It's day one of the Grand National meeting at Aintree and, aside from the big race itself on Saturday, there's plenty of very high class action and - of course - a series of impossible handicaps. In this post, I'll preview the Thursday races with some trends and a tip or two to boot.
Enough with the preamble, let's get cracking. It all kicks off with the...
2.00 MATALAN ANNIVERSARY 4-Y-O JUVENILE HURDLE GRADE 1 (CLASS 1) (4yo) (2m 1/2f)
The Aintree equivalent of the Triumph Hurdle and a number of runners back up from there, and also from the Fred Winter. Rolling Star, sent off favourite in the Triumph, but only sixth; and stablemate Vasco de Ronceray, one place ahead of his higher profile colleague; are joined by Frew Winter winner, Flaxen Flare, Ruacana (7th) and Zamdy Man (12th).
Those Festival attendees are joined here by notable Cheltenham absentees, Irish Saint and L'Unique.
This is a race which has historically gone either to the favourite or to a big priced outsider. Specifically, in the past decade, seven favourites have won. The other three winners were priced at 25/1, 33/1 and 40/1!
The favourite here will most likely be Rolling Star, bidding to atone for a disappointing effort behind the brilliant Our Conor in the Triumph. The problem with him, quite apart from his flop at Cheltenham, is that he has to prove he's equally as effective on good ground. His two wins to date - one in France and one verdict over Irish Saint in Britain - have been on heavy ground.
It was good to soft officially - but I suspect quicker than that, unofficially - and that may well be the reason for Rolling Star's defeat. Even if you accept that he wouldn't have beaten Our Conor, it's hard to overlook the fact that five other horses beat him and he was 23 lengths behind the winner. Moreover, he had an impressive track win at Cheltenham as well so we can't say the course was against him.
No, I'm against Rolling Star because I think he needs it softer. It's hard to see Vasco de Ronceray winner either, as I believe he ran as well as he can last time, and that's not good enough to win this.
The Fred Winter form is primarily represented by runaway winner, Flaxen Flare. In contrast to Rolling Star, Flaxen Flare has proven his liking for quicker turf, and he's had plenty of match practice, both on the level and now over hurdles. He could double up and represents the best chance of a Cheltenham Festival horse winning this in my view.
Of those that swerved the mid-March madness, the pick is probably Irish Saint. Put in his place by Rolling Star two starts back, he bounced back to wear down Vasco de Ronceray last time out at Kempton. The former race was run in a bog, and the latter was a crawl and then a quarter mile sprint. I remarked at the time that Irish Saint, who was given a waiting ride and ceded first run to all his rivals that day, was value for more than that bare form, and I reckon he has a decent chance here if they go a good gallop. Certainly, I'd expect him to reverse form with Rolling Star, and the 40 day absence means he comes here a fresh horse.
There are a couple of darker types stepping up in grade on last time out wins: Hefner, Runswick Royal and Bob's World. Hefner, rated 90 on the flat, won in a protracted duel with Looking On on his hurdling debut and only start over timber. The second and fourth have both come out and won since, giving the form a really solid look, and this chap might run well for Playboy fans at a decent price on ground he'll love. He's clearly talented.
Runswick Royal is slightly more exposed, having now raced twice over hurdles. In three prior bumper starts, he'd recorded one win. Two hurdle runs see him unbeaten over obstacles, and while he is progressive, I suspect he'd be a bit better on softer.
Bob's World was disappointing early in his career, but was likely a victim of whatever it was that was ailing the Jennie Candlish yard. Since her horses have started firing again, he's unbeaten in two. Again, while he's a progressive type, he ought not to be quite good enough to beat these.
Selection: Irish Saint 7/2
Next best: Flaxen Flare 5/1
Outsider with a squeak: Hefner 33/1
2.30 BETFRED BOWL CHASE GRADE 1 (CLASS 1) (5yo+) (3m1f)
A decent renewal of a decent race, though perhaps not the greatest Grade 1 of the year. It was won by a 50/1 poke last year (nominated here), but is normally slightly more market conformist. Indeed, the other nine winners in the past decade were 14/1 or shorter.
Older horses have a fantastic record in this, with those aged nine to eleven having won ten of the last sixteen renewals. That's not enough to discount the younger brigade, but it does mean we shouldn't discount the older guard either.
Silviniaco Conti leads the charge and is around the even money mark to erase memories of that fall when going well in the Gold Cup last time. There's no telling how he'd have finished his race there, and my suspicion is that he'd have been outstayed by the likes of Bobs Worth, a horse which gets every yard of the extended three and a quarter mile test.
Here, the trip is shorter, the opposition easier, and the ground quicker. Those are optimal conditions for SC, and he's a course and distance winner too, having won the Grade 2 novices' chase here last term. He's only had four runs this year and, if that fall hasn't dented his confidence, he'll take a lot of beating here.
His main market rivals here also ran at Cheltenham: First Lieutenant was second in the Ryanair; and The Giant Bolster was fourth in the Gold Cup. First Lieutenant is one of those horses which doesn't seem to have a trip... or at least which seems to get beaten at whatever trip he races over. He's clearly a high class horse, and this track/trip/ground could be optimal for him, but he's just not in the winning habit, having failed to score since November 2011. That's nine races, in which he's been second five times. It would be no surprise to see him 'silvering' again.
The Giant Bolster ran a fine race in the Gold Cup, and this better ground will suit him well. He did have a hard race at Cheltenham, which is my worry, but if he's sufficiently recovered, I can see him going close with a clear round. Of course, that seemingly throwaway statement is material for a nag which has belted plenty in his career. Whilst he's definitely a better fencer this season, he's still prone to the odds lapse of focus.
Further down the lists, I'm not interested in Cape Tribulation on fast ground on a flat track. He's won handicaps on quick turf, but a Grade 1 is another matter entirely, especially a relatively slick circuit like this.
Quito De La Roque won here two years ago in the same race Silviniaco Conti won last year; but he's been off for 77 days and that's plenty long enough. In mitigation however, he does seem to go well fresh, as three wins and a Grade 1 third on his seasonal debuts attests.
He's classy on his day and acts on quick ground, even though his best form is probably with more give. At the price, he might be worth a tickle each way.
I can't have Menorah over this trip. He just doesn't stay and anyone who says he does is a liar. So there! 😉 He also doesn't jump very well and, while he is classy, there are too many negatives for me.
If I had to entertain the notion of one at a massive price, it'd be Wayward Prince. Well named after a couple of poor performances in muddy ground slogs, he's got plenty of track form. Indeed, in three runs here, he's 141, which includes a Grade 1 hurdles win and a Listed chase win in December. I'm not suggesting he'll win necessarily, but I do think 50/1 is worth a chuckaway win and place sniff.
Most likely winner: Silviniaco Conti Evens
Fair each way value: Quito de la Roque 11/1
Outsider with a squeak: Wayward Prince 50/1
3.05 JOHN SMITH´S AINTREE HURDLE GRADE 1 (CLASS 1) (4yo+) (2m4f)
The high class fare cracks on with a third Grade 1 in succession, this time the Aintree Hurdle over two and a half miles. Serial winners are a feature of recent years, with first Al Eile (won the 4yo hurdle in 2004, then won this in 2005, 2007 and 2008), and latterly Oscar Whisky now bidding for the hat-trick after wins in 2011 and 2012.
Bizarrely, Oscar Whisky is fifth favourite here after a disastrous second tilt at the World Hurdle at Cheltenham, where he was never going and eventually pulled up. But I think he's over-priced, and here's why. He wasn't given a hard time of it last time. In fact, it could be argued he was given a racecourse gallop. Now that is of course a controversial thing to say, but one thing I can be sure of is this: his day of the season will be this day, and a lot of people may be kicking themselves a) for letting him go off a big price, and b) for not backing him.
I might be wrong, I often am, but 13/2 about a dual winner with optimal conditions in his favour is too big.
He's rated a pound inferior to Countrywide Flame (167 to CF's 168). The latter is an admirable sort, but he simply doesn't have the class of Oscar Whisky. He ran a blinder in the Champion Hurdle, and his second in the Cesarewitch over two and a quarter miles on the flat gives every indication he'll stay this far. He's tough, very tough, but I find it hard to see him beating OW.
Then there's Champion Hurdle fourth, Zarkandar. He seemed to be exposed as not quite good enough there and, though he ought to stay this far, his only attempt was when falling as favourite in this race last year. He was being pushed along at the time, and he might struggle to beat all-comers here.
Talk of fallers brings in Grandouet, a beast which has two F's in its last five runs, and which has a lot to prove over this trip. No thanks, though he could surprise me.
The aspirant in the camp is The New One, winner of the Neptune over this sort of trip at Cheltenham, and vanquisher of My Tent Or Yours in the Grade 2 bumper here last year. He's had five runs this year, which is plenty, and he had a fairly tough race at Cheltenham, so it says something for the shape of this book that he's favourite despite officially being a stone behind the pick of the more exposed runners.
Naturally, the key is in that last statement: he has upside where they mostly don't. So the question is, can The New One 'officially' improve a stone to win this (assuming one of the top four rated runs to par)? The answer for me is 'perhaps, but I don't want to take 11/4 about it'.
He's a lovely horse, but that's too short against seasoned professionals.
Thousand Stars is an old bugger now, but he's run some fine races down the years, including when beaten a neck in this the last two years. If you can forgive his clunker last time on seriously quaggy turf, and he can rediscover the form of those two narrow defeats, he must have a squeak.
The rest don't look interesting to me, with so many possibles further up the lists.
Value Selection: Oscar Whisky 7/1
Each way alternative: Thousand Stars 11/1
3.40 JOHN SMITH´S FOX HUNTERS´ CHASE (CLASS 2) (6yo+) (2m 5 1/2f)
OK, let's profile this one. It's a very different race from the Cheltenham Foxhunter's, as it is a) five furlongs shorter, and b) over the National fences.
All of the last sixteen winners have been between nine and twelve (79 horses older or younger have tried and failed to win in that time, with just five placed efforts to their names).
All bar two of the last sixteen winners finished 1-2-3 or fell or unseated last time under rules.
All bar two of the last sixteen winners came from the first four in the market.
And All bar two of the last sixteen winners ran within the last sixty days.
Pulling all that - bar the market - together gives us a shortlist of Silverburn, Rash Move, Boxer Georg, Battle Front, Cool Friend, Gwanako, Gentle George, Cottage Oak, Mourne Paddy and Warne.
Although the temptation is to get cute and look for a price here, it's sobering to note that apart from 50/1 Silver Adonis in 2010, every other winner in the last decade was 13/2 or shorter.
That leaves us Gwanako and Warne, and perhaps Cottage Oak. I'm against the last named as he had a tough old race at Cheltenham (though he does fit my Aintree April mini-system).
Gwanako has to be call though, despite the relatively short price. He's a Topham Chase winner over these fences, and he was also second in the same race. Against that, he has fallen twice over the fences too, so you need to have that in mind if wagering. But he's probably the best of these and, with plenty of local knowledge, will be tough to beat if standing up.
For those looking for an each way play, the natural place to start is with the above shortlist. Of those, Battlefront should love the ground and has an excellent pilot in Katie Walsh (bidding to win the Grand National on Saturday aboard Seabass, riding both for her 'old man', Ted).
Cool Friend might also run well: his two regulation runs here ended in a second in a decent field handicap hurdle, and a win in a novice chase. Still only ten, and a 'goer' on good ground, he's a big price at around 33/1 if he can recapture some of his best form. If.
Selection: Gwanako 5/1
Each way: Battlefront 20/1
Outsider with an each way squeak: Cool Friend 50/1
4.15 MATALAN.CO.UK RED RUM HANDICAP CHASE GRADE 3 (CLASS 1) (5yo+) (2m)
And so, finally, to the first of the handicaps. The first handicap here mimics the last handicap of the Cheltenham Festival, the Grand Annual, and as such horses running here which also ran there might be treated with caution. Then again, given that eight of the last thirteen winners ran at Cheltenham, most of them in the Grand Annual, we might not!
Fifteen of the last sixteen winners of this either finished in the first five last time out, or failed to finish. All bar three of that group were aged seven to nine. And only three winners in that group were able to win off a weight of more than 11-02. All save one of those sixteen were rated between 129 and 143.
That whittles the field of eighteen down to six: Rebel Rebellion, Viva Colonia, Pires, Kings Grey, Echo Bob and Silver Roque.
Rebel Rebellion seems versatile regarding trip and ground, though this combination may be close to optimal. Nevertheless, he's 13/2 in a big field and that is no better than fair.
Pires is next, and he has an obvious chance. Indeed, the obviousness of his chance may be his undoing, as he doesn't look to have hidden much from the handicapper. He goes on decent ground, the trip is spot on, and he's a winner, which I always like. Alas, his handicap mark has risen from 114 to 135 and that leaves less scope for improvement than some of these potentially.
Viva Colonia probably needs a bit further, and is overlooked here. Kings Grey is a strong traveller but doesn't find much usually. Echo Bob might be more interesting. He was third in this race last year off today's mark of 135, and shouldn't mind the ground. Saying that, he was beaten 21 lengths last term, and the Irish have a less than stellar record here (just two winners since 1991 and none since 2005.
All of which leaves Silver Roque. In the frame in ten of his eleven chase starts, and a winner last time out at the beginning of March, he comes here a fresher horse than many, and on an upward curve too. Whilst a mark of 133 is hardly 'thrown in', it's definitely workable, and trainer Fergal O'Brien knows what to do with a good'un. It's not a race I'll be getting too excited in, and I'll be saving a number of bullets in placepot terms for this, but Silver Roque at around 12/1 looks a decent each way shout.
Possible each way: Silver Roque 12/1
4.50 BETFRED MANIFESTO NOVICES´ CHASE GRADE 1 (CLASS 1) (5yo+) (2m4f)
A fourth Grade 1 on the card, and this time it's the novice chasers strutting their stuff. The lop-sided book here has Captain Conan in at 6/4 or so but, based on official ratings, that looks short enough. The Captain is joint second top-rated on 152 with Changing Times, and they're both two pounds behind Fago and only two in front of His Excellency.
In truth, it's a bugger's muddle of a race, with plenty looking to redeem themselves after disappointing efforts, including Captain Conan. In the circumstances, I'm looking for a horse about whose recent failure I can find a ready excuse. And the one which is easiest to forgive is Carlito Brigante.
In a nutshell, Carlito Brigante is a very high class good ground horse. He just doesn't act on soft. Quite why he was sent off at 8/1 at Cheltenham on soft ground is beyond me, and with firmer footing assured, he looks good enough and well enough matched to conditions to run a big race.
With three places to go at, I'm more than happy to side with CB. He has a hurdle mark the equal of most of these chase marks (153) and has clearly had his own fencing mark 'managed' with a view to a big tilt at the Centenary Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. That was ground dependant and went west, but I expect him to far outrun his official peg this time.
Captain Conan has never run on ground quicker than soft four times, and they're the only four times he's been beaten in UK. If you want 6/4 about that, good luck!
Fago is almost certainly over the top for the season (six runs already) and has also shown all his best form on slower turf. He was thumped in a short field on good ground the last day, and is waaaaay too short to be a play.
Changing Times ran a blinder at Cheltenham to be third, but he's another which prefers softer ground. He also might not be quite as scopey as some of these. Not for me, though he's admirably tough.
The one other of slight interest is the David Pipe-trained His Excellency. This fellow could have run in the Red Rum race half an hour earlier, but has been re-routed here instead. He was going well when falling three out in the Grand Annual and has a consistent profile. He won't mind the ground but all his form is at two miles and the extra half mile here is a big question mark. At around 12/1, you might be prepared to take that chance, and he should go well for a long time even if his stamina doesn't last out. (This flat track will give him every chance of getting home).
Selection: Carlito Brigante 8/1
Each way alternative: His Excellency 14/1
5.25 SILVER CROSS HANDICAP HURDLE GRADE 3 (CLASS 1) (4yo+) (3m 1/2f)
And we close with an impossible handicap hurdle. This is not a race to go mad in, and I'm looking for a horse aged six to eight; carrying eleven stone or less; and rated 126 to 140 or so.
My shortlist is Sixty Something, Hada Men, Connectivity and Battle Group.
Sixty Something won a much weaker novices' handicap hurdle over course and distance and on good ground last October, proving his affection for conditions. This is a marked step up in class, but he has commensurately less weight as a consequence. He's a fairly lightly raced novice, so has scope to improve and could just be up to a race like this. He's been backed this morning but 16/1 still around in bits and pieces.
Hada Men is trained by that shrewdie amongst shrewdies, Venetia Williams. She's won plenty of Festival handicaps in recent years, including with Carrickboy at 50/1 at Cheltenham. This fellow ran all right at Cheltenham behind Holywell, and will be much better suited to this flat track (his wins have come at places like Haydock, Doncaster and Folkestone). He's a right to run better than odds of 40/1 suggest.
Connectivity comes here on his second run off a long layoff, and it's possible he could bounce as a consequence. But Dr Richard Newland is another wily old fox, and he too can ready one for the big pots. Connectivity's wins are around three miles on good ground and, while he too needs to step up in class, he's got a racing weight so to do. 20/1 is fine.
Finally, Battle Group was the winner of this two years ago off a six pounds higher mark. He's been in reasonable form and sneaks in here off bottom weight and with conditions optimal. While you won't get rich backing favourites in handicaps of this nature, he's a logical sort for a race like this, and 9/1 or so represents good saver material if you must go long in this contest.
Three against the field: Sixty Something 20/1, Hada Men 40/1, Connectivity 20/1
Saver type: Battle Group 9/1
Aintree System Qualifiers
My simple Aintree system has thrown out the following picks today:
First Lieutenant (IRE) 2.30 Aintree 7/2
Countrywide Flame 3.05 Aintree 4/1
The New One (IRE) 3.05 Aintree 11/4
Cottage Oak (IRE) 3.40 Aintree 7/1
Typically, I'm not that keen on any of them, but one winner amongst the quartet would pay for the losers.
Aintree Placepot Bankers and Blowouts
I'm not going to share my entire Aintree day one placepot here, mainly because I haven't finished pulling it together. But I will offer a couple of horses I'll be relying on, and a couple I'm fielding against.
Firstly, on the banker side, I'm putting a fair bit of my placepot faith in Irish Saint in the first, and Silviniaco Conti in the second. I'm hopeful that both of those two horses will at least make the frame for the Denizen of Ditcheat (Paul Nicholls, if you prefer).
On the blowout front, I'm trying to get the following out of the frame: Rolling Star in race one; Bold Addition in the Foxhunters'; Kid Cassidy in the Red Rum; and both Captain Conan and Fago in the Manifesto Novices' Chase.
Obviously, even if I get most of that right, there's still plenty of work to do. That's why the placepot is a bet worth playing!
Best of luck to all.
p.s. what are your best bets of day one? Placepot bankers and blowouts? Leave a comment and let us know.