And so to Aintree. Second only to the magical Cheltenham in quality and importance at the top of the national hunt hierarchy. This season there is an extra week between the two equine festivals, courtesy of a religious one. This means there is precious extra recovery time for trainers looking to send Cheltenham horses to Liverpool. Others bypassed Prestbury Park altogether in favour of competing fresh on this flatter, tighter track. And all-conquering Willie Mullins looks like sending more of his stars to Aintree than usual as well.
It’s not just horses that welcome the extra break. After a frenetic Cheltenham Festival, I’m delighted to report that I’ve had some welcome box rest, have eaten up well and am looking forward to making my debut at the Grand National Festival. I’m there for Ladies Day next Friday and I can’t wait to finally get a sight of the famous track. That’s day two of this tight, lean and classy three-day Festival.
The action kicks off with some tingling action on Thursday, arguably my favourite day, with four straight Grade 1s. Boom! Check out Grand National betting - Opening Day horses
Looking at the 5-day declarations, we are in for an outstanding show. The 2½m Manifesto Novices Chase is a relatively new race. In the six previous runnings it has not yet gone to a Cheltenham Festival winner. Without the trio of Irish horses that filled the frame in the Jewson over the same trip, and in the absence of the Arkle and RSA winners, this renewal won’t crack that stat.
In a season that has so far provided a pretty average bunch of British novice chasers, there is an opportunity for some home grown talent to make their mark. Particularly as the eye-catching Irish entries – Apache Stronghold, Gitanes Du Berlais and Valseur Lido – will line up at Fairyhouse this weekend instead. Josses Hill ran better than anticipated in the Arkle and maybe he is finally getting his act together. God’s Own re-opposes him, having got nearest to Un De Sceaux at Cheltenham, but the one who might improve for the step up in trip most is Vibrato Valtat who was rather taken out of his comfort zone last month and may settle better if taking his chance here.
Conversely, the Anniversary 4-y-o Juvenile Hurdle is a good race for Cheltenham horses – 10 of the last 12 winners ran there. Favourites have also bagged 7 of the last 10 starts. Hargam, so game in the Triumph, could be very hard to beat here.
The day’s top chase is the Betfred Bowl over 3m 1f. The race was first run in 1984 and raised to Grade 1 status in 2010. It can throw up the odd surprise. Remember 50-1 shot Follow The Plan in 2012? No market leader has won it since Exotic Dancer in 2007, though 2nd favourites have won four of the last five.
Silviniaco Conti will be a sound choice at short odds. He bounced back from defeat in the Gold Cup last year to land this and there will be plenty thinking he can repeat the trick. Cheltenham obviously does not suit him, and whilst he’ll be better here, my feeling is that the pick of his form this season is a notch below last term. Holywell will also be vying for favouritism on a track he loves, but again his form this season doesn’t bear the closest of scrutiny. I like Al Ferof too, but there is still a niggling doubt about his form over three miles.
I’ll look elsewhere. Ma Filleule looks to be coming to her peak at exactly the right time, just as she did last season, and I like some of the 11-2 on offer. Early prices here.
The best race is without doubt the Aintree Hurdle, run at an intermediate trip of 2½m. This race has benefitted from the switch from the Grand National card to here where it has room to breath and show off its shiny credentials. There have been some thrilling finishes down the years and good horses that failed to make their mark at Prestbury Park have often made this race their own: Oscar Whisky and Al Eile spring to mind.
If all the 5 day declarations line up, this will be an absolute belter: Champion Hurdle warriors Hurricane Fly, Jezki and Arctic Fire all re-opposing. And then for added spice, chuck in Rock On Ruby who will love this trip and the exciting young Coral Cup winner Au Ptit Soins. Mouth watering. I like Blue Heron at a big price each way. But it’s hard to see him improving enough at 7 to beat this stellar field outright.
The Fox Hunter Chase is the meeting’s first race over the Grand National Fences and it is a daunting prospect for the amateur riders. Hair-raising viewing.
The day rounds off with a couple of competitive handicaps. The Red Rum Handicap Chase is a 2m stomp where the stats nod (and no more) towards the success of horses at the head of the market and equally that anything carrying more than 11st 1lb is going to struggle.
Closing out the day is the Injured Jockeys Fund Handicap Hurdle over 3m. A good race and one that in 2012 saw Malcolm Jefferson complete a remarkable double when Cape Tribulation bounded away with this after also having won the Pertemps Final at Cheltenham.
If you haven’t filled your boots by end of racing, get your best strides on for Ladies Day Friday. You can guarantee that the good womenfolk of Liverpool will be making the effort.