The first matter of note for this year’s Grand National Festival is that it seems that we will have decent ground, neither to fast nor too slow. As at 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday the going was good to soft on the Grand National course and good to soft, good in places on the Mildmay and hurdle courses.
*UPDATE After further rain this afternoon the ground is now good to soft, soft in places (National course) and good to soft (Mildmay and hurdles courses).
I confess that I haven’t spent much time following the build up to this year’s National Festival so I’ll confine myself to fairly brief comments and selections.
I know I say it every year but the first day of the meeting is a treat for true racing fans. The first four races are all Grade 1s (which you don’t get at the Cheltenham Festival) and they’re followed by the Foxhunters’ Chase with amateur riders taking on the unique Grand National fences.
13:45 Manifesto Novices’ Chase (Grade 1) 2m 3f 200y – £100,000
Although we only have six runners, this is an intriguing race to set the ball rolling.
La Bague Au Roi (7/4)
Not seen at Cheltenham and chasing a five-timer following an impressive win at the Dublin Racing Festival, she is a serious candidate, who is top-rated and benefits from the 7lbs mares’ allowance.
Bags Groove (8/1 > 9/1)
This is another one that swerved Cheltenham. He didn’t beat much in the Pendil Novices’ Chase and was well beaten (5th of 7) behind La Bague Au Roi in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase. I’m looking beyond this one to find the winner.
Glen Forsa** (7/2 > 4/1) – selection
This was my selection for the Arkle but he unseated his rider at the 4th. I’m willing to give him another chance. He’s progressive and the Timeform highest rated behind La Bague Au Roi (5 lbs difference and both have “small ps” (i.e. progressive)). I also think that the course will suit.
Kalashnikov (4/1 > 9/2)
Unseated at the 6th in the Arkle, having been routed by Glen Forsa on his previous outing. Unconvincing this season and best watched.
Mengli Khan (15/2 > 8/1)
Has been a serial underachiever this season and has simply not progressed as expected.
Spiritofthegames (8/1 > 9/1)
Is a fair enough horse but is likely to find two or three too good for him at this level.
14:20 Anniversary 4-y-o Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m 209y – £100,000
Realistically, unless they’re not fully recovered from their Cheltenham excursions, this is between the three market leaders.
Pentland Hills (13/8 > 5/2)
Largely unheralded (20/1) winner of the Triumph Hurdle, benefiting from a particularly good ride, he is unbeaten over hurdles but his only other jumps race was a maiden hurdle at Plumpton. I think that the price is too short.
Fakir D’oudairies (6/1 > 4/1)
Went off 9/2jf in the Supreme and there was a lot to like about his 4th, particularly the way he was staying on. I think that the price is fair and it is conceivable that there is more progression in him. A big race victory would be welcome for the connections (O’Brien/McManus) who tragically lost Sir Erec in the Triumph.
Band Of Outlaws*** (15/8 > 7/4) – selectionEmbed from Getty Images
This one is also trained by Joseph O’Brien and brings winning form from the Festival (Fred Winter 7/2f). He’s also chasing a four-timer. I think that the current 15/8 is excellent value.
Outside these three we are currently 10/1 bar, with a couple at 25/1 and the outsider at 33/1. In my view they are a long way behind the leading contenders and should be completely disregarded.
14:50 Betway Bowl Chase (Grade 1) 3m 210y – £200,000
On the face of it, this is a really classy race, comprising four participants in this year’s Gold Cup and two from the Ryanair. However, that is precisely the reason for exercising considerable caution. The gap between Cheltenham and Aintree is shorter than usual (20 days for the Gold Cup participants) and I don’t think that anyone would dispute that the Gold Cup is a tough race which often leaves its mark. Of the Ryanair runners, Road To Respect is way too short at 11/2 and Balko Des Flos is not a top order horse, as reflected by his current 33/1. So let’s take a look at the Gold Cup runners.
Clan Des Obeaux (9/4 > 5/2)
By common consent (including Paul Nicholls) he didn’t stay the 3m 2 1/2f of the Gold Cup and this 3m 200y on a flat galloping track looks ideal. A young horse (7-y-o although all these are 7 or 8) I don’t think that he was pushed too hard when clearly beaten and might therefore have the recuperative powers to bounce back.
Kemboy* (11/4 > 5/2) – tentative selectionEmbed from Getty Images
I warned about this one’s suspect jumping before the Gold Cup and, sure enough, he unseated at the first. However, that means that he wasn’t subjected to the energy sapping challenge of the race and comes here fresh. The Mildmay fences are fairly stiff but they are very fair and hopefully this small field will help him to keep out of trouble. A very tentative selection.
Bristol De Mai (3/1 > 7/2)
Perhaps he can smell the Haydock air from here?! Beaten by Might Bite in this race last year (Clan Des Obeaux third), critically he didn’t run at the Festival and was on the back of a three months’ break when putting up a good performance. This time round he was hard ridden to secure an impressive third in the Gold Cup. He’s well known for running well fresh after a decent break so I can see the small gap of 20 days affecting him more than the others. For that reason I am bound, very reluctantly, to oppose him. Equally I would be surprised and delighted to see him bounding ahead and winning by 10 lengths but on this occasion it’s head over heart.
Elegant Escape (20/1 > 22/1)
This horse’s form is a great deal better than the price might suggest. He opened his account this season by winning an intermediate chase and followed up with a mightily impressive second in the Ladbroke (Hennessy) at Newbury. His next outing was in the Welsh Grand National which he won and was then a valiant second to subsequent Ryanair winner Frodon in the Cotswold Chase. His sixth in the Gold Cup looked like about the best he was ever likely to manage but was nonetheless creditable. Overall he’s had a hard season and I’m far from convinced that course and distance will suit. It’s very likely that he’ll find one or two who are, quite simply, faster than him in a race of this nature.
15:25 Aintree Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m 4f – £250,000
This is the most valuable race of the day, with over £140,000 going to the winner. While the same caveat applies (that Cheltenham exertions may have taken their toll), I’ve decided that, based on the prices, this is the one in which we should take the betting plunge.
Buveur D’air***** (10/11 > 5/6) – napEmbed from Getty Images
Last seen when unexpectedly falling at the third in the Champion Hurdle. Nicky Henderson didn’t seem too concerned, pointing out that he is very low and fast over his hurdles, so there is a small margin between brilliance and disaster. As a result, like Kemboy in the Bowl, he can benefit from coming to this race fresh with the Cheltenham outing unlikely to have made a difference. He won this race in 2017 so the distance should not be a problem. While beaten in the Christmas Hurdle, I think that he has everything in his favour in this race and, as such, the slight odds on currently on offer is an outstanding double your money opportunity.
Was a fine, fine horse in his day but has not recaptured the same level of form following a long injury break. Aged 11 and now over a shorter trip than is probably ideal, the best to hope for is a place.
Melon (8/1 > 9/1)
Second but beaten by 15 lengths in the Champion Hurdle (at 20/1) I can’t see him beating Buveur D’air after an uninspiring season.
Supasundae (9/1 > 11/1)
A fine stayer but was beaten in this race last year by L’ami Serge and has not won this season (7th in the Stayers’ Hurdle). A decent place option.
16:05 Foxhunters’ Chase (National) 2m 5f – £45,000
This is the big opportunity for the amateur riders to take their chance over the National fences. As such it can be a bit of a lottery. However, it’s worth noting that the last five winners have been returned at 11/2, 16/1, 15/8f, 5/2f and 7/2.
I was a big supporter of Road to Rome*** (4/1 > 7/2) who was chasing an eighth consecutive win in the Cheltenham Foxhunters’, ridden by Sam Waley-Cohen and came fourth. I think that the distance (3m 2 1/2f) did for him and his excellent jumping should see him to the fore in his first outing over the National fences over a distance which should suit much better.
Burning Ambition (11/2) is a progressive 8-y-o. He was eighth of 24 in this race last year. Only 3rd in a P2P at Bellharbour in February, he’s not for me.
Of the others, Kruzhlinin (11/1) is a 12-y-o and has moved from Philip Hobbs to Gordon Elliott for a hunting campaign, but has jumping issues. I don’t have any outsider options but advise against any of the other 12-y-os and definitely the three 13-y-os.
16:40 Red Rum Handicap Chase (Grade 3) 1m 7f 200y – £90,000
This is a very competitive Grade 3 handicap with all sorts of angles. Favourites have fared poorly with none winning for the last five years (which include winners at 16/1 and 33/1). You really have to just go with your instinct and, having done so, my three against the field are, in order of preference, Diego Du Charmil** (12/1 > 9/1), a winner of the Grade 1 Maghull Novices’ Chase at this meeting last season, Lady Buttons (9/1 > 8/1), a Grade 2 winner and fourth in the Mares’ Hurdle at the Festival, and Brelan D’as (15/2 > 8/1), a progressive 8-y-o,
17:15 Mares’ Bumper (Grade 2) 2m 200y – £45,000
I was reluctant to make a selection for this one and confess that I know very little about these horses. However, for the sake of going through the card I’m with what a think is a bit of value with Miss Heritage* (7/1 > 10/1), who was a wide margin winner last time out, albeit in a very moderate race at Catterick. The Glancing Queen (11/2), fifth in the Cheltenham Champion Bumper, has the best form and is respected.