Snow Leopardess and Brian Hughes at Aintree. 10/4/2021 Pic Steve Davies/Racingfotos.com

Monday Musings: Having a mare for the National

He could hardly have stage-managed it any better, writes Tony Stafford. Trainer Charlie Longsdon faces five days of anxiety and excitement as he prepares his grey mare, Snow Leopardess, to attempt what will be a doubly unique achievement in Saturday’s Randox Grand National.

Not only is the ten-year-old a mare and a grey to boot, but also uniquely one that has had a foal which has now reached racing age.

For the record – repeating (and I hope accurately) facts I trotted out when the aim was mooted a few weeks back – there have been 13 winning mares of Liverpool’s great race, but only two, Sheila’s Cottage (1948) and Nickel Coin three years later, in the past 120 years.

Three grey horses have won the race in its 183-year history since Lottery won the inaugural race in 1839. The Lamb in 1868 and 1871, Nicolaus Silver in 1961, and Paul Nicholls’ Neptune Collonges ten years ago, were the trio.

As far as I know none of the first 11 winners taking us up to 1902 had a foal, but in those days of milk-cart pullers turning up to have a go round the fences having walked miles to get there, who can say?

Snow Leopardess fulfils all three requirements and can also boast a win around the Aintree fences – in the Becher Chase, the middle of three unblemished appearances this season. And as if the portents hadn’t been positive already, having been some way out of the top 40 before her last win at Exeter, withdrawals mean she is safely in at number 38.

Longsdon sent her to that mares’ Listed race to gain the few extra pounds he reckoned it would take to guarantee her place in the field, but the jumps handicapper was unimpressed, leaving her unchanged on 145 after a ten-length romp. The Grand National gets special treatment and she resides there 1lb higher and, in these days of blanket Irish entries, it was just as well.

Looking at the race I think we should deal not much lower than the top 40 as it would take an idiot to neglect the opportunity to run for half a million sterling on a track presently officially good to soft and with a few showers to top it up. So little used, Aintree’s Grand National course invariably offers a sympathetic surface.

When the dry spell was continuing, the prospect of fast ground on Saturday was a worry for Longsdon, but if it stays as advertised she should be fine. Also, she is ideally placed, right at the bottom of the weights and therefore not in danger from a lightweight taking advantage of a hefty weight allowance.

The make-up of the race is interesting. Looking at the top 40 horses, 24 are trained in Ireland and 16 in the UK. Gordon Elliott (or rather owner Michael O’Leary) has declined to allow Tiger Roll to attempt the Red Rum-equalling third win, but they do have Delta Work, the horse that beat him in that thrilling battle in last month’s Cheltenham Foxhunters, to carry the maroon and white colours.

Delta Work, 8-1 equal-favourite at this stage with compatriot Any Second Now (Ted Walsh/J P McManus) and Snow Leopardess, is one of eight Elliott horses, all in the top 22, which can represent the trainer.

While he is no longer pilloried for the events which led to a suspension last year, he must have found Cheltenham an ordeal as he watched his great rival and obvious role model Willie Mullins winning ten races at the Festival. Mullins has a low-key trio (among the top 40) in on Saturday of which Burrows Saint looks his best chance.

If he had not run his last race, when beaten miles in third behind close contenders Any Second Now and Elliott’s Escaria Ten, Burrows Saint would surely have been higher in the market especially as he started favourite that day. He remains one under the radar and everyone knows Mullins’ capability of pulling rabbits out of hats.

It’s always fun to hear trainers and owners moaning about their horses’ treatment at the Grand National weights unveiling and Henry De Bromhead duly joined that group in complaining that Minella Times, last year’s record-breaking winner under Rachael Blackmore, had too much weight.

Pointing to this year’s two runs – a pulled up and then a fall as evidence – he reckoned he should not have been higher than when running in those two races. I am 100% behind the handicapper and 2lb for the long-established Aintree factor looks fair enough for me, especially remembering how easily he won last year’s race for J P McManus.

There is no incentive for trainers guaranteed to get their horses in the race to over-exert them in the season leading up to it, but I think Colin Tizzard deserves credit for the attacking policy he has pursued with Fiddlerontheroof, runner-up giving away plenty of weight in last November’s Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury.

The Fiddler then went to Ascot for an excellent second to Fortescue in the Swinley Chase attempting to concede 17lb. He jumped the last in front of Henry Daly’s horse and subsequent revelation that he lost a shoe possibly enhances the merit of the performance.

Sometimes one modest run is enough to convince the betting public that a horse’s improvement may have come to an end. When Chatham Street Lad toiled home 22 and again 22 lengths third behind A Plus Tard and Royale Pagaille in the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November, he immediately dropped out of the subconscious.

But Michael Winters, his trainer, is a dab hand at the big races and it is probably wise to remember the ease of his runaway Cheltenham win in December 2020 and last May’s equally impressive victory in a Graded chase at Limerick.

A combination of Kauto Star and Denman would not have stopped A Plus Tard that day, nor indeed at Cheltenham last month when he was the most impressive of Gold Cup winners. Chatham Street Lad is my best outsider.

De Bromhead got A Plus Tard back to that peak – and what a peak! - at the right time for Cheltenham after a hit-and-miss campaign for much of the winter, and now you have to think Minella Times will have been precisely and single-mindedly aimed at this second shot. Repeat wins are less infrequent than you might think, and he could easily do it again. Imagine the noise if they did. Champion Hurdle, Gold Cup and another Grand National for Rachael in the space of three weeks? It could easily happen.

Apologies for another truncated offering – trouble getting my Internet sorted! – but I must end with a salute to Christian Williams and his achievement in supplying the first two in the Scottish Grand National last weekend.

His nine-year-old mare, Win My Wings, was held up a long way back for much of the four miles at Ayr but came through strongly in the straight. Leading halfway down she moved easily into the lead and scooted clear of stable-mate Kitty’s Light in a show of complete control.

Williams can now be sure she will be raised enough to qualify rating-wise for next year’s Grand National proper – her 140 will be raised at least to 150 unless the official was looking elsewhere on Saturday.

In the meantime a mare one year senior to her will have her chance to make the headlines and history. I hope Snow Leopardess can add a final accolade to her already impressive tally of achievement and win the Grand National. Chatham Street Lad, Fiddlerontheroof and Minella Times complete my four for the exotics. Good luck to everyone and let’s hope they all come home safe and sound.

- TS

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