And so to the main event. Thursday's Grade 1 smorgasbord and Friday's kaleidoscope of colour (and hairspray, heels and headwear) are passed, and now all eyes are on the Grand National itself. Unquestionably the nation's favourite race, the National shrugs off its critics, like a horse swatting a fly with its tail.
Quite simply, because of its high profile, the Grand National will always be a target for the nay-sayers (or should that be neigh-sayers?). Indeed, the time to worry may well be when they're not focusing on the Grand National. Let's hope that never happens and the racing and its antagonists continue to be uncomfortable bed fellows: after all, that's one of the things which is still great about our nation.
Enough with the politicking and on to the races. Although the Grand National itself is obviously the pinnacle of the afternoon's card, it is likely to be a lot easier to find winners elsewhere in the sextet of supporting races. So let's see what we know...
1.45 JOHN SMITH´S MERSEY NOVICES´ HURDLE (Grade 2) (CLASS 1) (4yo+) (2m4f)
This is a race for five and six year olds, which does little to assist as there's only one horse of another age. But it's also a race for the first two in the market which, in combination, have bagged thirteen of the last sixteen renewals. So maybe one to top up the pot in prior to tougher tasks later in the punting day.
Hendo has won the last two; Nicholls has won three of the last nine; and Donald McCain has a 142 record in the last three years.
It's hardly a surprise then that that trio of esteemed handlers is likely to saddle the top three in the market: Utopie Des Bordes (Henderson), Dodging Bullets (Nicholls), and Up And Go (McCain).
Picking between the three is tricky, but I do have a slight preference for Up And Go. He's by emerging super-sire, Martaline, daddy to the likes of Dynaste, Pique Sous, Domtaline, Toubab, Barbatos and so on.
Breeding is promising then, and so is his form. Aside from a tired fall behind Taquin de Seuil, he's unbeaten in three further rules starts. All runs so far have been on soft or heavy ground, so translating that to slicker turf is an unknown, but the sire's progeny have done well enough on good ground, and he's clearly the one with the most upside of the three at the head of the market.
I have to concede to not being a fan of Dodging Bullets. I just don't think he's achieved that much, despite a Grade 2 win and third place in an all age Grade 1 (which turned into a sprint). He looks exposed, and was stuffed behind Champagne Fever et al at Cheltenham in the Supreme.
All that said, his ideal setup is probably a short field and decent ground so, in that regard, he has things his way. I'd still be a bit disappointed if Up And Go wasn't able to, well, up and go by Dodging Bullets.
Utopie Des Bordes was bought from France, and had already won about £300,000 by that time. Since nipping across La Manche, she's run three times - winning twice in mares' company before coming unstuck behind At Fisher's Cross in the potato race (Albert Bartlett) at the Festival. Apart from a couple of months break, she's been on the go since April last year, and has already had twelve races in that time. As such, it's hard to expect improvement here, and her bare form doesn't look good enough.
I can't really see any of the others winning (which is not to say they won't!)
Selection: Up And Go 15/8 BetVictor
Danger: Dodging Bullets 11/4 Stan James
2.15 JOHN SMITH´S MAGHULL NOVICES´ CHASE (Grade 1) (CLASS 1) (5yo+) (2m)
This looks a really good race, with four horses backing up after varying degrees of fortune at Cheltenham. The least likely winner from that quartet is Marshal Zhukov, which didn't get beyond the fourth fence in the Grand Annual and, with respect, looks outclassed here. He also probably wants further than this two mile trip.
Overturn is in here too. He was well fancied by many - though not me - to run a big race in the Arkle against a below par Simonsig. As it turned out, he couldn't get his own way and sulked home in fourth. With no Simonsig type here, he's clearly the class horse in the race and looks sure to lead (unless Special Tiara is very fast). This flatter track and quicker ground won't inconvenience him and he has a much better chance of getting home and atoning for Cheltenham.
The fly in the ointment (mark one) might be Baily Green, the horse which followed Simonsig home in the Arkle and which has been running brilliantly all season in Ireland. He's got plenty of form on quick ground and actually started this season running up a seven-timer! But. But... he's had ten runs since May and he must be tired, surely!
One of the games we have to play at Aintree is guessing which horses are over the top and which have one more big run in them. In Baily Green's case, I'm going to call his bluff.
The fly in the ointment (mark two) is Alderwood, plotted-up winner of the Grand Annual, the very last race of the Cheltenham Festival. He'd been cleverly campaigned in soft/heavy ground races earlier in the season, and had already shown his preference for quicker when winning the County Hurdle at the Festival the year before.
So, well done to connections there, but this is a big step up on a Grade 3 handicap. That's not to say he can't bridge it, though. After all, he was a Grade 1 winner over hurdles at the Punchestown Festival last year, after winning a similar Grade 3 handicap (the County) the month before.
With that parallel in mind, and the fact that he's still a fairly fresh horse (just five runs since mid-November), he might well give Overturn most to think about, having been held up early while Donald McCain's trailblazer blazes his trail.
Likeliest winner: Overturn 9/4 Ladbrokes, totesport, BetFred
Next best / forecast option: Alderwood 9/4
2.50 JOHN SMITH´S LIVERPOOL HURDLE (Grade 1) (CLASS 1) (4yo+) (3m 1/2f)
Good Lord! If ever a race looked a swerve, this is it. Dogs, has beens, wannabe's, never will be's: they're all here.
Arguably the most reliable proposition is the nine year old Irish beast, Solwhit, winner of the worst World Hurdle in living memory last month. He was a good winner there, and he's a fresh horse with just three runs this season, and those after two years off the track.
Solwhit seems to act well enough on decent ground and he's the one reliable prospect in a sea of questionable types.
Of the remainder, Celestial Halo ran closest to Solwhit in the World Hurdle, and the form of his Kingwell fourth was boosted when Zarkandar won the Aintree Hurdle on Thursday. But he's not one to place too much faith in at the top level, even when the opposition looks flaky.
Smad Place, third in the World Hurdle, is a fresh'un too, but he might not be any better than he's shown now, and I just can't see him beating all-comers here. I think he fits into the 'never will be' category now.
Then we have Grands Crus. This formerly high class horse is surely a bleeder now. I can't find another way to explain the abrupt P's in his form string. That said, if he's to get away with it anywhere, then a quick three miles here might be the day. Tom Scudamore will have to coddle him into it, as too much pressure will likely cause another P in the string. If he can do that, this fellow has the class to make the frame and perhaps even serve it up to Solwhit.
Cheltenham handicap winners, Holywell and Medinas, are progressive but ought not to be good enough to win this. That they're trying says a lot for the level of the field.
One aspirant which could just trouble the judge is potato race second, African Gold. He's been a win machine in novice events, and already has a victory on good ground to his name, albeit in weak company. Again, his bare form is probably not quite good enough, but this is not quite a good race!
Finally, worthy of a mention in dispatches, are two more handicappers with track form: Attaglance and American Spin. Attaglance followed up his Cheltenham Festival win with a victory in the Grade 3 handicap hurdle here last year, and he steps up in class having run in novice chases for most of the season, after an abortive attempt at the Centenary Novices' Handicap Chase was scuppered by the ground.
American Spin is a massive price, but was second here in a decent handicap hurdle last year, and has conditions his way here. Obviously, he shouldn't be good enough. But then, most of these are woulda coulda shoulda types, so why not chance a big-priced rag?
Most likely winner: Solwhit 5/2 SJ, William Hill
Reasonable each way call: African Gold 10/1 William Hill
Outsiders with a (small) squeak: Attaglance 28/1 SJ, American Spin 100/1 general
3.25 JOHN SMITH´S HANDICAP CHASE (Listed Race) (CLASS 1) (5yo+) (3m1f)
The first of the day's handicaps, though not the last of course, and perhaps not the most interesting. But there remains a likelihood of a decent priced winner, and us placepotters must survive intact in order to keep the dream alive.
Only three of the last sixteen winners won last time out, and Jonjo O'Neill has won it four times since 2000. What's impressive about that is that he's only run six horses!
Jonjo is double-handed here, with both Johns Spirit and Storm Survivor. Johns Spirit stays this trip just fine, as demonstrated when running on second at Sandown on soft ground, and he's won on good ground too. Since then, he's been beaten plenty far enough in two Cheltenham handicaps, the former as favourite and the latter when a bad mistake ended his chance.
With a clear round - no given, granted - he can run a big race.
Storm Survivor might be the more 'obvious' of the pair, having won two of his last four. Three of his four career wins were around three miles and on flat tracks, and he's also won on good ground, so the second bottom weight has a lot in his favour. Storm Survivor has been successfully mixing hurdles and chasing and comes here with a good chance.
Battle Group's a really interesting entry, if he takes his chance. A runaway handicap hurdle winner here on Thursday (winning the race for the second time in three years), he races over fences off the same mark and was third in the Novices' Handicap Chase at Cheltenham beforehand.
This trip and ground are obviously no problem to him and, if he's not knackered, he could double up (which would be some achievement).
At the other end of the handicap, three miles and good ground won't be a problem for Opening Batsman either. He won the Racing Plus Chase at Kempton going away and, though eight pounds higher here, that might not be enough to stop him. The third horse there, Duke Of Lucca, gets eight pounds here for an eight length beating, and that must bring him into calculations.
Alan King's eight-year-old missed Cheltenham after the ground was considered too soft for him, so he lines up here - like Opening Batsman - a fresh horse.
Cantlow is probably a precarious proposition: he was withdrawn at the start at Cheltenham due to blood coming from his nose. He may be another bleeder and I'd not want one of those in a race like this. He does have obvious talent, nevertheless.
Finally, David Pipe's well-named Problema Tic looks interesting back to his last winning mark. He loves decent ground and three miles, and looks to have been primed for this. He's a dodgy jumper so that needs to be borne in mind but, with a clear (sizable 'if'), he'll outrun his odds.
Each way selections: Storm Survivor 20/1 SJ, Duke Of Lucca 14/1 Coral
Others of interest: Problema Tic 20/1 Coral, Battle Group 5/1 bet365 (again!)
4.15 JOHN SMITH´S GRAND NATIONAL CHASE (Handicap) (Grade 3) (CLASS 1) (7yo+) (4m 3 1/2f)
I've been through this race a few times, and haven't seen anything to change my mind about its shape.
And the best bookie offers are here. (Note, some of the signup bonuses have been withdrawn until after the weekend, the sneaky blighters)
5.10 JOHN SMITH´S HANDICAP HURDLE (For Conditional Jockeys And Amateur Riders) (CLASS 2) (4yo+) (2m 1/2f)
A strong sense of 'after the Lord Mayor's Show' now, but for those amongst us in a hole, there are two (remote) chances of financial redemption, starting here.
In just its fifth year, it's difficult/impossible to draw firm inferences from the four previous runnings, but - as is often the case in conditional handicaps - it seems like the top ones might have a better than fair chance, and at the very top is an interesting contender from the Steve Gollings yard.
Local Hero loves fast ground and he loves two mile races. He's won all five of his hurdles races under such conditions, and that quintet included a Grade 2 at Cheltenham, and two Listed affairs at Market Rasen. He wasn't beaten far behind Zarkandar - winner of the Grade 1 Aintree Hurdle here on Thursday - last time, and that form means he deserves his big weight here.
Steve Gollings has had a couple of winners here over the years, and narrowly failed in this very race last year, when his Conquisto was a length second.
Hendo is always dangerous in these events and he has three entered, none of which are jocked up at the moment. Lyvius might be the pick of the three, with the good ground likely to be much more up his bridle path than the bogs he'd previously been running through. In truth, he's bred to like soft but the form book says something else.
First In The Queue is another good ground two mile fan and, though a bit of an 'in and out' sort, he could run well if on an 'in' day. 😉
The final trainer to follow in these races is David Pipe, and he runs Shotavodka, who is bidding for a four-timer here. Two miles is fine, the ground should be okay (though he's plenty of form on softer) and if he can get his way at the front, he'll run a nice race. That 'if' is one of the larger ones I've used this week. More of an if. I don't think he'll get things his way there, and I reckon that'll probably compromise his chance in truth.
Lots of dangers elsewhere too, and a partnership yielded Festival handicap dividends this season is that of Colin Tizzard and Brendan Powell Jr. The latter has won two this week already, one of them for the former (Oiseau de Nuit), and they pair up on the improving Jumps Road. Clearly, the trainer knows what he's doing - indeed, he's a bloody brilliant 'target' trainer - and this fellow will go on decent ground and is progressive.
In truth, I'll be trying to 'fluke' my way through the placepot if still standing and my interest won't stretch further than that, though I may have a small bet on the top one, Local Hero.
Best each way: Local Hero 16/1 general
Others to consider: Lyvius 33/1 bet365, BetVictor, SJ, Jumps Road 16/1 SkyBet, SJ
5.45 JOHN SMITH´S CHAMPION STANDARD OPEN NATIONAL HUNT FLAT RACE (Grade 2) (CLASS 1) (4-6yo) (2m1f)
And we close with a bumper. A very good bumper at that. Last year, a horse called The New One nabbed it, and it's to be hoped another of his calibre is lurking in this field. That was Nigel Twiston-Davies' third winner in the race in the last fifteen years, and he's represented this time by second top-rated, Pure Science.
Strangely, despite being second choice of the official handicapper, Pure Science has been beaten twice in three starts to date. But he was sixth in the Cheltenham Champion Bumper, just three and a half lengths behind the second placed horse, Regal Encore.
In front of him there, to the tune of three-quarters of a length, was John Ferguson's Purple Bay, a winner of his only previous start. Beautifully bred - by Dubawi out of a Nashwan mare - Purple Bay has the more scope for improvement and should take a bit of beating here.
Both will be taking a tried and trusted path. Indeed, five of the 26 horses to run here after running in the Cheltenham Bumper won, and another six were placed. The winners were worth fully 52 units of profit, thanks mainly to Classic Native and Pangbourne, at 25/1 and 28/1 respectively.
Two other horses come here from there: Caledonia and Sgt Reckless. The latter had a huge home reputation before coming unstuck up Cleeve Hill the last day, and he might recoup losses here. Whether he's a value price so to do is another question, and it might be the fourth Cheltenham musketeer, Caledonia, which offers the best value.
Beaten 21 lengths at Cheltenham, it could be argued he didn't stay the trip over the west country slopes. He was there before fading from about three furlongs out. In truth, that's a fair way out to be fading but I'm still prepared to give him another chance, with the record of those horses at a price in mind. Moreover, six year olds have a really good record in the race: five of 48 have won in the last sixteen years, and another six placed in that time.
Killyglass is another six year old, and has had just the two runs to date. A winner on good ground in Ireland on his debut, he was then beaten twelve lengths in a decent (Listed) Newbury bumper on soft. If that fifth place was down to the ground, then he'd come into this with a squeak. In a race full of if's and but's, at the end of a meeting full of the same, he's worth a little win and place play.
In fact, I should have touched on the average winning odds for this race. In the last decade, the average win odds were 24.62/1, with only one favourite obliging. Winners at 66/1, 50/1, 33/1, 28/1 and 25/1 mark your card about the folly of lumping on a shortie here.
It's a nightmare of a race, and the only thing I've any kind of view on is that something at a big price will make the frame. As such, I'd be siding each way with a couple of rags against the field.
Each way two against the field: Killyglass 16/1 BetVictor, SJ, William Hill, Caledonia 33/1 William Hill, PP
And that's the last of the twenty-one races of the Aintree Grand National 2013 Festival. I hope you've found some winners, and more than that, I hope you've had some fun.
Simple Aintree System Qualifiers
Four (short-priced) winners yesterday and two seconds, to add to Thursday's 7/2 winner. Here are the final day's qualifiers for this most simple of systems.
Alderwood (IRE) 2.15 Aintree 7/2
African Gold (IRE) 2.50 Aintree 14/1
Holywell (IRE) 2.50 Aintree 10/1
Medinas (FR) 2.50 Aintree 12/1
Smad Place (FR) 2.50 Aintree 7/1
Solwhit (FR) 2.50 Aintree 15/8
Grand National Day Placepot Bankers and Blowouts
Yesterday's placepot paid pretty well considering. I didn't have it alas, missing out in the Topham (fifth, natch!).
Today, I'm saving plenty of perms for the last three legs (handicap chase, Grand National and the handicap hurdle which follows), meaning I'm light early on. Bankers will be Up And Go and Overturn, and I'll take two in the Liverpool Hurdle (Solwhit and something else). I'll then employ the old scattergun across the last three legs!
And that's it. If you've a fancy for the Grand National day, let us know below.