Racing's National Hunt roadshow heads Northwest for three days of high class racing and, of course, the biggest jewel in any of any equine sporting crown, the Grand National itself. Whilst we'll have to wait for Saturday for that great race, there is much to entertain between now and then, and many a fine (and awful!) punting opportunity.
First, let's talk about a few good ways to stand a winning chance at Aintree. Here are my three top tips for coming out in front here:
1. Avoid the handicaps! Only nine of the 69 handicaps run in recent seasons during the Aintree April meeting have been won by a horse priced 6/1 or shorter. It's very, very hard to find handicap winners.
2. Don't expect Cheltenham form to stand up necessarily. 65 of the 83 Cheltenham winners who came to Aintree were beaten, with just eleven horses priced at evens or greater winning from the 73 who attempted the follow up.
3. Beware the 'over the top' horse. This is by far the hardest to quantify, but it seems best to focus on runners with between two and four runs since the turn of the year. These animals, when priced at 40/1 or shorter, hit the frame more than 27%. Bizarrely, concentrating on those who haven't won in that time turns a profit of 127 point! This is likely down to the 'under the radar' nature of them. In any case, look to relatively lightly seasoned campaigners.
OK, that's my top tips for playing Aintree. Now let's look at Thursday's races, and it's a game of (roughly) two halves, with the first four races being non-handicaps, and the last three races featuring two of those pesky weight-related affairs.
We kick off at 2pm, with...
2.00 Aintree - BGC PARTNERS LIVERPOOL HURDLE GRADE 1
A stayers' hurdle, and so clearly the province of Mr Big Buck's himself. He's 1/5 to win this afternoon and, whilst I couldn't possible suggest betting against him in the win pool, there are reasons to look elsewhere.
Principal amongst these is the fact that, as I write, the race is a 'dead eight' affair, meaning three each way places, and some bookmakers are going a quarter the odds a place. Moreover, one bookmaker - bet365 - is also best place price on anything you like outside of the front two in the betting!
Let's just deal with Big Buck's first. He's won sixteen straight over hurdles and is going for a record today. He was probably more impressive than he's ever been last time out, when Voler La Vedette threatened to beat him before BB showed scrapping ability for the first time (i.e. the first time he's had to over hurdles in Britain).
That was a hard race, and it may have made his mark. But this is a weaker contest by far. The waxing Smad Place and the waning Tidal Bay are next in officially, fully a stone behind the champ. Smad Place finished a creditable third at Cheltenham behind BB, without ever threatening to take the champ on.
He definitely had an easier race than King BB, and his previous flat track form gives him strong place prospects. He's more likely to stay this less daunting three miles than he was last time and is clearly the most obvious 'danger'.
For pin money, if you want to play each way here, there's a 66/1 chance who might just step up a gear or two on what he's done in recent times this afternoon. Say hello to our old friend, Crack Away Jack.
Form figures of 50P this season are hardly encouraging, but let's look more closely at how they were accumulated. The initial fifth place was in a blundering, bungling round of jumping at Cheltenham last November at the Open meeting; the 0 was when never put into the race in an Ascot handicap hurdle; and the P was when bungling and blundering his way around the Byrne Group Plate course as a 13/2 chance!
He's since switched stables - from Paul Nicholls to Tom George - and the latter is having a 'season mirabilis', so it could be hoped that improvement for the change of scenery will follow.
Crack Away Jack was fourth in the 2009 Champion Hurdle, so has plenty of speed and class, assets which are ideal for this race. The ground will be fine and, if you can buy a small bar of the 'back class' notion, then you'll be happy enough to attempt a 66/4 (or 16/1) place burglary for small beer here.
Selection: Big Buck's 2/9
Next best: Smad Place 6/1
Interesting outsider: Crack Away Jack 66/1
2.30 Aintree - MATALAN ANNIVERSARY 4-Y-O JUVENILE HURDLE GRADE 1
It's time for the babies to take centre stage, and the Liverpool Triumph Hurdle, aka the Anniversary Juvenile Hurdle. A very good race won by some very good horses in recent times - Detroit City, Katchit, Binocular, Walkon, and Zarakandar - it has also been won by some bombs.
Indeed, it's a bit of a chalk and cheese race for punters, with six winning favourites four 16/1+ winners. There were winners at 40/1 and 33/1 in that quartet.
Looking at the form, and the highest rated horse is Countrywide Flame, who did many geegeez readers a favour when winning at Cheltenham. He's the highest rated because he's performed to the highest level, and he should - in my opinion - be favourite.
Countrywide Flame is versatile as regards ground, having won on soft and good; he was third in a Leopardstown Grade 1 as well as winning the Grade 1 Triumph; and, despite having had fourteen races since this time last year (the first of which was a Class 6 Wolverhampton handicap!), he's only had two runs in 2012, so comes here relatively fresh, but also with bags of experience.
His Cheltenham form was not a fluke and he'll be tough to beat.
Of the vanquished that day, perhaps the most realistic table-turners are the third- and fourth-placed horses, Grumeti and Dodging Bullets. I'd been a bit unkind to Grumeti prior to Cheltenham, largely because he hadn't really achieved a lot in his prior starts.
Well, considering he clouted the last in the Triumph, he did well to get a place, and he is clearly almost as good as connections think he is. That might be good enough this afternoon, and he's hard to ignore from a placepot perspective at least.
Dodging Bullets is much less exposed, and both his two runs to date have been in good class. First, he was beaten a length and a half by Grumeti in the Grade 2 Dovecote Hurdle, which at the time looked to lack depth. Then he was fourth in the Grade 1 Triumph, getting to within half a length of Grumeti.
It's reasonable then to argue that improvement might take Dodging Bullets past Grumeti, and that would give him a strong winning chance. While that's certainly possible, I'm happier to side with the two who finished in front of him at Cheltenham.
Of the rags, Gottany O's has been very well supported this morning. His Newbury defeat of Lyvius was impressive, but then he curled up behind Guess Again at Hexham when sent off 1/3. It's hard to know what to make of Gottany O's, but he obviously has ability when he wants to show it, and 25/1 with Stan James is still available.
One who might be getting the hang of this hurdling thing and is 66/1 in a couple of places, is Eagle Rock. He's been second three times, including behind Countrywide Flame; won last time out; goes on any ground; and, is trained by the excellent Tom Tate. He probably won't be good enough to make the frame, but at those odds, perhaps it's a small beer chance worth taking...
Selection: Countrywide Flame 5/1
Next best: Grumeti 7/2
Interesting outsider: Eagle Rock 66/1
3.05 Aintree - BETFRED BOWL CHASE GRADE 1
Ah, the totesport... sorry, I mean, Betfred... Bowl. An excellent Grade 1, worthy of its stature. And this season, it has much interest indeed. No horse bigger than 14/1 has won in recent years, which means it's something of a punter-friendly race to boot.
This year, there are six horses from the eleven entries that align to that criterion, and I'd be wagering at pretty short odds that one of them prevails. But which?
The jolly is Riverside Theatre, yet another Cheltenham Festival winner bidding to follow up. But we already know that most of them don't, especially when odds against, and I'm against this chap. He had his headlines when his famous owner - and now almost as famous stable lad - copped for plenty on Festival Thursday in the Ryanair.
Of course it's possible he'll win, but his fencing was a bit sticky early last time, and I'm not sure how many races he'll take close together. In fact, this is the first time he's had three races in a little over two months since 2009. Then, he won the first but was beaten on both subsequent starts. He might be older and stronger now, but at the price, I'm going elsewhere.
Burton Port is next in for the same trainer, and he ran another cracker to confirm form with Long Run in the Gold Cup. He won around here at this meeting in 2010, and comes here with a decent chance if that last run hasn't bashed him up too much. I respect his chance without seeing him as the winner.
Next in is the incredible Hunt Ball, a horse that - literally - just keeps winning. The demolition job he performed off top weight in the novices' handicap chase at Cheltenham was brutal. And, whilst the phrase 'novices handicap chase' is hardly the ideal prep for 'Grade 1 Festival Chase', there's no denying the most vertical of upward profiles merits a shot at the big time.
I'd love to see him win, and I can envisage it. He actually won under twelve stone last time with his ears pricked! That has earned him a rating of 154, fully sixteen pounds below Riverside Theatre, and only the eighth best of eleven here. But. But... But! He's worthy of 154++, as that last run implied there was still a fair bit more to come.
How much more is the question. He went up twelve pounds for the Festival win, and he needs to improve around another stone to win here. Given that he started the season rated 69 (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!), it's been a phenomenal rattle already, and I won't be backing him today. But if there's one horse I'd cheer when my money's been done, it's this one.
The trainer used to be his jockey; the owner's a nut job who jumped on the back when he came into the unsaddling enclosure one time (behind the jock!); and they've improved 85 pounds in ability this season. Brilliant.
Wiping away the mists of sentiment and getting back to the cold numbers, Medermit must have a chance on any line of form you care to choose. Of course, he should be thereabouts. But therein lies the problem: he's a 'thereabouts' sort of horse.
Third, beaten a length in the Ryanair; second, beaten three lengths in the Ascot Chase; second, beaten three-quarters of a length in the December Gold Cup; third in the Amlin Chase; second in a Grade 2 here last year; and so it goes on.
The record shows that Medermit has been placed five times in the last year, but won only once - and that was when Captain Chris gifted him the race in the Haldon Gold Cup. Deserves it, but not carrying my money. Ever!
All of which to'ing and fro'ing brings me to my idea of the winner. Here's a clue: he won it last year. Yes, good old Nacarat, who has been having last hoorah's for about two seasons now.
The keys to this horse are simple: flat tracks and just below the very top class. This race fits the bill perfectly. And, before you cry, 'but he's an eleven year old', consider this: six of the last ten winners were aged in double figures (four aged ten, two aged eleven).
He comes here in form - bolted up in a Grade 3 chase at Kempton last time; he swerved Cheltenham, rendering him a fresh horse; and he obviously likes conditions, which are exactly the same as last year, when he beat a field including 177-rated Denman, amongst others.
In truth, it looks more competitive this year, but track/trip/class form is always an attractive proposition for me, and at 12/1 BOG, he looks a value play.
Follow The Plan was third at 40/1 last year, and he's 66/1 this time. He'll probably be further back than third today, but you never know. At least he likes the place!
Selection: Nacarat 12/1
Next best: Burton Port 9/2
Interesting outsider: Follow The Plan 66/1
3.40 Aintree - JOHN SMITH´S FOX HUNTERS´ CHASE (CLASS 2)
Ah, the foxhunters. And over the National fences to boot. Twenty-six of them. Amateur riders. Lovely. Ahem.
Actually, I'm really looking forward to this race, both as a spectacle and a punting proposition. After one of my bets of the meeting came home in front in the Cheltenham Foxhunters, I'm believing that that one swallow makes me a bather in hunter chasing summer sun... if you see what I mean.
In any case, I'll cut to the chase here: aged 9-11 (14 of last 15); first three or fell/unseated last time (14/15); no rating or 120+ (14/15); ran in last sixty days (13/15); first three in the betting (12/15).
The winner is Gwanako. Dangers are My Way de Solzen and Silver Adonis.
Job done. 🙂
OK, it may well not be as simple as that. But in a race where you're relying on amateur riders over 2m6f of the National course, don't over-think your falling wager!
Selection: Gwanako 4/1
Next best: My Way de Solzen 7/1
Interesting outsider: Silver Adonis 14/1
4.15 Aintree - MATALAN.CO.UK RED RUM HANDICAP CHASE GRADE 3
And then it got tricky (if it hadn't already). In truth, I'll only be trying to get through the placepot by this point, assuming I'm still going. This is a very trappy race, and I was surprised to see all the horses I like are big prices. This means I'll have very (very!) small interest bets and hope to get it right for aforementioned placepot purposes.
Six to nine year olds have dominated, which removes only three horses but all three fancied: likely favourite Edgardo Sol, Kumbeshwar, and well backed Oiseau de Nuit.
A top five finish last time, or a failure to complete, would have found fourteen of the last fifteen winners. Cheerio to De Boitron, Tara Royal, Kid Cassidy (another fancied runner) and Astracad.
Horses rated 129 to 143 have won fourteen of the last fifteen renewals. Takeroc is rated 145 and is left in, as a horse with strong track form. But Tanks For That and Oiseau de Nuit (again) are surely too highly weighted, off 155 and 152 respectively, to give lead all round here.
That leaves Silk Drum, Free World, Echo Bob and Song Sung Blue. Plus Takeroc. These are priced up at 10/1, 10/1, 22/1, 28/1 and 22/1 respectively. So don't expect me to play a shortie here.
Last year's winner Silk Drum looks to have been trained for this, and is actually a few pounds lower than he was in 2011. His trainer, Dianne Sayer, is in excellent form and I think he'll run close.
The Irish burglar, Free World might be the one though. A faller when going well in the Grand Annual, for which he'd been punted, a clear round will put him right in the shake up, especially when he receives an extra seven pounds from Tanks For That and two pounds from Kumbeshwar (level with De Boitron).
Takeroc is interesting. A winner here in October, and a swerver of the Festival, he comes here a fresh horse. Placed in thirteen of his twenty chase starts, I can see him again making the frame under my mate, Harry Derham (rarely fails to deliver, very promising pilot).
That leaves the other Irish raider, Echo Bob, and the other Tizzard runner, Song Sung Blue. It's my suspicion that the latter wants a stiffer track, and probably isn't good enough anyway, whilst Echo Bob just doesn't win often enough. Just two victories from 29 starts mean I'm happy to let him beat me if today is to be three from thirty.
Selection: Free World 10/1
Next best: Silk Drum 10/1
Interesting outsider: Takeroc 22/1
4.50 Aintree - BETFRED MANIFESTO NOVICES´ CHASE GRADE 1
More Grade 1 action, this time for the two and a half mile novices. In truth, it's a very disappointing turn out for good prize money and a prestigious pot.
Al Ferof ought to win this, and I'll be banking on him in the placepot. He made a shuddering error when asked to go too quick last time, and this longer trip without the pace pressers which contributed to that Cheltenham undoing looks perfect. I've actually had a decent bet at 6/5, as I think he's 'bar a fall' material.
Obviously, Menorah is a danger. Indeed, he finished in front of Al Ferof the last day. But that was a day when jumping frailties were reversed, as it had been typical of Menorah - not Al Ferof - to blunder. Menorah is a very good horse and, to me at least, is the only conceivable danger.
Pepite Rose, who is second favourite, beat a 134 rated horse when herself only rated 135 last time. She's gone up fifteen pounds for that and still has to improve another ten pounds to beat Al Ferof if he runs to his mark. At the price, she's easy for me to swerve.
This is Cristal Bonus' sort of trip, track and ground, and he ought to run back to form. But, even if he does, I can't see him beating Al Ferof.
Selection: Al Ferof 6/5
Next best: Menorah 6/1
Interesting outsider: Cristal Bonus 15/2
5.25 Aintree - SILVER CROSS HANDICAP HURDLE GRADE 3
We close out Day One with a very trappy handicap hurdle. Do not be fooled by its Graded status: this is hard to pick the winner!
In recent times, you've needed a decent priced horse, who finished in the first four last time out, was aged between five and eight, and who ran within the last thirty days.
I'm not going to get too stuck into form here, as in truth, this race is a bit beyond my compass. It certainly fits into point 1 of my three tips for Aintree.
One I think will run well at a decent price is Veiled, and she's available at 12/1 (or 10/1 with five places at Bet365). I will be having a small each way tickle on her, but otherwise you're on your own here!
Selection: Veiled 12/1 (10/1 five places with bet365)
Placepot picks are as follows, using the A/B method.
Race 1 - A 2
Race 2 - A 2, B 3,6
Race 3 - A 1, 7, B 5, 8
Race 4 - A 8, B 16, 21
Race 5 - A 3, 11, B 4, 9
Race 6 - A 1
Use the ticket builder here to create the slips. If I'm still going, and it's worth it, I'll be laying Al Ferof for a place to cover my stakes.
Who do you like today? Leave a comment, and let us all know!