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Any Second Now books Aintree ticket

Any Second Now underlined his Randox Grand National claims with an effortless victory in the Grade Two Webster Cup at Navan.

Ted Walsh’s charge is now a general 12-1 second-favourite behind Cloth Cap for the Aintree showpiece on April 10 following an impressive round of jumping in the hands of Mark Walsh.

Sent off a 3-1 chance for this two-mile heat, Any Second Now was clearly in control with three to jump before moving clear after the penultimate obstacle and coasting home by 10 lengths from favourite Castlegrace Paddy.

The winning handler famously sent out Papillon to win the National back in 2000 while Seabass finished third in 2012, and Walsh thinks the JP McManus-owned Any Second Now compares favourably with those runners.

“He did it well,” said Walsh.

“He won a similar race last year at Naas the same way, he’s a smart horse. He won his maiden hurdle around here, won a Grade Two at Punchestown over hurdles and won the Kim Muir. He’s a fair horse.

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“I’d say that was a career best and he’s going to the National in a good frame of mind. Five runners here and 40 in the National is chalk and cheese, but he’s going there in good shape and whatever happens, happens.

“He has a grand weight off 10st 9lb. I’ve no problem with the weight, anywhere this side of 11st is grand.

“He reminds me of Papillon or Seabass as he’s going there with a good chance. If he takes to the place, travels, jumps and gets a bit of luck, he won’t be far away.

“I’d say the favourite will be hard to beat, but if he runs a good race and he’s in good shape you can’t do more than that.”

Denise Foster claimed both divisions of the Navan Members Maiden Hurdle with Coqolino (8-11 favourite) and Robinstown (11-1).

The McManus-owned Coqolino took the first leg, triumphing by three and three-quarter lengths in the hands of Walsh despite a couple of lacklustre jumps – most notably at the final flight.

“He had a bit of a scare at the last but he did that well,” said Foster.

“He’s a gorgeous horse and he’s a chaser in the making. He probably wouldn’t like fast ground, so whether he has another run this season will depend on Frank (Berry, McManus’ racing manager) and JP.

“I’m delighted to give JP (who was 70 on Wednesday) a birthday present.”

Robinstown stayed on strongly in the second division for Jack Kennedy, while the Walsh-ridden and McManus-owned Gars De Sceaux (9-4 favourite) gave Foster her fourth winner since taking control of Gordon Elliott’s string on Tuesday in the Irish Stallion Farms EBF Novice Hurdle.

Foster sent out her first victor from Cullentra at Wexford on Wednesday and said: “It’s been good. It’s a well-oiled machine and the whole team have been so helpful.

“The staff are amazing, I know a lot of them. It will take me a while to get a handle on all the horses as there are so many.

“Everybody has been brilliant, I’ve felt really at home and that’s put the icing on the cake. I’m delighted for all the team because they’ve had a very hard time and worked so hard.”

Premier prep for Grand National favourite Cloth Cap

Randox Grand National favourite Cloth Cap warms up for next month’s Aintree spectacular in the bet365 Premier Chase at Kelso on Saturday.

A small but select field of six runners line up for the £45,000 contest, with the Jonjo O’Neill-trained Cloth Cap making his first competitive appearance since landing the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury in November.

The nine-year-old is the 14-1 market leader to provide owner Trevor Hemmings with a fourth Grand National success on April 10, following the previous triumphs of Hedgehunter (2005), Ballabriggs (2011) and Many Clouds (2015).

O’Neill said: “He’s in grand form and it looks like the ground is drying out for him.

“He’s not chucked in the race – he’s not well-in (at the weights). We’re going there for the ground more than anything else.

“He has his little issues, but he’s fine at the minute and everything is going according to plan.”

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Tom Scudamore rides Cloth Cap
Tom Scudamore rides Cloth Cap (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Tom Scudamore, who steered Cloth Cap to big-race success at Newbury, is once again on board with a view to keeping the ride at Aintree.

“I hope that’s what will happen, as long as everything goes according to plan,” O’Neill added.

“I don’t want to ride him, anyway. I don’t think I’d do the weight, so he (Scudamore) won’t have a lot of competition!

“We’ve only got one plan in mind, which we’ve had for the last two years.”

The Hemmings colours are also set to be carried this weekend and at Aintree by Nick Alexander’s stable star Lake View Lad.

Lake View Lad winning the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree
Lake View Lad winning the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree (Tim Goode/PA)

The grey beat Cheltenham Gold Cup contenders Santini and Native River when landing the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree in December, but finished a long way behind that pair in the rescheduled Cotswold Chase at Sandown on his latest outing.

“It’s a proper race and I’m pleased it’s a really good race. Kelso have put on some great prize-money and it looks like the number one meeting on the day,” said Alexander.

“It’s a slight step down in grade for Lake View Lad – this is more his grade than the Cotswolds Chase was, so hopefully he can run well.

“This has always been the plan. It’s a nice prize and a nice race.

“He’s not particularly well in at the weights – if everyone performs to their mark he’s going to be third or fourth, but hopefully he’ll run very well before heading back to Aintree.”

Definitly Red is bidding for back-to-back wins in the Premier Chase
Definitly Red is bidding for back-to-back wins in the Premier Chase (Julian Herbert/PA)

Last year’s winner Definitly Red is back to defend his crown for Brian Ellison, but does have something to prove, after finishing well-beaten in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby before falling in the Rehearsal at Newcastle.

Ellison said: “This his prep run for the National, hopefully.

“Everything has been fine since the Rehearsal. He went to Wetherby last week for a hack round and we’ve just been waiting for this race.

“He’s in good fettle.”

Two For Gold (Kim Bailey), Aso (Venetia Williams) and Cool Mix (Iain Jardine) complete the sextet.

Racecourses chief admits Grand National crowd a ‘long shot’

Spectators may yet be a possibility at the Randox Grand National but are a “long shot”, as racing pushes to be included in the Government’s programme for pilot events on its road map to ease coronavirus restrictions.

Racecourse Association chief executive David Armstrong has confirmed representations will be made to Government and its Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport for at least one meeting to test the return of spectators before the potential resumption of limited crowds on May 17.

In line with the road map of dates for easing measures published by the Government this week, officials at the British Horseracing Authority and RCA are planning for the return of owners on course from March 29.

Racing will also ask Government if courses can be designated as ‘stadia’ – in which case, attendance from May 17 could increase from a limit of 4,000 to 10,000, before the proposed end to all restrictions at step four of the road map on June 21.

Armstrong told Racing TV’s Luck On Sunday: “During April and into early May, a new organisation has been set up called the Events Research Programme – and that’s going to be running a series of pilot or test events.

“That will allow us to potentially take part and host a pilot event on one or more racecourses in that period.”

Those opportunities are expected be very limited for racing, however – with many other sports and entertainment venues also sure to be considered – and Armstrong suspects Grand National day on April 10 may be a little soon.

“I think it’s a possibility, but probably a long shot at this point,” he said of the prospect of a test crowd at Aintree.

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“It’s only five weeks or so until we get to the Grand National, and that doesn’t leave a lot of time for preparation.

“But we’ll certainly be pushing hard for all our major events to be included in that ERP, and we would include the Grand National in that. It’s just a little bit higher up the ‘hard-to-do’ list.”

Tiger Roll is still on course to bid for a remarkable National hat-trick in April
Tiger Roll is still on course to bid for a remarkable National hat-trick in April (Mike Egerton/PA)

In the week before Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the Government’s road map, Chester published a plan of its own to be able to welcome back crowds for the course’s Boodles May Festival.

That meeting, from May 5-7, precedes the date for spectators to return – but could yet be a contender for the pilot programme.

Armstrong added: “That is practical, and I’d hope that events like Chester’s May Festival would be very high on the list of potential pilot events.

“The number of events that racing might get, or sport in total, would be relatively limited.

“I would be hopeful we’d get certainly one event to trial – we might struggle to get more than that.”

Armstrong is delighted to see the Government’s schedule for a gradual return to normality after the latest pandemic lockdown.

It allows racing to make plans of its own and begin to assess the practicalities and possibilities – including the issue of stadium designation, to admit larger crowds.

“Currently, we’re working with DCMS and Government to see if we can ask for racecourses to be considered as stadia in that circumstance,” Armstrong added.

“It’s great to see the road map – and particularly steps three and four, which allow us to properly understand the way in which we’ll be able to bring racing back to normal.

“That’s very exciting.”

Sounding notes of caution too, however, he said: “Each of those dates are ‘not-before dates’.

“They rely on everything moving smoothly, and on certain tests being met by Government – (so) we’ll only find out that we’re definitely moving from one step to another one week before the step actually starts.

Chester could be in the reckoning to host a crowd pilot event
Chester may be in the reckoning to host a crowd pilot event (David Davies/PA)

“So it will be quite short notice. But obviously, we want to plan on the basis that those steps are going to be achieved.”

Chester’s initial plans for a May crowd stipulated an on-site, race-day testing programme – and administrators are already considering how that could work nationally.

“There’s a possibility that mass testing would be included – and we’re working on a variety of potential solutions for mass testing,” he said.

“But of course it is a difficult thing to do, and very difficult if you try to do it on the racecourse on the race day itself.

“We’ll be looking at a number of options of how we might do that, so that we can simplify the process should we be required to do it.”

National handicapper concentrating on job in hand

British Horseracing Authority handicapper Martin Greenwood has reiterated he is never influenced by outside pressure when it comes to framing the Randox Grand National weights, after allotting Tiger Roll 11st 9lb in this year’s race.

Michael O’Leary, owner of the dual winner Tiger Roll, has been vocal in the weeks leading up to the announcement that he would not let the 11-year-old run if he was given a rating in “the 160s or 170s”.

He has been allotted a rating of 166, just 1lb lower than Easysland, who beat him by 17 lengths at Cheltenham last March.

Greenwood said: “It was a tricky one because his four runs since the weights were released last year have yielded almost next to nothing, bar his second at Cheltenham.

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“He was due to run off 170 last year and was around 5-1 favourite. It’s still difficult to know how much ability he’s got.

“Mr and Mr O’Leary (Michael and his brother and racing manager Eddie) are perfectly entitled to offer any opinion they wish, and I’m perfectly entitled not to listen. I’m not distracted by such things and go about my job as I would any other race to a degree – I know it’s the National.

“I’m not influenced any other way by connections questioning my ratings. It would be disrespectful to all the other horses should I give him special treatment, it would be perverse of me to do that. Unfortunately sentiment and emotion can’t come into it when you are a handicapper.”

When it came to assessing the quality of this year’s renewal, Greenwood said it should be one of the best ever run.

He explained: “Last year there were 48 horses above 150, which was a record. This year there are 38 which isn’t quite as good, but it’s still the second best ever, if you include last year. There are still lots of quality handicap winners, Scottish and Welsh National winners, Cloth Cap etc.

“I think there’s a good chance the top-weight Bristol De Mai will run this year and it looks a top-quality handicap.”

He added: “Easysland was tricky to rate because we’ve only got cross-country form to go on, even in France. He was 167 after trouncing Tiger Roll, but it’s important to remember that from Tiger Roll’s point of view, connections felt the ground was too soft and he’d had an interrupted prep, so maybe that result didn’t give a clear picture of Tiger Roll.

“Easysland then ran at Cheltenham in November and was odds-on off 167 and has been absent since. I just think we haven’t got to the bottom of this horse and we don’t know what he’s capable of. I didn’t feel it was right and proper at the minute to lower his rating. The one thing that might concern me is his jumping, as he can clout a few. Whether connections decide to run, we’ll know further down the line.”

While Greenwood stressed he is unable to bet in his position as a handicapper, he did suggest one horse he thinks may be a shorter price on the day.

“If he runs, Secret Reprieve will be popular. He’s unexposed, he jumped soundly at Chepstow winning the Welsh National and he’ll probably get in,” he said.

Elliott hoping Tiger Roll will be allowed to bid for National hat-trick

Gordon Elliott admits it will be disappointing should Tiger Roll not run in the Randox Grand National after being allotted 11st 9lb – but underlined the final decision will rest with owner Michael O’Leary.

The diminutive 11-year-old was denied the chance to win the race three times in a row – something not even Red Rum managed – by the Covid-19 pandemic, but Elliott is training him to peak on April 10.

However, it has been well documented that O’Leary and his brother Eddie felt he needed plenty of help from handicapper Martin Greenwood for him to stand any chance of winning the race again, warning he would not run if he was rated “in the 160s or 170s”.

Tiger Roll won in 2018 from a mark of 150 and defied a 9lb rise 12 months later. This year he is off 166, despite pulling up on his last appearance at Cheltenham in November.

“He has got 166 and he won off 159 two years ago when the race was last run. He seems in good form at home and we are looking forward to the race,” said Elliott.

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“You are always hoping you are going to be a couple of pounds less than what you have been given, but to be honest we will just smile and take it.

“I have to concentrate on training the horse and I just hope his owner lets the horse run in the race for the public. Everyone will be looking forward to seeing the horse run again in the Grand National, but Michael will make that decision.

“It will be disappointing for everyone if he doesn’t turn up, but as you know he makes the decisions. He is 7lb higher than what he won off before, but it is probably fair enough.

“If you look at him he is not the biggest horse in the world, but he really seems to enjoy those fences.”

Davy Russell plants a kiss on Tiger Roll
Davy Russell plants a kiss on Tiger Roll (John Grossick/The Jockey Club)

Regarding his run in November, Elliott said:  “He made a mistake the last day at Cheltenham and he was lame after the race, but thankfully he is OK now.

“We injected his stifles behind and thankfully he is back sound and moving very well and we are very happy with him at the moment. We will just keep our heads up and hopefully he will be OK for the rest of the season.

“He is in the Boyne Hurdle at the weekend, but the ground is very soft, so we might not run him. If it isn’t too bad he will run, as he has run in it the last two years.

“He is in good form and if the ground is right for him we would like to run him as it’s a race he has won before.”

Presenting Percy is among Gordon Elliott's other National hopes
Presenting Percy is among Gordon Elliott’s other National hopes (Mike Egerton/PA)

When contacted on Tuesday, Eddie O’Leary said: “We’ve said all we’re going to say on the matter and will be offering no further comment.”

Elliott has 15 other entries, but that has already been slimmed down by the news Delta Work is out for the season and the likes of Aforementioned, Monbeg Notorious and Roaring Bull are highly unlikely to make the cut.

Of his other hopefuls he added: “I would say I would hopefully run Presenting Percy (11st 9lb). He has had a little setback, but hopefully I will have him back for the National. Tiger Roll, The Storyteller (11st 8lb) and Alpha Des Obeaux (10st 9lb) will all hopefully go.

“I thought one down at the bottom with 10st 6lb could be very well handicapped, a horse called Milan Native. He has had a wind operation since his last run and he is one I am looking forward to for the Grand National this year.”

Three horses are weighted 1lb higher than Tiger Roll – Nigel Twiston-Davies’ Bristol De Mai, Tiger Roll’s Cheltenham conqueror Easysland and Gold Cup runner-up Santini.

Magic Of Light, second to Tiger Roll two years ago, has 10st 13lb, Ladbrokes Trophy winner Cloth Cap has been given 10st 5lb while Welsh National winner Secret Reprieve needs a little bit of luck to secure a place as he is on 10st 1lb.