJUDGE is a spring horse who stays well and jumps well and had a prep over hurdles like many recent winners. He didn’t run particularly well in that but neither have other winners and this is the day he has been primed for. ROYALE KNIGHT represents last season’s winning trainer who may not have many horses as this is a hobby for him but he is one heck of a target trainer and this has been his target since he won the Durham National in the autumn. He too was given a little prep run over hurdles last month to put the final touches to his preparation. I also give honourable mentions to Pineau de Re who I can easily see finishing in the first six so of place-only interest (winning it twice is probably asking a little too much) and Dolatulo. Although Shutthefrontdoor is an artificially short price and has stats to defy, as McCoy has ridden five thirds in this race, the 10/1 with Betfred about him finishing third or fourth is worth a look. Balthazar King has the ground in his favour and should also be considered for a place or top-six option but maybe his best chance has also gone.
5:10 One Stop Energy Handicap Hurdle
This handicap restricted to conditional jockeys and amateur riders used to be one of the strongest of the season in terms of trends but it is hard to argue that it is even the same race now that professionals are not allowed to ride so relevant trends are no very thin on the ground. For example, five and six-year-olds had won 16 of the 18 renewals up until the changes in 2009 but the next two winners were aged nine and seven and we even had a successful four-year-old filly two years ago when Cockney Sparrow won. She also became the first favourite (or joint-favourite) to win for 19 years. In addition since the change, horses to run in the Vincent O’Brien County Hurdle have won three of the six runnings compared to being 0-48 going back to 1993 so that is now a positive rather than a negative and what was the domain of very lowly-weighted horses is no longer the case with winners now successful from other areas of the handicap including Court Minstrel winning off top weight 12 months ago.
When this 2me handicap hurdle opened the card on Grand National Day the Irish had a terrific record winning four times between 2000 and 2007 and they have been mopping up the leading handicap hurdles in Britain since Bayan won the Ladbroke. Although it is no longer on terrestrial television, the Irish still supplied the winner and second four years ago so clearly any Irish contenders have to be taken very seriously. This year they are represented by Little King Robin, The Game Changer, Fethard Player and Queen Alpahbet. No front runner has won since 1998 and that was only a five-runner race so I wouldn’t be with Little King Robin but I respect The Game Changer who was a big talking horse ahead of the County Hurdle (9th) on his first run for Gordon Elliott where the overnight rain probably went against him. Fethard Player has been in good form and the ground is right for him and Queen Alphabet was a good fifth in the mares’ bumper at this meeting last year and narrowly beaten by The Game Changer at the end of the summer. She has not run since October as has been waiting for quick ground.
Sean Bowen is some conditional rider and he claims 3lb off Dormello Mo who won at Plumpton last week after finishing twelfth in the County Hurdle so he is in form for the Champion Trainer and soon to be Champion Conditional so has to be shortlist material. The Irish dominated the County with a 1-2-3-4-5-6 and it was my fancy for that race, Baltimore Rock, who fared best of the British in seventh. He has a fair chance on that run and it wouldn’t be unlike horses I backed at Cheltenham to go and win since (six and counting!). The other home-based horse I respect is Box Office who was the gamble of the Fred Winter ahead of finishing seventh. Beaten 6l so it wasn’t a bad run and the fifth then won the Grade 1 hurdle for 4yos here on Thursday. I also like Jonjo O’Neill is handicaps with novices at this meeting.
The Game Changer
Being responsible for the first six home in the County Hurdle underlines how well handicapped the Irish 2m handicappers are in Britain so I want them on my shortlist hence the inclusion of THE GAME CHANGER, QUEEN ALPHABET and FETHARD PLAYER so I won’t be happy if Little King Robin wins! If they are all well handicapped en masse it might be worth perming the four in exactas and trifectas and pay for a bloody good holiday if it comes up. Eeeny Meeny Miney Mo, okay I’ll leave out Baltimore Rock of the Brits I like and suggest BOX OFFICE and DORMELLO MO as the most likely pair of the home team to save some face for the Handicapper after Cheltenham.
5:15 Pinsent Masons Mares’ Standard Bumper
This will be the eleventh running and with more luck, Alan King could have won six of them having been responsible for two winners (including Avispa at 25/1 last year) and four seconds. He is triple handed this year with Miss Crick looking the number one with Wayne Hutchinson on top but you couldn’t rule out the same yard’s Angel Face (Paul Moloney) or Katie Too (Aidan Coleman) as all three have won their only start.
The EBF Stallions TBA Mares’ Only Bumper (Listed) at Sandown on Imperial Cup Day, which is the highest class race of its kind before the Grand National Meeting, and has been a good guide. Tempest River finished fourth in that bumper four years ago before taking this event at 20/1, Eleven Fifty Nine was third before reversing placings with Call Me A Star three years ago and Avispa was fourth last season before winning here. In addition, that same mares’ bumper at Sandown has featured the runner-up here in three of the last nine years. This season’s 1-2 of Babylone Des Mottes and Briery Queen take each other on again.
The record of the Irish has really caught the eye in very recent seasons supplying the first three home five years ago and they put up an excellent overall effort four years ago as only a Peter Bowen-trained 28/1 winner (you have to look at every Bowen horse at Aintree and he runs Hollies Pearl) denied the Irish a second 1-2-3 on the spin as they supplied the next three horses home. The Irish then also supplied the runner-up for the next two years and have Babylone Des Motte (Willie Mullins), Whistling Dixie (Gordon Elliott) and Verona Opera (Stuart Crawford) representing them this time.
In addition to the Alan King-trained trio, Chocca Wocca, Legend Lady, Pomme and Sunshine Corner have won their only start. Chocca Wocca might be the best of those for Nicky Henderson who is strong in these kind of races and won this contest in 2008.
Babylone De Motte
I’ve got to stick the Alan King trio in given his superb record in this race as he will have been planning towards it for a good while and it will be sod’s law what happens next if I leave one out and go with the other two of his 4yos. I prefer MISS CRICK on jockey bookings who won over an extended 1m4f at Newbury but KATIE TOO also won at Newbury and ANGEL FACE was a good winner at Huntingdon, all on their only sgtart. Wayne Hutchinson rode all three to victory and is aboard Miss Crick which has to suggest he is their favoured option. Four-year-olds have won this race four times in the last ten years so it is no disadvantage. BABYLONE DES MOTTE looks best of the Irish having won a very good guide to this race at Sandown. WHISTLING DIXIE was well backed into favouritism for that Sandown race but unseated his rider early on. I fancied her that day so have to keep the faith and retain her in a shortlist especially with the yard in good form at this meeting.