Skimming through the cards for the Grand National meeting, I am reminded how tight and sharp the Cheltenham Festival used to be as a three-dayer, before greed made it flabby with conditionals hurdles, second-division Triumphs and mares races.
Aintree features eight elite Grade 1 races, four Grade 2s and the National itself, together with a few excellent supporting handicaps shoe-horned into three neat, seven-race cards. Yes, I miss the three-day festival. The intensity has dropped a notch or two since its diluting expansion in 2005. But I’m a realist. The money-making potential was too much to resist.
The National meeting can’t match the Festival’s all-pervading significance and strength in depth. But it stands as the clear second-best UK jumps meeting behind those four days at Prestbury Park.
Tomorrow is a cracking start: four Grade 1s (some of them competitive, even); a gaggle of Champions and top performers; and all against the backdrop of the tightest Trainers Championship scrap since Martin Pipe fielded seven runners in an Ayr seller to fend off Paul Nicholls back in 2005.
2.00 Liverpool Hurdle
A benefit for the unbeatable, exceptional Big Buck’s. Shorn of the Irish challenge and of most of his Cheltenham opposition, the race doesn’t throw up any serious challengers. The only angle I can find is Stan James offering ¼ the odds on the first three home in an eight runner overbroke place-market race. On that basis, I’m chancing that BB’s stable mate Poungach can progress past some of these old lags and make the frame at 18-1. Smad Place should still be on the upgrade too, but not sharply enough to close the gap to BB on their Festival showing.
2.30 Anniversary 4-y-o Juvenile Hurdle
This is a much more competitive affair. Many of the Triumph principles re-oppose on a track that could impact on that finishing order. Winner, Countrywide Flame smashed up the hill, whereas Grumeti, leading at the last stalled on it. Dodging Bullets ran well there and comes with strong claims, together with the same yard’s Pearl Swan, preferred by Ruby Walsh, who was a last flight faller when looking a place shout. But I’m taking a non-festival contender. And not just because I get burned so often by translating Cheltenham form too literally at Aintree. I think Hinterland is a decent animal, saved for this fixture after being not quite right before the Festival. He has good early season form, franked by a very good Baby Mix win on a similar flat track, and at 11-1 is proper value. Thank you very much.
3.05 Betfair Bowl
Absolutely fascinating renewal. The strongest for years. Again Cheltenham form is to the fore. Ryanair winner Riverside Theatre heads the market. But he had a tough race there after running like a dog for 2 miles and four furlongs. And I’m still not convinced he’s proven at the trip (though I may be alone in this!) – three miles and one furlong at a good clip with Nacarat in the van might nail that argument one way or the other. Medermit also had a tough race and tries this trip for the first time, though it might suit him better than 2 ½ now. Can’t wait to see Hunt Ball here. Big step up in class, but who is to say he can’t take it in his stride? What A Friend is a frustrating horse. He won this a couple of years back and could go well again after an early fence exit in the Gold Cup. But I’ve chanced him once to often and I’m sidestepping him for Burton Port at 9-2 who seems to be ultra-consistent, has track form and the insistent urgings of A P McCoy in the plate. I’ll have an each way shout on my list horse Diamond Harry at 20-1 who is surely better than the form he’s shown so far this season. Surely….
3.40 Foxhunters Chase
Just a word for My Way De Solzen who lit up Cheltenham a few years ago and appeared to have the chasing world at his mercy. It all went wrong too quickly and it is fantastic to see him back on the big stage, albeit in an amateur race. I’ll punt him off the boards (a tenner should do it) and cheer him all the way home.
4.50 Manifesto Novices Chase
2 ½ miles should suit Al Ferof and he is a short order favourite. He was well beaten in the Arkle by Sprinter Superstarcre, but was not competitive after taking a fence down the back up by the roots. I don’t like Menorah over fences. Too clumsy and ungainly. The extra half-mile may suit this Hobbs-horse in terms of stamina, but it just gives him more fences to clout. Pepite Rose is interesting, coming here in search of a five-timer. I’m just not sure how much her mares-only win last time out amounts to. I’ll chance Cristal Bonus whose Kempton win in February over this trip has a more solid look about it. The Nicholls’ number 2 was found to have an abcess at Cheltenham latest and so, if back to his best, is taken to shake up Al Ferof, who has had a hard season, at 7-1.
Good luck all.