As the dust settles post-Cheltenham, attention quickly turns to Aintree, which begins on April 6.
Yesterday, Gigginstown racing manager Eddie O’Leary announced that Festival heroine Apple’s Jade would be heading for a mouth-watering clash with Champion Hurdle winner Buveur D’Air in the Aintree Hurdle. “The race at Cheltenham had everything and I really think it was one of the races of the week,” said O’Leary. “The first three home are three top-class mares. We will take in the two-and-a-half-mile race at Aintree next. She has come out of Cheltenham in good form and if she were to run well at Aintree, we could think about Punchestown as well for her.”
The 2m4f Grade 1 event is often a high-class affair, and this year’s renewal looks packed with quality. County Hurdle winner Arctic Fire is a likely contender, having impressed after a lengthy absence. His only previous visit to Aintree in 2015, resulted in a last flight fall in this race, when appearing to have every chance of success. Jezki was left to win on that occasion, and Jess Harrington’s popular hurdler is another intended runner.
The field also looks set to contain recent National Spirit Hurdle winner, Camping Ground. Now with Gary Moore, the seven-year-old was mightily impressive last time. The trip is ideal, though he does enjoy getting his ‘toe-in’, and rain leading up to the meeting would enhance his chances.
Yanworth may also line-up, and will be looking to rebuild a reputation dented by his disappointing run in the Champion Hurdle. This trip should prove more suitable, though he has a mountain to climb if he is to reverse form with Buveur D’Air.
There’s every chance that one or the other will have Barry Geraghty back on-board. He looks likely to be fit for the Merseyside meeting, having missed Cheltenham after the nasty fall from Charli Parcs at Kempton left him with broken ribs and a collapsed lung. “I'll have a scan in the next week and I should get a better idea after that,” the jockey told Press Association Sport. “Aintree is the target and it's definitely coming along. We'll see what the specialist says and go from there.”
Those allowing heart to rule head will also be hoping for a huge run from The New One. He took the Aintree Hurdle in 2014, defeating Rock On Ruby in a thriller. A faller in last year’s race, this could prove to be his last run over hurdles, especially if disappointing. I fancy a belated switch to fences would prove more fruitful than a step-up to three miles over the smaller obstacles.
The highlight of the Aintree meeting is of course the Grand National. And there’s been plenty of news this week, as connections determine whether to take-in the marathon contest. One that won’t be taking his chance is the Gold Cup runner-up Minella Rocco. His trainer, Jonjo O'Neill said: “He ran a cracking race in the Gold Cup, but he had a hard race. He's only seven, so we've decided to take our time with him and give him a rest and bring him back next season for another go at the Gold Cup, and then maybe the National.
“More Of That ran a good race at Cheltenham and we were happy with him in the Gold Cup. We've another couple of weeks to go and we're hoping to be here (Aintree). He seems perfectly fine at home so it's full speed ahead. You need all the luck in running in the National but he seems in great form and if he sharpens up in the next week or two we'll be delighted with ourselves. He's not as fast as he used to be, so he's the right sort of horse to come to the National with.”
How Paul Nicholls would love another Aintree National, as he battles with Nicky Henderson for the Trainers’ crown. He has last season's Scottish Grand National winner Vicente in the field; the horse now carrying the silks of Trevor Hemmings, successful in Aintree’s showpiece on three previous occasions.
The owner’s racing manager Mick Meagher said of the horse: “He is nice and only an eight-year-old, so he might have a few years to go. I went to look at Vicente, who is lovely and he flew through the vet. He has some good form which would give him a right chance. He is a bit dependent on the ground - he does not like it too wet.”
Another with a huge player for the main event is David Pipe. Vieux Lion Rouge won the trial at Haydock, and is one of six entered by Pond House. “I don't think the ground will be too much concern for him over the Grand National trip,” said the trainer. “He seems to like the fences and Tom Scudamore is very much looking forward to the ride.” The horse was successful in the Becher Chase earlier in the season, and looks likely to go-off favourite.
Another with the right credentials for Liverpool’s marathon event is the Brian Ellison trained Definitly Red. A stunning winner of the Grimthorpe at Doncaster, he was apparently impressive over ‘Aintree-style’ fences at Malton earlier in the week, as preparations continue. His jockey, Danny Cook, speaking to Racing UK said: “The schooling fences are a little bit bigger and little bit wider. A lot of people don't even school with them so it's not a necessity but a bit of a confidence booster for both trainer and jockey to put their mind at ease that they're going to take to them.”
Looking forward to the ‘big day’, Cook said: “You just always need luck in running on the day. He'd jump off fine, it's just what happens in front of you. If he does get around and gets a clear round he won't be far away.”