So we will be seeing Tiger Roll at Aintree after all, writes Tony Stafford. Not of course in Saturday’s Randox Health Grand National but in the Betfair Bowl on the first of the three days of the meeting. Judged on the way he won the Cross-Country race to give him a fifth Cheltenham Festival success, the dual Grand National winner could easily beat Clan Des Obeaux and Native River.
Clan Des Obeaux missed Cheltenham to wait for this premier level-weights chase at the Aintree fixture. Not so Native River, who put in a valiant attempt to add a second Gold Cup when finishing fourth to Minella Indo. Sadly, his regular jockey Richard Johnson will not be riding this week, the 43-year-old having announced his retirement after fulfilling his duties for the last time at Newton Abbot on Saturday.
I will leave the Johnson eulogy to others save to say that his 3,726 winners in the UK over 28 seasons, was second only to A P McCoy’s 4,204. He achieved four titles in succession and 24 consecutive centuries. The first failure to be champion since the retirement of A P McCoy came last season when Brian Hughes took advantage of his rival’s prolonged injury absence. His final season brought 73 wins from 521 mounts and Native River was given full assistance by his never-give-up partner all the way to the line.
So we come to the Grand National and it will be interesting to see how many media people, owners, administrators and in-crowd will be able to make their way to Aintree this week to join the more vital trainers and stable staff. I’m guessing somewhere north of 1,500, or is that just sour grapes?
With the Covid19 numbers of deaths for the past two days at ten for both Saturday and Sunday, the situation in the UK now looks more promising, never mind the ever-vocal critics of the government’s handling of the year-long crisis. I’m due my second jab next week and hopefully then I can go racing again.
Quite the most intriguing prospect is to try to calculate the possible number of finishers in the great race. I suspect there could again be around half the 40-strong line-up getting round this year. Whether the authorities deny it or not, in recent seasons, Aintree has become rather more toothless compared to its predecessor. Of course, horse welfare is paramount in these sensitive times and a few more years without fatalities is something to be very much wished for.
Tiger Roll’s two winning years have brought a total of nine casualties that were officially declared as fallers, six in 2018 and only three the following year. Another five unseated in 2018 and two the next time round. Thirteen and 14 respectively were the pulled-up totals, so 12 finishers in 2018 and 19 the last time the race was staged.
The latest barometer of the course’s teeth was the early December fixture which features two races over the Grand National fences. First up is the 3m2f Becher Chase and that 14-runner race had eight finishers with three fallers (including unusually Yala Enki) and three unseated riders, so was tolerably attritional.
Then the Grand Sefton over half a mile shorter had a field of 18, and 13 finishers. Only two fell and three pulled up in this.
The Becher Chase was won by the big outsider Vieux Lion Rouge for the David Pipe stable. That was his second win, along with one second place, in five straight tries at that race and he would have matched it with consecutive appearances in the big race itself last April had it not been called off.
He’ll be back on Saturday as a 12-year-old for his tenth go-round having successfully negotiated 223 of the unique Aintree obstacles (one fence in the Nationals of 2018 and 2019 had to be omitted on safety grounds). He has been seventh, sixth, ninth and 15th without ever looking either like winning or that he would fail to complete.
Tom Scudamore was usually his partner in the past but he has bigger fish to fry on Saturday, continuing his spectacular association with the Jonjo O’Neill-trained Cloth Cap. An all-the-way winner of the Ladbroke (ex-Hennessy) Handicap Chase at Newbury in late November, O’Neill resisted temptation until Kelso last month when his gelding was again dominant, making all to beat Aso, Two For Gold and Definitly Red without ever letting them close in a level-weights race.
If the handicapper had the option of re-assessing Cloth Cap he would have added 14lb and it is rare for such a situation to occur in a Grand National. Added to that ingredient, he is the most fluent and accurate of jumpers and one that enjoys making the running. It is easy to imagine his delivering an exciting all-the-way success with nothing ever getting near him.
It almost suggests a similar race to the first of the Red Rum trio of wins almost half a century ago. For all but the last 25 yards, top-weight and two-mile champion Crisp made the running at a fast pace under 12st top-weight, nothing ever looking like challenging. Then, coming back on the course with an apparently unassailable lead, his stamina ran out while Rummy barreled relentlessly on.
At the end of that decade, Alverton, winner two weeks previously of the Cheltenham Gold Cup under Jonjo O’Neill, was 6-1 favourite. He fell and was killed at Becher’s second time round. That fence is probably one of the few “traps” of nowadays and not until the field has rounded the bend soon after it has been negotiated will trainers and owners start to relax, replacing trepidation with optimism.
Jonjo had to wait 31 years to enjoy full consolation for that awful Alverton moment, when Don’t Push It under A P McCoy won the 2010 race for J P McManus. Victory for Cloth Cap and his owner, Grand National specialist Trevor Hemmings who has won the race three times, would rank even higher I would imagine.
Despite the recent paucity of authentic fallers there is always the propensity at Aintree for horses being taken out of the race through no fault of their own. The first fence is an obvious focal point with the possibility of a too-fast start, although the shorter run-up to the initial obstacle has taken some of the steam out of that.
The first big ditch at three and Becher’s first time (six) are then crucial, but after the next hairpin at Valentine’s (eighth) apart from another ditch halfway down the back, the horses can get into a rhythm and their jockeys start to plan a race.
It’s possible to come from a long way back at that point as long as the horse takes to the fences. We always think of the once-jumped Chair, the biggest fence in the field at number 15 and just in front of the usually packed enclosures, as terrifying. Quite often it seems the field can safely jump it, possibly because by then the horses have their eye in and fatigue is not yet an issue. Luckily, that fence is jumped only once, along with the water that follows virtually level with the winning line.
Anyway, by now we should be starting to hope that our fancy – or more realistically around the country the short-list most once-a-year punters like to start with – may still be in contention. All that remains is another two miles and the first 14 fences all over again, but at least the field will have thinned out somewhat by the time of second Becher’s.
I’ve not yet mentioned any other than Cloth Cap, who could win, and Vieux Lion Rouge who almost certainly cannot, but I think I may have come up with two slightly funny ones and a third for good measure away from the main contenders.
Firstly, I have a feeling that Anibale Fly could have been a long-term plot for this race by arch-planner Tony Martin. The 2019 Gold Cup runner-up to Al Boum Photo, he was strongly supported for that National and did very well, finishing fifth, around 16 lengths behind Tiger Roll in his second win, conceding 5lb and carrying top-weight.
He didn’t beat another horse in three chases when returning to action last season, only getting in the frame on his last appearance when third in a hurdle race. The Martin/ McManus 11-year-old was off the track for a year until his reappearance in a Grade 3 at Fairyhouse in late February where he trailed around in a five-runner field. You can bet if he turns up on Saturday he’ll be fully primed and he’s come down a fair bit in the weights.
Much lower down, I think I might have landed on what in retrospect might prove the cleverest plot of all. When Blaklion was bought for £300,000 in 2019 as a potential future Grand National winner for owner Darren Yates, he was sent originally to Philip Kirby.
Blaklion, who was bred by Mary, wife of Hughie Morrison, had tried twice already at the big race for his original trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies. In 2017 he went clear three fences out but tired into fourth up the run-in. The following year, conceding 11lb to Tiger Roll, he was again one of the main fancies but was brought down at the first fence. In between, the gelding had won the Becher Chase of 2017 from a big field in a hack canter.
Now he is with Dan Skelton who gave the 12-year-old plenty of time to recover from an autumn setback, bringing him back for two conditioning runs over recent weeks. His chance this year is probably most accurately reflected by his 50-1 odds, but in a year which could end up as a title-winning one for Harry Skelton, why should not Blaklion replicate his contemporary Vieux Lion Rouge’s love of Aintree?
Blaklion has the feather-weight of 10st 2lb to carry on Saturday. A chip on him, another on Anibale Fly, and a last one to make it a veterans’ trio with Nicky Richards’ Takingrisks. His last win at Doncaster was something of a shock (40-1!) but featured the same runner up (Aye Right) as Cloth Cap at Kelso.
I think I’ll mix the three of them with the favourite in multiples and back all three each-way singly. Good luck and I bet, like me, you wish you could be there! Still, fingers crossed it won’t be long before we all can. See you at Royal Ascot, maybe?