Though the Cheltenham Festival is fast approaching, it was the Grand National that came under focus this weekend.
Several contenders for Aintree’s feature were put through their paces and though a few failed to shine, one in particular enhanced his credentials as a leading challenger.
Testing conditions certainly had an adverse effect on the field size for the Grimthorpe Chase at Doncaster, but they caused little inconvenience to Kim Bailey’s runaway winner The Last Samuri. Always prominent, he stormed clear in the latter stages comfortably beating The Druids Nephew by 10 lengths. He jumped soundly throughout and appeared to have plenty left in the tank at the finish.
Mat Nicholls, assistant to Kim Bailey, said: “I'm delighted with that but he was ready for today and I wouldn't say he's going to improve a stone by Aintree. However, he jumped and travelled and the further he went the better he got. He won his races in small fields last season but his win at Kempton did him the power of good and he's much more professional now. He used to be a bit hot and we've taught him to settle but he's almost too switched off now, he races lazily for the first mile but then he gets into gear.”
Bailey famously won the National in 1990 with Mr Frisk, though The Last Samuri was previously trained by Donald McCain whose family are of course synonymous with winning Aintree’s illustrious event.
Allotted a weight of 10st 8lbs for the main event in April, the Grimthorpe winner has been backed in to joint favourite in many places, with the Druids Nephew also popular with punters after a promising second place finish on ground that was less than ideal. Mulholland speaking yesterday said: “It was a beautiful run. I was delighted with him and he has come out of the race bouncing. He would have preferred better ground than the soft he got yesterday, and given that was his first run for a while, it was a tremendous performance. He will certainly improve for the run and on better ground. He will go straight to the National.”
Many Clouds remains at the head of the National betting though his prep-run didn’t go as planned. The meeting at Kelso was rained off, and there’s now every chance that last year’s Aintree winner will head to Cheltenham for another crack at the Gold Cup.
Talking to At The Races Oliver Sherwood said, “I would have loved for him to have won for his confidence but it was more the gap between that race and the Grand National, which was five weeks. That was just perfect. Last year, between the Gold Cup and the National it was four weeks, this year it's three weeks, so that's huge. The one positive, if we did go for the Gold Cup again, is he's had a relatively quiet season.”
A hard race at Cheltenham would be far from ideal, but I would expect that once his chances of winning or being placed were over, Leighton Aspell would merely school him home. Many Clouds is as big as 33s for the Gold Cup, and that price appears a fair reflection of his chances.
Whilst The Last Samuri was scooting home at Doncaster, Jonjo’s Grand National hope Shutthefrontdoor was taken off his feet at Newbury, and was eventually pulled in the Greatwood Gold Cup won by Sametegal.
The choice of prep-run was perhaps a little surprising, with the 2m4f trip proving inadequate for a horse that has been running over three miles plus for the last two seasons. Passing the post with a circuit to go Barry Geraghty was niggling at the horse as he drifted to the back of the field. Try as he might to get the horse attached to the rear of the pack, his efforts failed, and a suitable workout failed to materialise. The National remains the plan, though confidence of improving on last year’s fifth place finish has taken a serious dent.
At Naas on Sunday Goonyella advertised his Grand National credentials with a cracking second place finish in the Leinster National. The nine-year-old enjoys plenty of give in the ground, but arguably his best performance came on good ground when runner-up in the Scottish Grand National last April. Trainer Jim Dreaper was clearly pleased with the performance, saying: “I was delighted with him. He just came good at this sort of time last season too and he has been showing more spark at home. He stays really well, but is just short of pace.”
Goonyella has been allotted 10st 8lbs, and the Midlands National winner could prove a huge player in Aintree’s showpiece.
News also arrived yesterday that Long Run may take his chance at Aintree. Robert Waley-Cohen said: “Long Run is cantering away and seems in great form. We want to get one run into him before Aintree as you can't really expect to go for a race like that having not run for two years. I have got a couple of hunter chases pencilled in and I would hope he will have a nice experience and come back all fired up for the National. It is going to be tight time-wise but it is certainly not out of the question.”
Now an 11-year-old, the former Gold Cup winner would be another exciting addition to an already powerful looking line-up.