The Grand National Meeting is fast approaching and it promises to be a stellar event.
Willie Mullins intends to send a powerful team across the Irish Sea as he launches a full assault on the UK Trainers’ Championship. One of his Cheltenham Festival stars looks set to take her place in the Doom Bar Aintree Hurdle.
Annie Power was simply sensational at Prestbury Park, when hammering the boys in the Champion Hurdle. If anything, the Aintree Hurdle trip of 2m4f looks tailor-made, and it’s hard to imagine anything other than an impressive victory. Fellow Mullins inmate Nichols Canyon could prove her toughest rival, having posted his most impressive performance at the track 12 months ago.
The Aintree Hurdle has proved a quality affair over the years, and has been won by a number of hurdling greats, though in recent times hasn’t always gone the way of Champion Hurdle winners. Clearly a horse needs to get the trip, but Aintree demands a perfect mix of speed along with just the right amount stamina.
Oscar Whisky was the archetypal Aintree Hurdle winner. Henderson’s classy performer possessed plenty of gears though fell just below the very best two milers. He struggled to get home at Cheltenham over three miles, but found the 2m4f at Aintree absolutely ideal. He won the race in 2011 and 2012 defeating Thousand Stars in thrilling finishes on both occasions. Mullins’ fella also found the trip to be a perfect fit, well almost.
Another Aintree Hurdle hero that excelled at track and trip was Al Eile. A best placed fourth in the Champion Hurdle of 2006, he became virtually unbeatable when switched to Liverpool and stepped up in trip by a half mile. He struck three times with his final victory in 2008 a 10 length romp.
Though recent years has seen victories for numerous two and a half mile specialists, the event’s early renewals went to hurdling goliaths, just as capable of beating all-comers at the minimum trip. One such two-mile legend was another Irish hero Monksfield.
A Champion Hurdle winner Comedy of Errors had taken the inaugural Aintree Hurdle in 1976, and a year later Monksfield won his first of three. The diminutive warrior became the dominant force over hurdles in the late 70s, taking the Champion Hurdle in 1978 and 79 and a trio of Aintree Hurdles from 1977 to 79.
He was trained in Ireland by Des McDonogh and purchased for a measly 740 guineas as a yearling. He came to prominence in a period of hurdling that brought us legends of the sport, including Comedy of Errors, Sea Pigeon and Night Nurse. Monksfield was clearly a class act, but it was his terrier like style that typified his victories. He rarely lost a battle, and with his head bowed low, broke the hearts of those that dared to eyeball him.
His clash with Night Nurse in the Aintree Hurdle of 1977 proved one of the great battles. Peter Easterby trained Night Nurse at his yard near Malton in North Yorkshire. Unlike Monksfield, this fella was a huge, powerful looking beast, and had become the outstanding hurdler in the mid-70s. He had won the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in March 1977, defeating Monksfield in the process. The two met at Liverpool for the rematch, and few could have envisaged such an immense encounter.
The duo pulled clear of the remainder as battle ensued, and at the last flight the pair rose as one. Monskfield looked to be edging it as the line approached, but the head-bobber could not have been closer. The judge was unable to split the pair and a dead-heat was announced.
A year later the David and Goliath clash went the way of David, when Monksfield beat Night Nurse both at Cheltenham and then at Liverpool. The latter switched to fences, whilst the diminutive bruiser continued his dominance over the smaller obstacles.
The most successful horse in the history of the Aintree Hurdle was Morley Street. Trained by Toby Balding, he won the Liverpool event four years in a row from 1990 to 1993. He also took the Champion Hurdle in 1991, but it was the Aintree Hurdle that brought the very best from the outstanding hurdler. Both trip and track enabled him to reverse Champion Hurdle form, typified by his victory over Granville Again in 1992.
That habit of Cheltenham form not always carrying through to Aintree just adds an element of doubt to Thursday’s one-sided looking renewal. As I said early in the piece, Annie Power looks almost bombproof after her Champion Hurdle romp, and we already have plenty of evidence that the extended trip at Aintree will hold no fears for the mare.
Nevertheless, I return again to stable companion Nichols Canyon, who at odds of around 9/2 looks the only realistic challenger. A year ago he certainly performed better at Aintree than he had just weeks earlier at Cheltenham. He’d finished a length or so behind Parlour Games in the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle, yet accounted emphatically for the same horse at Liverpool in the Mersey Novices’ Hurdle over pretty much an identical trip.
He certainly fits the mould of a ‘typical’ Aintree Hurdle winner, though Annie may well simply prove a ‘cut above’. It’s a race that Willie Mullins is yet to capture, though he came mighty close yet again 12 months ago when Arctic Fire tripped up at the last with the race at his mercy. He’ll never have a better chance than this of adding the name of one of his horses to the list of illustrious winners.