Another weekend, and yet another national.
The Aintree winner was outstanding, and last Monday Our Duke was something close to sensational in running away with the Irish National, on only his fourth start over fences. I’d been impressed with him throughout the winter, but doubted he had enough experience to win a 30-runner handicap of such magnitude.
Team tactics, along with a huge amount of talent ensured Jess Harrington’s young chaser prevailed. Given a perfect ride from Robbie Power, Our Duke was kept prominent and wide throughout, given a clear sight of his fences, and ensuring that he was never ‘crowded’ at any stage. He jumped solidly, and when asked to go and win his race, he simply pulverised the opposition. It was a thrilling performance from the seven-year-old novice.
He’s been well supported for next year’s Gold Cup, and looks the ideal sort. He’s clearly a powerful stayer, who should appreciate the famous hill. He’ll need to polish-up the jumping a little if he is to test the impressive Sizing John. But, if Harrington can get them both to Prestbury Park in tip-top condition, Robbie Power will have an incredibly tough decision to make.
So, what of the third national in three weeks? Ayr plays host to the Scottish marathon, won last year by the Paul Nicholls trained Vicente. He’s back for another crack, though has to haul 11-10 over the four-mile trip, and you have to go back to 1985 for the last back-to-back success.
As with most distance handicaps, especially nationals, it’s carrying huge weights that has proved a major stumbling block for contenders. In the last dozen renewals, only two have carried more than 11 stone to victory, and both of those had 11-3 on their back. There was a period between 1993 and 2004, when four horses triumphed off top-weight, but recent trends follow the norm.
It’s probably fair to say that tomorrow’s race looks a pretty ordinary renewal. Despite a torrid campaign, the aforementioned Vicente is virtually top-weight, and may well go-off favourite. He remains on the same handicap mark as 12 months ago, but has shown little spark over the winter, with his fall at the first at Aintree, rather summing-up his season.
Missed Approach heads the weights after his runner-up performance in the four-miler at Cheltenham. Carrying 11-12 is a huge negative, but his run in the Cotswolds was a cracker, showing he clearly appreciates a marathon trip. He could go well here, but it’s a tall order from the top of the pile.
Arpege D’Alene is another Nicholls contender towards the head of the handicap and the betting market. He was fourth in the four-miler at the Festival, proving his ability to cope with these extended trips. His jumping can be erratic at times, and that could make it tough for him to hold a prominent position. He has the talent to go close, but his jumping, along with plenty of weight on his back, are two major worries.
Nicky Henderson never wins nationals, though he has his best chance for a while with Premier Bond. The seven-year-old has only run four times over fences, though such a lack of experience hasn’t always been a problem in past Scottish Nationals. Beshabar (4), in 2011, Godsmejudge (6) in 2013 and Vicente (7) last year, were all similarly lacking in chasing experience when successful here. Premier Bond was third in the Fulke Walwyn at Cheltenham, and this extended trip may well suit. He looks to be on the right kind of mark to run well, and I fancy he’ll go close.
I’m losing track of the times I’ve tipped-up Shotgun Paddy for this type of race, and he’s once again hard to ignore. He’s a relentless galloper, but is always likely to find a couple with a little more ‘toe’ at the business end. Nevertheless, his handicap mark continues to give hope of a huge run, and his third-place finishes in the Classic Chase at Warwick and the Eider at Newcastle, show that he retains plenty of ability. He’s available at a tempting 16/1.
Six of the last 10 renewals have gone to those at odds of 14/1 or shorter, and Vintage Clouds falls neatly into that category. Sue Smith trains the Trevor Hemmings entrant, and this seven-year-old has proved a consistent performer throughout the winter. He was a promising third behind Vieux Lion Rouge and Blaklion in the Haydock Grand National Trial in February. He came down at Cheltenham when going well in the Ultima Handicap Chase, and I fancy that he’ll go well tomorrow. He can be clumsy at his fences, and he’ll need a better round to go close. Nevertheless, I think his handicap mark is favourable.
Another Sue Smith contender that could go well at a huge price is Blakemount. He ran out of gas in testing ground at Uttoxeter in the Midlands National, when looking the likely winner three-out. By Presenting out of a Supreme Leader mare, I’m confident he’ll enjoy the sounder surface, and that this marathon trip is within his compass. He could be an exciting each-way proposition.
Picking the winner of this 30-runner marathon is a tall order. And I’m going to be greedy in firing three bullets at the target. Sue Smith knows how to win a national, and I’ll be backing both Vintage Clouds and Blakemount. And I fancy Nicky Henderson will go very close to ending his National jinx with Premier Bond.
Best of luck to all those having a punt.