Aintree 2016: Day Two Preview, Tips
The middle day of three and, incredibly, another four Grade 1's to match the opening day. This time, three-quarters of that quartet are novice heats, though the Melling Chase taking centre stage. But we start with a big field handicap hurdle...
1.40 Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3) 2m4f
Big field handicap hurdles are not a forte of mine, so a quick skim through this is all that is warranted. This is a different test for Ma Du Fou from the small field novice hurdles that he's been contesting, but trainer Warren Greatrex thinks plenty of him. He comes here looking for a four-timer on this handicap debut with conditions in his favour. He could step forward again and will be hard to beat if he does.
Starchitect never seems to run a bad race, but he is nudging up the handicap as a consequence of that consistency. Off the same mark as at Cheltenham and on a track which might suit better, he's representing David Pipe whose team are in fine form.
Dan Skelton's Virgilio has won twice here and could bounce back after flopping in the mud upped in grade last time. And there are twenty-odd others with chances!
I might have a tiny bit each way on 11/1 Starchitect but mostly I'll be going a dozen deep on the placepot.
2.15 Top Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m 1/2f
A short priced favourite in this Grade 1 novices' hurdle, as Limini looks to do to the boys what she did to the girls at Cheltenham. She barely had a race there, having put things beyond her rivals with a smart turn of foot. That flat speed - she's talked of as a potential Group horse on the level by connections - will be even more useful around Aintree, but she can expect a sterner test than three weeks ago.
For a start, the Supreme third, Buveur d'Air, bids to impose the primacy of that race over the upstart Mares' Novices' Hurdle. Nicky Henderson's lad finished fourth in the bumper at this meeting last year, but has clearly improved since. He went into the Supreme on a hat-trick and may have been given too much to do from his rear position, without necessarily being able to threaten Altior up the hill.
There looks to be a fair bit of pace in the race, which should help Buveur d'Air; and I think it may also play to the strengths of Bleu Et Rouge. A hugely impressive winner of the Deloitte Novices' Hurdle, Grade 1, prior to a tumble at Cheltenham, this looks right up his street if he's over the effects of that spill. Softer ground than at the Festival will be no problem, and he has plenty of speed for this two mile gig.
Agrapart is expected to lock horns with Marracudja on the front end, a tactic which should it play out will compromise the chance of both. In any case, the former looked to have the run of it when scoring in the Betfair Hurdle and will find this tougher, though he did win a novice hurdle over course and distance by clear daylight.
Top Novices' Hurdle Pick
I quite like Bleu Et Rouge: the fact he came down last time means he didn't have too hard a race and, while he might marginally prefer two and a half miles to this extended two, I expect he'll have the requisite toe for the task. 14/1 each way looks worth a go.
Bleu Et Rouge e/w 14/1
2.50 Mildmay Novices' Chase (Grade 1) 3m 1f
A real confluence of the Cheltenham Festival form lines, with RSA Chase winner, Blaklion, taken on by Novices' Handicap Chase winner, Ballyalton, Festival Handicap Chase winner, Un Temps Pour Tout, and National Hunt Chase third, Native River.
The pick of that form is most likely Blaklion's RSA Chase win, which was impressive on the back of a hard campaign. It's always tricky to know when a horse has had enough - this fellow will be having his seventh race of the season - but, having missed the wedding I'm loathe to go to the funeral, figuratively, natch.
More appealing, to me at least, is Un Temps Pour Tout, a blotty plot for the first handicap of the Cheltenham Festival, where he dotted up - a dotty blotty plot - by seven lengths with ten back to the third. Winner of a Grade 1 hurdle in the summer, by ten lengths, soft ground and three miles is spot on.
Colin Tizzard, whose combined purchase cost for Cue Card and Thistlecrack amounted to €95,000 (£76,500), is just an incredible trainer. But even he has his work cut out to coax Native River's ability from the beast. The one thing in connections' favour is that the horse does have ability, and oodles of it, as he's shown on several occasions this season. But a nag that gets outpaced in the four miler over Cheltenham's ups and downs is surely going to struggle at three miles round pan-flat Aintree, no?
And what of Ballyalton? Absent for a year after chasing home a certain Faugheen in the 2014 Neptune, he was then shrewdly campaigned to receive an opening chase mark of 140. That put him on top weight in the novices' handicap chase, and he duly obliged. How high can he fly? This will tell us more but, on ratings at least, he needs to find ten pounds with Un Temps Pour Tout to match that one's level of form in the book. That's enough for me to dismiss his win prospects.
I'm struggling to make a case for the rest unless a number of more obvious runners under-perform dramatically.
Mildmay Novices' Chase Pick
Un Temps Pour Tout 5/2
3.25 Melling Chase (Grade 1) 2m4f
A small field of six for the Grade 1 Melling Chase, a race which looks set to be a(nother) coronation procession for the superb Vautour. Winner of the JLT and Ryanair Chases - the two and a half mile contests at Cheltenham for novices and open company respectively - this is clearly his trip. The ground is perfect and you can essentially get 2/7 that he jumps the fences.
To qualify that somewhat, he is officially rated a stone superior to the next best of his rivals, Al Ferof and God's Own, in a race where they - indeed all - are asked to carry the same weight as the favourite. It's almost not fair. In a dozen races, Vautour has never fallen, and has won ten and been second the other twice. One of those silvers was when chinned on the line by Cue Card, easy winner of the Aintree Bowl on day one, over three miles at Kempton in a race where he looked not to last home.
The other, interestingly perhaps, was when running a lacklustre race behind one of today's rivals, Clarcam. I say "interestingly" even though Clarcam is 66/1 for this, because that horse actually did win the equivalent Grade 1 novice chase at this meeting last year. He's run three successive poor races, all on heavy ground (the only three times in a 21 race career he's encountered heavy), and could conceivably bounce back to form on less sodden turf and at a track he clearly enjoys.
His 'not heavy' rating was 159, a figure that gives him just three pounds to find with the best of the rest, and he's of genuine interest in the 'without the favourite' market at anything bigger than 7/1.
To revert to those higher up the lists, Al Ferof has run all of his best races fresh. He is not fresh here. He's also run two very moderate races in this race previously, including last year and when 6/5 favourite in 2013.
God's Own will appreciate the quicker ground, and does have the look of a two and a half miler. In that context, he's value against Alfie, at more than double the price. He ran a good race to be fourth, beaten just over eight lengths in the Champion Chase, form which is roughly on a par with what Al Ferof achieved when filling the same position, beaten the virtually the same distance in the Ryanair.
Vibrato Valtat was behind Clarcam when they met here last year, and may be a little better in the early part of the season. FInally, regular readers will know of my affection for Somersby but, at twelve, he's looked on the wane recently and is unlikely to be able to make the frame here.
Melling Chase Pick
Vautour is 'bar a fall' material. So why not have a crack at Clarcam, one of only two horses to beat Vautour (the other being Cue Card), in the 'without the favourite' market or even each way?
Clarcam e/w 66/1, or without the favourite (no prices at time of writing)
4.05 Topham Handicap Chase (Grade 3) 2m5f
Thirty runners in an extended two and a half mile handicap over the National fences. Crumbs, as Penfold might have blurted in the direction of Dangermouse back in the day.
As ever, to save my digits and your time, I'll cut to the chase. National cut-misser, Bishops Road (16/1), may be better suited to this test than the four and a quarter miles of Saturday's race. He likes soft ground, comes here in great form and jumps very well as a rule. Highly rated - and weighted - horses, the class horses, have a very good place record in the Topham.
Like Bishops Road, Village Vic (11/1) will race close to or on the pace, and will find this track much easier upon which to dominate a big field. Easier, but not easy. The combination of trip and ground are optimal, so he is my other wild stab against the pack.
4.40 Sefton Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1) 3m 1/2f
The race in which an unheralded 25/1, Thistlecrack, announced his arrival on the big stage last season, this three mile Grade 1 novices' hurdle has a mixed heritage which includes some very good staying chasers, such as Chief Dan George and last year's Grand National second, Saint Are. Cole Harden, 2015 World Hurdle winner, ran second in this race in 2014, too, so look out for possible World Hurdle contenders for next season.
One point worth making about recent winners is that five of the last nine were priced at 16/1 or bigger (16/1, 20/1, 25/1 twice and 33/1), a group that includes the Thistlecracker as well as Saint Are.
At the head of the market is Cheltenham-dodger, Ballydine. Charlie Longsdon's Stowaway six year old had his two race winning streak checked by less than a length by the dogged Barters Hill last time, form which is ostensibly strong. He's been elevated a stone by the official handicapper for that effort to a mark of 145, which is close to the top of the order on that scale.
However, nine lengths back in third that day was the re-opposing Ami Desbois, rated 130, and that does raise some questions about the reliability of the run. His prior Newcastle win has worked out well, but I would imagine at least one in opposition will finish in front of Ballydine.
Handicap form in the general run of novice events can be marked up, so Baoulet Delaroque's wins in back-to-back handicap hurdles prior to a close up fifth in the Coral Cup at the Festival looks very solid. He's stepping up half a mile here, which might be within his compass as a usually strong-travelling sort.
Ruby doesn't often get on the wrong Mullins horse, so the fact he's opted for Bellshill ahead of Gangster and Balko Des Flos is probably a sign of their respective merits. Walsh's mount was readily outpointed over two and a quarter miles prior to a flop in the Supreme at the minimum. This step up to three miles looks worth a try and it was a similar approach with Thistlecrack last season that unleashed his potential.
Certainly Bellshill's best form to date has been over two and a half miles, the furthest he's raced, and it includes a Grade 1 win on heavy. Soft turf will be no problem, and it is worth keeping in mind he flopped at Cheltenham in the Champion Bumper last term before running second in the equivalent race here and then winning the Punchestown Champion Bumper. I expect him to step forward, and I think he's value at 11/1.
Who knows what to make of the likes of Mystical Knight, Tomngerry, and Ballyoptic? All three have put winning sequences together, all three are unexposed, but all three have to move forward a fair way on what's in the book. The key is that it is possible for any of the three to do that. The pick of the trio might be Ballyoptic, who recorded a very good speed rating in his last race and is saddled by a trainer, Nigel Twiston-Davies, in top recent form.
At a bigger price is Yala Enki, who was pulled up in the Neptune at the Festival. Having run up his own sequence on soft and heavy ground, including in a Listed handicap hurdle, there was always a question mark over his ability to replicate that level on the quick turf at Cheltenham. He didn't, and a line is readily drawn through the run.
All of a sudden we have a horse with credentials. He didn't quite get up the hill when attempting to make all at Sandown on very soft at around this trip, but was a winner before and since. There is plenty of pace on here, which means he may not get his own way in front. But, if he can win the battle for the lead, he'll take some passing. 20/1 is mildly arousing.
It's a very tough race in which to find a winner. I expect Bellshill and Yala Enki to bounce back and run decent races, but perhaps Ballyoptic is the one with the most untapped upside, albeit that he's starting from further back on the proven ability continuum. He makes fair each way appeal at 12/1.
So too does Bellshill, who is forgiven a poor run at Cheltenham, and is nibbled win and place at 11/1. Of those at prices, Yala Enki may bounce back too.
5.15 Champion National Hunt Flat Race (Grade 2) 2m1f
A good race for last day winners and Cheltenham Champion Bumper also rans. The top three from the Festival race all reconnect here, and it's 9/1 bar that trio. Good news for pot hunters, then.
Harry Fry's new acquisition, Any Drama, was a fine winner at Thurles last time. His trainer likes him a lot but has said that he'll know more after this run (no kidding!). The form of his third to Lucky Pass at Fairyhouse the time before has been well advertised by the winner, second and fourth all winning since, and the fifth and seventh placing on their sole subsequent starts. He's attractively priced for small money at 20/1.
Pride Of Lecale is probably better than he showed when down the field in the Champion Bumper, having arrived there on a hat-trick. The combination of softer ground and a flatter track should see him go better than he did there, even though he was only beaten seven lengths in 13th.
Finally, it is worth noting the incredible record of six-year-olds in the race. In the 18 renewals to date, a third have been won by that age group from just 18% of the runners. They've also claimed 26% of the places from the same 18% of runners. 6yo winners included 20/1 Killyglass, 33/1 Quadco, 33/1 Diamond Sal and 66/1 Sitting Tennant.
So, 66/1 King Uther, as the only six year old in the field, might just be worth a second glance. He won by 23 lengths last time out, from a horse who won next time out. He may be completely outclassed, but his age group's record suggests 66/1 is chunky.
Champion NHF Race Pick
It's a guessers' race, with so many likely to step forward on what they've achieved so far, or back to what they did prior to disappointing at Cheltenham. The 1-2-3 from that race make the market here, and there's no denying they could fill the podium again. But the fact that Pride Of Lecale was only seven lengths back in 13th suggests there was no superstar in the field (excepting the gallant winner, Ballyandy, perhaps).
So let's have a poke at King Uther at 66/1 and a prod at Any Drama too, each way both, and just for kicks.
Good luck with your Aintree Day Two wagers!
p.s. Are you ready for the Grand National? Read this mega-post for everything you need to know about the Aintree spectacular. I guarantee it's the most comprehensive you will have seen. (If it's not, let me know - I'm always keen to read well drafted mega-posts!)