Aside from the Grand National itself, which is previewed here, there are some cracking contests on Saturday's Aintree Day Three card, writes Rory Delargy.
1.45 - Gaskells Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 3m 149y)
Duke Street missed the cut for a couple of options at Cheltenham, but didn't get a much easier task when turned out for Kempton's consolation meeting on the Saturday of Festival week. There he ran into Brio Conti, who looked a horse of real potential when winning; and if you weren't convinced of the value of the form, third placed Dream Berry was an excellent second in the opening handicap here yesterday. That suggests Duke Street remains on a lenient enough mark, and while his stamina for three miles must be taken on trust, Richard Newland was reported as leaning towards the Pertemps for his Cheltenham target, suggesting that his trainer believes he'll stay.
Barney Dwan fared much the best of those who met in the Pertemps Final, and he should have the best of it again on revised terms, but one who may do better than he did there is Golden Doyen, who looked very rusty on his first run since October (looked fit enough), and is capable of leaving that form behind.
2.25 Betway Mersey Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 4f)
Finians Oscar is tempting given the tremendous day Colin Tizzard has enjoyed on Friday, and he looks like a top-notch jumper in the making. That said, the bare form of his wins is easy enough to crab, and he's looked more impressive crossing the last than he has at the line when winning at Sandown and Exeter on his last two starts. Still, he has been winning races at a time when many observers have highlighted a general dip in the stable's fortunes, and it's hard to knock an unbeaten novice who promises so much. This represents his proving ground, and he will silence any lingering doubts if winning impressively here.
Brio Conti could not have been more impressive when winning in handicap company at Kempton the day after the Cheltenham Festival, and he looked out of the top drawer given he didn't come off the bridle before hitting the front at the last. He's clearly clicked now, but although he must be one to keep onside, an 11lb rise for that still leaves him shy of Messire des Obeaux and Finians Oscar on official ratings. The former is exposed now, but deserves his mark of 146, while Finians Oscar's 149 is a bit more dubious given it stems from a Tolworth Hurdle which hasn't worked out. Of the others Lough Derg Spirit is short enough on what he's done, but could improve, while Le Breuil looks exciting, but hails from a yard whose runners at this meeting so far have all (A Hare Breath aside) run poorly. In terms of value, Messire des Obeaux must be the bet at 13/2 for all there are "sexier" runners.
3.40 Betway Handicap Chase (Listed, 3m 1f)
There was a big shock in this last year when Maggio routed his field, and there may be another surprise in store, as the market leaders look vulnerable. Neither Starchitect nor Value At Risk are proven at this trip, and the latter's ability to plug on at the finish in the Festival Plate at Cheltenham is not indicative of untapped stamina to my eye. Value At Risk seemed to fail for stamina in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle a couple of years ago, and has been kept to shorter trips over fences thus far. He may do better now, but I'm not convinced, and nor am I certain that Harry Whittington's yard can be considered in form with just one winner since Christmas, which would be a worry for backers of Emerging Force. I fancied Henri Parry Morgan to stop the rot at Cheltenham, but he had no excuses for a tame effort and a further ease in the weights doesn't entice me.
My two against the field at bigger prices are Full Cry and Lamb Or Cod. The former was racing over an inadequate trip last time, and had no chance against the speedy Great Field, but ran well when second to Heron Heights at Cheltenham in October. He is better suited to a sound surface than the deep ground he contended with last time. Lamb Or Cod is also better on spring ground, and can be excused an unplaced run in the Kim Muir, at least in part, as he was badly hampered at a crucial stage. His record on good or faster ground away from Cheltenham is very good, and he looks too big with Richard Johnson back in the saddle.
1.45 - Duke Street e/w 12/1 general
2.25 - Messire des Obeaux e/w 7/1 Stan James
3.40 - Full Cry e/w 18/1 Hills/PP/Betfair & Lamb Or Cod e/w 33/1 BetVictor