A horse, without rider, enjoys the Aintree jumping challenge. Photo: Pat Healy

Monday Musings: A National Treasure…

I never know exactly what I’ll write about each week until the last Eureka moment, writes Tony Stafford. This morning I expected it to be something Aintree-orientated as ever since my trip to the track on Friday, I’ve been troubled by a recurring dream, which wasn’t actually anything to do with sleep.

Going through one of the Mersey tunnels on the way to the course, a quartet of passengers with me, I had a feeling of unease. But it was only on the way back to their hotel on the Wirral, that the slight feeling became stark reality as that long, single street, passing close to Everton and Liverpool football grounds gave full illustration of the North-South divide.

Once my fellow travellers were alerted, we all participated in the unhappy sport - spot the shuttered business premises. On block after block, the metal barriers were fully down, even at around 5 p.m. on Friday. One of our number, Steve Howard, said that just about the only fully operational places were pubs, betting shops and fast food outlets. Most of the rest had seemingly given up.

That pessimistic view was in stark contrast to the many thousands of upbeat locals thronging the track. Much is made in the media of Ladies Day at the Grand National, expecting, indeed wishing, to see outrageous behaviour, especially from the aforementioned ladies. Admittedly, in such a big crowd, it was more sensible to find a comfortable base rather than look for embarrassments, but the clear impression for me was of well-dressed and well-behaved people of both sexes having a wonderful time.

I watched the Randox Health Grand National on television at home, fully expecting my last-minute find, the 12-year-old Raz De Maree to emulate Pineau De Re, the winner three years ago, when similarly I had the house and sofa to myself.

He’d run in that race, finishing eighth behind Pineau De Re having apparently jumped the last fence in 17th place, and I had at the back of my mind his strong finish to be just one and three-quarter lengths behind Native River in the Welsh Grand National over Christmas.

When Raz jinked to the right over first Becher’s, having jumped with great alacrity over all six fences including his last, he jettisoned Ger Fox out the side door. Not only was I on the wrong horse, but also the wrong Fox as Derek of that surname eventually guided One For Arthur to a memorable victory. Never mind, we’ll get it all back over Easter in the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse.

“I won the race!” said my four-year-old grandson, Arthur, apparently for the rest of the weekend, and the result was a source of joy for his father, a general non-punter, but a tenner investor here, who spent much of the early part of his professional career working under the tutelage of JLT boss and prominent racehorse owner, Jonathan Palmer-Brown.

Raz De Maree’s abrupt exit was a typical Becher’s eventuality, but until I just now identified the culprit, I hadn’t fully realised how safe the race has become. There are 30 jumps to negotiate, 16 on the initial circuit and 14 (The Chair and Water excepted) second time round. Two fancied horses representing the stables fighting for the trainers’ title, Vicente, ridden by Brian Hughes for Paul Nicholls, and Cocktails at Dawn, Nico de Boinville for Nicky Henderson, fell at the first.

For the remaining 29 fences, only two more horses could be said to have fallen, The Young Master, Sam Waley-Cohen, Neil Mulholland at Becher’s where he not only caused Raz De Maree to change direction abruptly, but also triggered the serious hampering and saddle-slipping of heavily backed Definitly Red, who pulled up soon after. A second Nicholls casualty was Saphir Du Roi at the 11th fence, ending the hopes of Sam Twiston-Davies.

So 19 got round and 40 horses and jockeys came back in one piece – subject to Sunday morning inspection. Driving back on Friday night, I listened to the Radio 5 Live preview programme and Cornelius Lysaght was prophetic when declaring that the Safety Review of the race, costing more than £1 million had been a great success, with fatalities being avoided in subsequent years.

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Until I had that look this morning, I was unaware of the limited number of casualties, and this great race was the richer for it. It was a nice winner for Lucinda Russell, her bloke Peter Scudamore, and Scotland, collecting a first win since Rubstic – I found that one – back in the dim and distant days of the late 1970’s.

The other inescapable feature of the week was the sudden return to form of Colin Tizzard’s stable, so out of luck at Cheltenham. Cue Card didn’t quite make it, going under narrowly to Tea For Two and Lizzie Kelly in the Betway Bowl. I rarely differ with the quantitative assessments of the Racing UK experts, but it did seem a bit rich for those of them on duty on Thursday so readily to assume Cue Card to be in serious decline, just because they couldn’t beat “the girl”, I suppose.

This season, Cue Card started with a warm up third in the Charlie Hall at Wetherby before a 15-length demolition of 2015 Gold Cup winner Coneygree in the Betfair Chase at Haydock. He was around three lengths second behind Thistlecrack in the King George, when Silviniaco Conti and Tea For Two were close in third and fourth. Silviniaco Conti was miles behind on Thursday, and Tea For Two improved his position by less than a length compared with Kempton.

Racing Post ratings gave winner and second a mark of 172, 7lb behind Cue Card’s highest rating of 179 when beating Don Poli majestically by nine lengths in the corresponding race last year. His Gold Cup fall three out was no more an accurate measure of his ability than any non-completed race ever is.

Whatever the Cue Card status might be, there’s no mistaking the merit of Tizzard’s other big wins, three Grade 1’s and a handicap chase for Ann and Alan Potts, and the Topham with 50-1 shot Ultragold.  Pingshou, Fox Norton and Finian’s Oscar won the graded races and Sizing Codelco collected the handicap on Grand National day.

Alan Potts had his 80th birthday during the week and his level of success suggests, maybe surprisingly, there might still be time for those of us not quite of his vintage to have something to anticipate with optimism.

One near miss for the Pottses was Supasundae in the three-mile Grade 1 stayers’ hurdle on Saturday. Yanworth, stepping up to the longer trip for the first time, following his disappointing effort in the Champion Hurdle, was all out to beat the Jessie Harrington-trained gelding.

In that regard he was avenging a defeat at the hands of Supasundae, then trained by Andrew Balding, in a bumper at Ascot in late 2014 after which he was bought by present connections. Yanworth had already won twice, latterly for J P McManus after a debut success in the colours of his trainer Alan King.

It would not be a surprise if Supasundae, an easy winner of the Coral Cup at Cheltenham previous time out, one day gains another verdict over Yanworth. A son of Galileo, the Newsells Park-bred gelding is a half-sister to that stud’s young stallion Nathaniel, also by Galileo. His mare, Distinctive Look, is a daughter of the great Danehill, a fine cross for Galileo and she has also bred Derby-placed and smart jumper Percussionist and Great Heavens, among a host of 100-plus rated progeny.

Orderofthegarter duly followed on from his emphatic comeback win the other day with a fluent success dropped to seven furlongs in the 2,000 Guineas trial at Leopardstown on Saturday. Ryan Moore may well wonder why he was on the runner-up, Taj Mahal, rather than the winner, but logic says that with Churchill or even Caravaggio as more likely 2,000 Guineas mounts, it might have been sensible to let Seamie Heffernan make this progressive colt’s acquaintance.

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