The Welsh National was first run at Chepstow in 1949, though dates back to 1895 when run at Ely Racecourse in Cardiff.
The race took place at Easter and then in February, before the switch to December in 1979. Trainer Jenny Pitman struck in 1982 and 1983 with a pair of exceptional horses. Corbiere was her first winner, and went on to glorious success in the Aintree version a few months later. Burrough Hill Lad won the following year, before lifting the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. He was a sensational racehorse, though his career was blighted by injury. He still managed to add victories in the Charlie Hall, the Hennessy and the King George.
Cool Ground was another future Gold Cup winner to take the Welsh National, when winning in 1990. Master Oats completed the same double during the 94/95 season, though the Chepstow event was transferred to Newbury due to the weather. Earth Summit took the Welsh and then the Aintree Nationals, and Bindaree completed the same double, though in the reverse order in 2002 and 2003.
In 2004 Silver Birch won the showpiece at Chepstow, but had to wait three years before capturing the Grand National at Aintree. Whilst ill-fated Synchronised won in Wales in 2010, then took the Lexus in Ireland in 2011, before his sensational victory in England, at Cheltenham, in the Gold Cup of 2012. Tragically, he was to die at Aintree just weeks after his greatest success.
Synchronised is one of only three horses to carry 11 stone or more to victory in the last 19 Welsh Nationals. He was successful as an eight-year-old, an age that has accounted for five of the last seven winners. It usually takes a horse with a fair amount of experience to win a Welsh National. Only two six-year-olds have won since the race came to Chepstow, and they are the youngest to capture the prize.
Older horses have a similarly patchy record however, with just one 11-year-old, and a pair of 10-year-olds winning since 1979. Mountainous was the lone 11-year-old, successful in the race just 12 months ago. It was his second success in three years, and he returns for another crack next week. Though older horses have a poor record, he does at least have plenty of racecourse experience, which has often proved a prerequisite for potential winners of this.
In a marathon handicap of this nature, it’s somewhat surprising that there have not been more shock results. Though favourites have a poor record, the winners do tend to be fancied contenders. In the last 10 renewals, only two have won at odds bigger than 16s, and those were both 20/1 shots. It does however, come as no surprise that horses need to have experience of competing in staying chases. The last 10 winners had all run, and indeed won, at three miles or more. This race is often a slog, and contenders must possess the guts for such a battle.
Of this year’s field, Native River heads both the weights and the betting. The Hennessy Gold Cup winner is undoubtedly classy, and is trained by the triumphant Tizzard team. Very few have carried top-weight to victory, with Carvill’s Hill the last fella to do so in 1991. The chances of Tizzard’s young chaser making the start, diminish with every day of rain, and I’d be surprised if he’s not spared the inevitable slog through the mud, with a potential Gold Cup bid still on the horizon.
The same cannot be said for Bishop’s Road, who off 11st 11lbs is a recognised mud-lover, and is trained by last year’s winner, Kerry Lee. His handicap mark remains a mighty issue when viewing him as a potential winner. He’s 10lbs higher than when winning the Grand National trial at Haydock in February. He can be a little clumsy over his fences, and is yet to win a big-field chase, which is an added concern.
Carole’s Destrier is another on a career high mark, though his 11st 5lbs is somewhat more bearable. He put in a stunning performance when runner-up in the Hennessy at Newbury, and took the London National at Sandown last winter when carrying 11st 10lbs. He goes on any ground, and has been well-backed for the race. He’s an eight-year-old with the right amount of experience, and looks to have a great chance.
Money has poured in for the Philip Hobbs trained Onenightinvienna. A very good novice chaser last season, he chased home RSA winner Blaklion at Cheltenham last December, and looks to be on a fair mark. He is another that will not be inconvenienced should the ground turn soft or heavy. He does occasionally shift slightly right at his fences, which is a concern, but he is a horse I like. His return at Carlisle was solid, though only a two-runner affair. He looks a serious player.
Another second-season chaser with the pedigree to go well is Nicky Henderson’s Vyta Du Roc. He appeared to lack the speed to challenge for honours in the Hennessy, though stayed on well enough for sixth. Though he goes on soft, I’m not convinced it’s ideal for him. And despite running well in the Scottish National, I’m by no means certain that he’s an out-and-out stayer. Nevertheless, his handicap mark looks attractive, and odds of 20/1 are hugely tempting.
Firebird Flyer was runner-up in this race 12 months ago, and will love the slog. The worry is, that he’s now 8lbs higher in the handicap, and there’s been no Welsh-trained winner since the year of my birth, 1965. Evan Williams has had some terrific staying chasers in the yard over the years, and will be hoping to finally crack that Welsh National hoodoo.
Another that quite enjoys a marathon, is the Richard Newland trained Royale Knight. He’s not the quickest, but he’ll be staying on well, when others have cried ‘enough’. He was fourth in the Scottish National in April, won the Durham National at Sedgefield in October 2015, and was sixth in the Grand National the same year. His recent run in the Borders National shows that he retains plenty of ability and enthusiasm, and I’d be surprised if he wasn’t in the mix at the prize-giving end of the race.
Surely Shotgun Paddy will go close off a mark of 139, assuming he makes the cut. Third last year when off 145, he looks to have been given a great chance by the handicapper. Twice a winner and twice placed at Chepstow in his five visits, he’s a major each-way shout at 16s. His return at Cheltenham was more than satisfactory, when only fading late-on. He’s impossible to ignore when searching for the likely winner.
This is such a competitive renewal, with so many contenders looking to have a winning profile. In the absence of my original selections, Vyta Du Roc and Shotgun Paddy, I'll now be siding with Carole's Destrier, ridden by Grand National supremo Leighton Aspell. The horse came so close in the Hennessy, and can go one better today. Best of luck to all those having a punt.