Just three weeks away from the Grand National meeting at Aintree, and preparations for the ‘big-one’ are now moving into the final stages.
First Lieutenant has a spin over hurdles today at Thurles before a possible tilt at the Crabbie's Grand National. The ultra-consistent Grade 1 winner has found life a little tougher this season, though he has always saved his best performances for the better ground often encountered in the spring.
Twice a visitor to Aintree, he won the Betfred Bowl in 2013 and trainer Mouse Morris sounded hopeful of a decent end to the season when saying: “We've decided to give him a run over hurdles to prep him up for Aintree, or wherever he's going. He seems in great form at home. He's been hunting and he seems a happy horse at the moment. He looks like a horse for Liverpool. I think going around there might just perk him up a bit, but we'll just wait and see what happens."
If he should take the plunge, he’ll be lumping plenty of weight around the famous track, with several at the head of the handicap set to miss the race. One in particular was ruled out by connections yesterday.
Carlingford Lough, joint top-weight will miss the showpiece on April 11. The JP McManus owned nine-year-old won the Irish Hennessy Gold Cup in February but his Gold Cup exertions last week have ruled him out of a Grand National bid. McManus' racing manager Frank Berry said: "That (Grand National) won't be happening."
Instead, a tilt at the Punchestown Gold Cup looks to be a more likely prospect. Trainer John Kiely said: “He's come back fine. We agreed the ground probably wasn't ideal, but I'm not sure he would have been good enough anyway. I think we'll give our horse a break for a couple of weeks and see how he is after that. He could go to Punchestown, maybe.
One trainer who is certainly committed to another crack at Aintree is Dr Richard Newland. He admits that last year's winner Pineau De Re will have to "raise his game" in a bid to defend his crown after that thrilling success 12 months ago. He could only manage 11th behind Call The Cops in the Pertemps Network Final at Cheltenham last week. He finished third in the same race the previous year and the worry has to be whether he travels to Liverpool in quite the same form as in 2014.
The Worcester handler said: “He's OK. He'll have to raise his game for Aintree, but we're on track. We'll be trying again and will do the same with him as last year in the build-up to the race."
Newland has another he’ll be hoping sneaks into the race. The nine-year-old Royale Knight is set to have a prep-run in a three-mile handicap hurdle at Chepstow today. His trainer said: “He’s in good form and normally he would get in the National, but it's not guaranteed. We're training him for the race. If he gets in great, but he's entered in the Scottish National at Ayr the following week if he doesn't get in at Aintree."
The staying chaser certainly loves a marathon trip and his best runs have come on a decent surface. He won the Scottish Borders National in 2013 and in October comfortably won the Sedgefielders Durham National, again on good to soft ground.
Tom George is another who can’t wait for the big-day to come around. He believes Saint Are's liking for the track will see him run a huge race in April. He has got round the famous course on two occasions, finishing ninth behind Auroras Encore in the world's greatest steeplechase in 2013 and then running third to Oscar Time in the Becher back in December.
"I'm thrilled with him. We resisted the temptation to run him last week (at Cheltenham) and he's absolutely spot on at the moment, he's exactly where we want him," said George. "He likes the track and that should be in his favour."
Over the coming weeks the race will start to take shape as connections plans are finalised. The countdown for the National has begun.