For the three days of Aintree's Grand National Festival, Rory Delargy offers his thoughts on the big races, starting with Day One on Thursday...
1:45 MANIFESTO NOVICES' CHASE (Grade 1, 2m 3f 200y)
He's not a big price, but Top Notch looks the clear pick in the Manifesto. He's probably not been given the credit he deserves for a tremendous second to Yorkhill in last month's JLT at Cheltenham, where a rare mistake at the second last cost him much more ground than he was beaten. It's perfectly possible that the quirky winner would have found more for a challenge, but that effort by the Simon Munir-owned gelding is top notch (pardon the pun) form for a novice, and he has nothing whatsoever to fear from Flying Angel, who was a distance in arrears.
Like Top Notch, Cloudy Dream was second to a huge talent at Cheltenham, but he never really challenged Altior in the Arkle, and that performance is inferior to the selection's in terms of absolute form as well as the evidence of the clock. He'll need to improve for the step up in trip to beat an on-song Top Notch, and that is not something he's certain to do judging by his runs over fences to date.
Frodon has been superbly placed to pick up excellent prize money this season, and is a credit to his trainer, but this looks much his stiffest task. He's proven over the trip and on the ground, however, and this sound jumper might be the one for forecast bets.
2:20 ANNIVERSARY JUVENILE HURDLE (Grade 1, 2m 209y)
Divin Bere has a 5lb swing for a narrow defeat at the hands of Flying Tiger in the Fred Winter, and has the greater scope for further progress, so ought to gain his revenge, but both have their work cut out to live with Triumph Hurdle winner, Defi du Seuil, who looked a performer out of the top drawer with the style of his Cheltenham success. His presence in this contest does make for a tempting each-way book, however, and while Divin Bere is the obvious one to chase the favourite home, the most attractive option could be chancing Landin at a massive 66/1 with Bet365, who offer ¼ odds a place in this. Seamus Mullins' charge was a creditable eighth in the Triumph, and doesn't have a massive amount to find with those who fought out the Fred Winter. He's undoubtedly the fifth most likely winner of the race on paper, but his chance of sneaking into the frame is considerably better than the 16/1+ you are getting with the fixed-odds firm. That comment also applies to Forth Bridge, but the 20/1 with Bet365 is sure to come under pressure early doors.
2:50 BETWAY BOWL CHASE (Grade 1, 3m 210y)
There is no bigger fan of Cue Card than me, but it's become increasingly obvious that he's a more potent force on soft ground these days, and he looked in some trouble when falling in the Gold Cup last month. I'd love to see him bounce back - he was impressive in this a year ago - but he looks desperately vulnerable this time round, and Empire of Dirt really ought to be favourite, accepting the fact that his own Cheltenham performance was flawed. Prior to that fourth in the Ryanair he'd chased home Sizing John at Leopardstown, and he clearly stays three miles on that evidence. He needs to warm to his task rather more quickly than he did at Cheltenham, but there is no Un de Sceaux to take him out of his comfort zone here, and he ought to be good enough to beat a solid, but unspectacular field.
3:25 AINTREE HURDLE (Grade 1, 2m4f)
Buveur D'Air should get the job done in a field impoverished by the defection of Apples Jade, but there are a couple of factors to bear in mind with him. First, the going at Aintree is probably riding quicker than it did for his win in the Champion Hurdle; and second, he's always been considered a two miler through and through by his trainer, for all he was originally being aimed at the JLT as a chasing option. Neither of those factors set off huge alarm bells on their own, but taken together they make backing Buveur D'Air at short odds a less than appealing option.
4:05 FOX HUNTERS' CHASE (Class 2, 2m5f19y)
Balnaslow may have finished behind Pacha du Polder and On The Fringe in the Cheltenham Foxhunter, but he was rather unlucky to have lost out on a place having blundered at the last, and having also lost a shoe. I was left with the feeling that he would have gone very close at this sort of trip. He's been meeting the likes of Home Farm, Foxrock and On His Own in points and hunter chases, and has a solidity of form that is missing from many of the runners in this race. He's far from certain to reverse placings with those who beat him last month, but looks a compelling each-way option given his prominent style of racing, so important over this course and distance.
4:40 RED RUM HCAP CHASE (Grade 3, 1m 7f 176 yds)
Plenty to consider in a competitive Red Rum, but the pick at early prices is Gino Trail, who may have a reputation as a mud-lover, but has won two from three on good ground (including a point) and was second on the other occasion. He has some excellent form in novice chases this season, notably when failing by just over two lengths to concede 6lb to Buveur D'Air at Warwick in December. Given his sound jumping and consistent record, it beggars belief that he's as big as 16/1 for this, and that's a price that needs taking.
2:20 Landin e/w 66/1 (1/4 1-2-3 bet365)
2.50 Empire of Dirt 5/2 general
4.05 Balnaslow e/w 11/1 betfair sports, 10/1 (1/4 1-2-3-4 bet365)
4.40 Gino Trail e/w 16/1 bet365