Before we get stuck-in to the world’s most famous horserace at Aintree, we must first call in at Fairyhouse on Easter Monday for the Irish Grand National.
The country’s richest steeplechase has again attracted a strong and competitive looking field, with Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott likely to throw plenty of darts at the financially desirable target. The pair are once again locked in a titanic battle for the Trainers’ crown, and victory at Fairyhouse would be of huge benefit to either team.
It’s hard to believe that neither have yet landed the prestigious prize, though it’s surely only a matter of time before that omission from the pairs CV is rectified.
The race has tended to go to talented young chasers in recent times, with those aged seven and eight winning 10 of the last dozen. Novice chaser Our Duke romped to victory a year ago and in doing so scored a rare success for an Irish National favourite. Only two have prevailed in the last 10 renewals; a period that has seen winners at odds of 33/1 (three), 25/1 and 50/1.
Elliott’s association with Gigginstown is a huge advantage, with O’Leary’s Maroon silks crossing the line first in three of the last 10. The team are once again mob-handed, with Elliott’s trio of Folsom Blue, Monbeg Notorious and Dounikos the shortest priced. The latter pair fit the profile of young progressive chaser, both are seven-year-olds with limited chasing miles on the clock.
Monbeg Notorious has three victories from his five chase starts and was an impressive winner of the valuable Thyestes Handicap a couple of runs back. That came off a mark of 137 and he now stands on a lofty 152. The inclusion of Outlander ensures a race weight of under 11 stone, nevertheless, that handicap mark looks on the high side. He does look a thorough stayer and is certainly not without a chance.
Dounikos flopped in the RSA Chase and will need a dramatic return to form. He looked badly outpaced at Cheltenham and ultimately outstayed before being pulled-up. The fractions during an Irish National are sure to be less demanding, but I’m no longer convinced that this fella needs a trip. And having fluffed his lines just a couple of weeks back, he’s far from certain to make the start.
Folsom Blue is a regular in this type of event and landed the Grand National Trial at Punchestown in February. He’s up 9lb for that success and is hardly a progressive type at the age of 11. With handicap mark blown, I can’t see him figuring on Monday.
A stronger Gigginstown contender may prove to be Joseph O’Brien’s Arkwrisht. He was fourth in the Cork National back in November, when looking to have a huge chance before tiring late on. Prior to that, he’d looked unfortunate when runner-up in the Kerry National in September. He’s off a 1lb lower mark than at Cork and will probably be played slightly later this time. He looks to have been aimed at this, arriving fresh off the back of just one run in the past four months.
The Willie Mullins-trained Bellshill heads the market and has always promised plenty. He won the Bobbyjo Chase in February on his seasonal return but is lumbered with a sizeable handicap mark of 158. He was hammered by Whisper and Might Bite in last year’s RSA, having previously been badly beaten by Disko and Our Duke in the Flogas Chase. He may have improved since that novice campaign, though he’ll need to have done to win off his current mark. I’m not convinced.
The Master of Closutton also has his recent recruit, Pairofbrowneyes, tussling for favouritism. Stepped up in trip under Mullins for his stable debut, he was quite impressive in winning the Leinster National at Gowran Park. He beat a fair yardstick that day, in the Gordon Elliott-trained Space Cadet. He’s also taken a hefty hike in the handicap, though is less exposed at this new trip.
Mall Dini ran a cracker in the Kim Muir at Cheltenham a few weeks back, when having travelled wonderfully well through the race, he only just failed to reel in Missed Approach. Prior to that he’d run with great promise in Ireland, finishing fourth to Presenting Percy over course and distance. Though by no means generous, his mark of 143 has remained the same throughout the winter, and he looks to be improving. Much will depend on how he has recovered from the Cheltenham effort. Despite not yet winning over fences in 10 starts, I fancy this eight-year-old is a major player.
Finally, a mention for the Noel Meade-trained Moulin A Vent. This unexposed novice certainly has the talent to go close, though his jumping can be erratic at times. His best performance this winter came in December, when comfortably accounting for Monbeg Notorious in a novice chase at Fairyhouse. That form was reversed at Navan in February, when a series of errors proved his undoing. His handicap mark of 145 could prove generous if he can get the jumping right, and at 33/1 it’s probably worth taking a punt on this talented youngster.
Hugely competitive as ever, Monbeg Notorious looks to be Gordon Elliott’s best hope of success. But the pair I fancy to go close are Mall Dini and Moulin A Vent. The latter must brush up on his jumping, but if he does, he could be thrown-in off this handicap mark.
Best of luck to those having a punt on this Irish showpiece.