Aintree 2016: Grand National Day Preview, Tips
Day Three, the final day, of Aintree's Grand National meeting has the big race itself towering like an Everest in the foothills. The Grand National may be the most compelling spectacle in British racing, but it sure ain't the easiest puzzle to solve. Mercifully, we have six slightly less impenetrable conundrums (conundra? no, probably not - see this deeply enjoyable geek spat on the subject) to work with, alongside the labour of love and vanity that is attempting to find the winning needle in the National haystack.
Enough with the preamble...
1.45 Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3) 3m 1/2f
22 runners compete across a smidge over three miles in this Grade 3 handicap hurdle. Filed under too difficult for the purposes of a win, or even an each way, bet, one I'll be including in the placepot is Rock The Kasbah.
Although he has stamina to prove, as a son of Shirocco out of an In The Wings mare, he'll enjoy any rain. Indeed, one doesn't need to be an equine genealogist to know that, because he's won four and been placed in the other two of his six soft ground races.
Second in the Tote Silver Trophy at the start of the season and winner of a big field handicap hurdle since, he has shown he can handle the pace and hurly burly of these 'crowd scene' races multiple times. A flop at the Festival may have been down to the ground, or the track, or both. It's just possible that the 'capper has caught him up, too. Possible, but I'd still have expected a front rank show the last day if that was the only issue.
Soft ground and three miles could reignite At Fishers Cross's flame over a track and trip where he recorded one of his two novice Grade 1 successes. Indeed, that Sefton Novices' Hurdle victory three years ago was his last win of any description, though he has since run second in the Grade 1 Aintree Hurdle, his only other visit to Liverpool.
That Grade 1 1-2 reads well in the context of a Grade 3 handicap where he actually gets weight from some of his rivals, a reflection of the disappointing nature of most of his more recent efforts. Trainer Rebecca Curtis is in very good recent form and she's booked Josh Moore to claim five pounds. AFC may have a going day here.
Another who could Roll back the years is Tiger Roll, 2014 Triumph Hurdle winner. He was very disappointing as a five year old, and was last seen hurdling when bringing up the rear in the four-runner Grade 1 Punchestown Champion Hurdle won by Faugheen last May. He had a prep on the all weather at Dundalk a couple of weeks ago - finishing second - and this handicap debut off 145 can see him competitive once more.
If that trio are exposed, one lad on the up and up is Squouateur, trained by Tiger Roll's handler, Gordon Elliott. More a shouting than a talking horse going into Cheltenham he ran well when seventh in the Martin Pipe despite not getting the cleanest of passages. He will again need luck in running if being held up, but is better than he showed at the Festival.
Another who will likely be played late is Tom Lacey's Pinnacle Panda, who has the highest speed rating in the field. He's young, unexposed, progressive and was too bad to be true last time out. Ignoring that run he looks interesting in a trappy race.
The favourite is If In Doubt, a good strapline for the day's racing, I suspect! He ran a gallant third in the Pertemps Final at Cheltenham, when desperately unlucky in running. That misfortune is factored into his price, however, and his run style does rather invite such bad luck. He can win, no question, but he's not a value play in a wide open looking race.
Handicap Hurdle Pick
As I've said, not an exciting race for me, due to its great depth, but a couple who could bounce back are 20/1 Rock The Kasbah and 14/1 Squouateur.
2.25 Mersey Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m4f
The first of three lop-sided races on the day, the Mersey Novices' Hurdle is Yorkhill's to lose. Unbeaten in five starts to date, including the Grade 1 Tolworth at Sandown and the Grade 1 Neptune at the Cheltenham Festival. He beat a horse called Yanworth there with daylight back to the rest on just his third start over hurdles, and third this season.
Coming here fresh then, without question marks about distance or ground or class, his official rating is almost a stone superior to the next best in the field.
The two options for the runner up spot might be Le Prezien and Flying Angel. The former, trained by Paul Nicholls, has only been beaten by two horses in five hurdle races. Those two were Yanworth and Its'afreebee, second and third behind Yorkhill in the Neptune!
The form of his Haydock Grade 2 second behind Its'afreebee has worked out very well, not just because of the winner's Neptune run but also that fact that the last two home there have won three times between them since, from five starts. Le Prezien is stepping up in trip and grade here, so has something to prove to claim second (or better).
Flying Angel brings rock solid handicap form to the party. Since finishing second and third in successive novice hurdles at this track, he's finished third in the Betfair Hurdle, won the Imperial Cup, and run second in the Martin Pipe. In so doing he's elevated a stone in the ratings to a current mark of 144.
That makes him joint-second top rated, though possibly with less upside potential than some of his rivals. The other on the same perch is James Evans' Prince Of Steal, a 50/1 shot. He's that price because his form has mainly been achieved in two facile wins at Fakenham. He is probably not as outclassed as his odds suggest, though I wouldn't be tempted to back him either. Ditto The Dutchman, who was only three lengths behind Le Prezien last time, is similarly progressive, and is 33/1.
Mersey Novices' Hurdle Pick
Vautour's Friday tumble demonstrated there's no such thing as a racing certainty; but Yorkhill looks close to one. 2/7 won't pay the mortgage but it'll add 28% to the price of anything else you like. It looks tricky for the forecast with no outstanding option, and I'm happy to watch a good horse hopefully win well.
3.00 Maghull Novices' Chase (Grade 1) 2m
Some will be disappointed at the presence of a 1/7 favourite in Douvan, but those people are not terribly interested in the sport of horseracing. They are bettors and nothing else. To be clear, I have absolutely no truck with that whatsoever, but I am a fan of the sport as much as punting on it.
Douvan is a machine. There has barely been a horse to go with him early, and there has not been a horse to go with him late, in his four chase races. He remains unbeaten in Britain and Ireland after eight runs, unbeaten in nine since a career debut second in the French provinces. He is ultimate 'bar a fall' material.
For those who might be interested to play a forecast or perhaps in the 'without' market (assuming there is one), Alisier d'Irlande is the obvious one, and Ballyboley is the longshot option.
Alisier is trained by the excellent Henry de Bromhead who appears finally to have given up trying to beat Douvan with Sizing John. This chap has achieved less than John but he is upwardly mobile after wins in his last three completed starts and both his completed chase starts.
That sentence confesses a spill on his chasing debut. He was well clear at the time and looked booked to claim the scalp of McKinley amongst others. Two easy wins since have been in ungraded company so this is a big step in class.
Ballyboley is the outsider of the party, but he has very good Aintree form in winning two of his three course starts. That one of them was the Grade 2 Champion Bumper two years ago signifies Nigel Twiston-Davies' Kayf Tara gelding could be capable of more than he has shown in recent evidence.
Granted, recent evidence has been disappointing: he took seven attempts to get off the mark in chase company, all ungraded races, and it is certainly possible that he's not the horse he was. But he does seem to be a 'spring horse', insofar as four of his six career wins have come in March (if we can include 28th Feb as March?!) or April, and he does have the fine record here.
Maghull Novices' Chase Pick
Probably just a race to watch and marvel at brilliance of Douvan. Or add him to anything else you fancy, along with Yorkhill above, for a 50% uplift on a successful return.
3.40 Liverpool Stayers' Hurdle (Grade 1) 3m 1/2f
Another procession on the face of it, this time for the Thistlecrack-er, a horse who introduced himself to us at this meeting last year. There he ran away with the Sefton Novices' Hurdle as a 25/1 chance. Here he's likely to be close to 1/4 after a season where he's duffed the living daylights out of every horse to have the temerity to challenge him.
A series of wide margin wins in soft-looking races had impressed the peepers but left a nagging reservation behind them that he could come unstuck against a genuine top-notcher. That reservation was dispelled in a tremendous race for the World Hurdle, where challenger after challenger was sent out of Cheltenham's famous amphitheatre on its shield, slain with disdain.
So how can we beat Colin Tizzard's brutus? Most likely we cannot, though there is a small chance he can beat himself. In crushing his rivals so emphatically three weeks ago, it is possible - remotely possible - that the warrior's sword has been blunted somewhat, that he may have left his best race there.
And, in this small field of largely cowering rivals, there lurks an upstart could just be different gravy to earlier pretenders. He goes by the name of, erm, Different Gravey, and he comes here on a four-timer. Commanding wins in a pair of novice hurdles, one of them Listed class, hinted at what DG was capable of but, after most of a year off the track, he exploded into the big time with a 16 length demolition of a field of progressive young handicappers chasing a valuable prize seven weeks ago.
The nature of the race - strong early gallop, very soft ground - may have exaggerated the winning margin, but the visual impression was again striking. He comes here a fresher horse than the favourite and looks a worthy second favourite, albeit at a deferential distance from the mighty 'cracker.
Gordon Elliott's team haven't been firing quite so well of late, which is probably down to a combination of fatigue for his equine team after a long season and the fact that a number of them may have found their handicap ceilings. Regardless, Prince Of Scars has had a fairly light campaign and not in handicap company, so his chance demands close attention.
Like Different Gravey, he rocks up here on a four-timer, but unlike that one his last win was in a Grade 1, and against the horse that got closest to Thistlecrack in the World Hurdle, Alpha Des Obeaux. The key to his chance may be in the weather forecast as his trio of triumphs were all recorded on very wet ground. After a drying day on Friday, it is supposed to rain before racing on Saturday. Most of a centimetre is expected: whether that is enough for the Prince, who knows? But he must be rated a serious threat to Thistlecrack and, on proven form, more so than the Gravey. 12/1 understates his case in my view, and he's value in the without and forecast markets, when they become available.
Shaneshill reverts to hurdles after a slightly disappointing season chasing. That tactic transformed Big Buck's into a long-term staying champion and could enhance Willie Mullins' lad too, but at around the same price as Prince Of Scars, he's too short for me, even allowing for him getting to within eight length of Thistlecrack at Punchestown last April.
The other pair are unlikely to count.
Liverpool Stayers' Hurdle Pick
Thistlecrack is unopposable, almost as much on sentimental grounds as form, but there are ways to play with/around him. If the forecast rain arrives, Prince Of Scars looks a legitimate alternative to Different Gravey for the second spot, and at twice the price. He can also be backed at 3/1 in the 'without' market.
4.20 Handicap Chase (Listed) 3m1f
Too tricky for me, really. The top one, Virak, has been ridden by Harry Cobden in his last four races. The first three culminated in second placed finishes before a disappointing effort at Kempton last time. If he can bounce back to his previous form he'll again go close.
Another perennial bridesmaid is Coologue, Charlie Longsdon's seven year old running up on his last three starts. The quicker pace and slightly softer ground could combine in his favour and, as an unexposed novice, there may be more to come.
Roc d'Apsis tends to have two ways of running but has been best foot forward in recent starts, following up a Kempton win with a third in the Betbright Handicap Chase at the same track last time. He's off the same mark here for his in-form trainer, Tom George (won the Melling Chase on Friday).
As always, bundles of others with chances. You pays yer money, you takes yer chance... which also applies to the final two races on a card of two halves.
Handicap Chase Pick
No strong view, but I might have a pound each way on 9/1 Coologue, who could improve for conditions.
5.15 Crabbie's Grand National Handicap Chase (Grade 3) 4m 2 1/2f
I have written about this race at great length in my Grand National 2016 preview, and there's little to add here. For those who value their time - it is rather, actually, very, long - the management summary, lest you didn't know, is that the race is impossible and you're lucky not good if you find the winner.
I hope to be lucky with Goonyella or Gallant Oscar or Shutthefrontdoor, or possibly a couple of enormous-priced rags.
But if you've got twenty minutes and want to know why I hold the view I do - assuming you don't already share it - here's that Grand National preview link again. Treat yourself! 😉
6.10 Conditional Riders' Handicap Hurdle (Class 2) 2m 1/2f
If you need the winner of this race to get level on the meeting, keep in mind that a) the Wolverhampton evening card kicks off at 6.20pm, and b) there are four meetings on Sunday. In other words, nobody needs to get out of jail on this pin job affair.
There is a bundle of early pace in here, with all of Master Jake, Chieftain's Choice, Bigmartre, and Boite liking to get on with things. They obviously can't all lead, but it should set things up for a later runner. Adrian McGuinness has an interesting player in that context, a chap whose last ten runs have been on the level, and whose last seven have been on the level on the all weather!
Mr Boss Man (33/1) has jumped a ferry en route to Wolverhampton three times, winning twice in an improvement of twelve pounds in that sphere. A winner of a big field maiden hurdle at Ballinrobe last May this will be his handicap hurdle debut off a mark of 124. If he can transfer his flat progression to hurdles he could be the best part of a stone 'well in'. That's a big if, of course, but with other factors in his favour he is as worth a dart as anything in a guessers' race.
Have 50p e/w then retire to the bar / your tea / a book / Geegeez Gold ahead of the 6.20 Wolverhampton.