Easter has provided a welcome break between Cheltenham and Aintree this year. A timely religious Festival to temper the experiences of one equine Festival before the start of another.
Once again, Granny played the Easter Bunny for a family gathering that involved a giant egg hunt in the back garden. This year the chocolate prizes were both hidden and retrieved in record time, spurred on by a biting easterly and steel grey skies. Not like a few years ago when my niece found one of her Easter offerings in July, tucked down the back of the hedge, still wrapped in its yellow tissue paper. The hunt is, of course, colour co-ordinated. Uncle Chris gets always gets blue paper because he supports Chelsea.We have sometimes holidayed with Auntie Sue over Easter. However, an egg hunt in 25 degree heat offers an altogether different challenge to its British counterpart. One needs to be speedy and focused if a messy, liquefied celebration of chocolate is to be avoided.
Sue supports Chelsea as well. The fact that two out of three of Granny’s offspring, together with three of her five grandchildren are in the Chelsea way is significant. It means that Granny is too. By dint of family. I don’t think she knew too much about football when she left Dublin for these shores in the ‘50’s. I’m not really convinced that she knows too much more now... But ever since her son became intoxicated with The Blues as a child. Granny has been swept along. Even Mrs A, who mostly resisted the Stamford Bridge tidal wave in her Old Stratford home can still name the starting line up of the Chelsea Cup winners from 1970. “Bonnetti, Webb, Harris, Hollins …”
Despite all this, it came as a surprise to my girls that their Granny got so involved in a Chelsea football match. The FA Cup Quarter final replay was on the box: Chelsea v Man Utd. Chris has gone to the game, needless to say. Granny was distractedly watching the game, not really able to watch, until Ba stretched every muscle in his extended right leg to volley home from inside the box. At that point, Granny started counting down the minutes. What she lacks in technical analysis she makes up for in determined enthusiasm.
“Go on Chelsea. Get it! Get it. Kick it! Oh no. No-no-no….has that clock stopped? There can’t be all that time left”
The girls stopped munching their way through Cadbury’s Caramel eggs to look up at Granny and make sure she was alright.
“Hurry up. Don’t let that man have it. Hang on to it!” And then almost under her breath, “….Oh, that was just a replay.”
Daughters by now were wide-eyed and grinning. Granny was oblivious, rocking forwards and backwards or crouching and squinting in response to every dink and ricochet of the ball.
“Oh no, here it comes. Oh no. Good gracious. Ohohohohoh. Kick it!
By the time the final whistle blew and Chelsea had held on, we were all exhausted and a little relieved. Granny was delighted. I’m not too sure she was aware what they had won or what would come next. But she knew Chris and Sue and Joe and Fiona and Robyn would be ecstatic. Reflected glory in the best way. I think this responsibility is part of the Mammy/Granny job description.
We will be up at my Dad’s for the Grand National. Therein lies a whole other set of Grandparent fun and games. I’ll save the mobile phone saga for another time.
Aintree is like the ‘Highway To Hell’ of the season: a tight, sharp, athletic workout with emphasis on big hitters and no fillers. Cheltenham is more akin to the undulating ‘Tales of Topographic Oceans’ with unnecessary ramblings and awkward diversions amongst the many high points.
We are set for a high class meeting this week. Sometimes the calendar works in Aintree’s favour. A three-week break since Cheltenham means many of those combatants will line up here too. And plenty of good horses that didn’t go to Prestbury Park for reasons of injury or preference will be ready for Liverpool instead. On the down side the Irish challenge tends to be less intense, given the proximity of the massive Punchestown Festival at the end of the month. After their carve up job at Cheltenham, this can only be a good thing for British trainers. That said, the list of probable Irish runners this week indicates a hefty enough presence.
Moving the Aintree Hurdle to the opening day is a positive act. This is always one of the best races of the meeting and slipping it away from the suffocating build up to the Grand National on Saturday will see it flourish. The season’s foremost 2 ½ hurdle race has more than a look of the Champion Hurdle about it. Zarkandar (fell in this last year when favourite), Grandouet, Countrywide Flame and Raya Star are all unproven at 2 ½ miles. Prospect Wells is cast from granite and never knows when he’s beaten, but has been exposed at the top level too many times. Last season’s 1st and 2nd re-oppose here. I can’t fancy Thousand Stars on current form, but the 11-2 about Oscar Whisky is attractive if his World Hurdle flop is ignored. The race is given some eye watering zest by the inclusion of The New One, winner in some style of the Neptune at the Festival. His trainer, Twiston-Davies is never one to shirk a challenge and this is a typically bold*/rash* [* delete as appropriate after the race] play. Love it.
The Manifesto Novices Chase, a Grade 1 over an intermediate trip looks weak for the billing. Plenty of these are on recovery missions. Captain Conan should go much better than in the Jewson that won’t expose his flaky stamina as much. Fago can’t be backed with any confidence after his last two runs although his French form suggests the trip will be no problem. Maybe Changing Times is the one, if he shows up here, after the new hold up tactics saw him make the frame behind Benefficient at 100-1 three weeks ago.
The Bowl should be a match between Silviniaco Conti and First Lieutenant. The former should prevail on a nice flat track if the fall in the Gold Cup (Dang! Don’t remind me!) hasn’t shaken him up too much.
In the Juvenile Hurdle, I’ll probably back Ruacana at 12-1, given that his 3rd behind the electric Our Conor at Leopardstown looks bloody good now, even if his 7th in the Fred Winter is less appealing. A flatter track and better going will help. Irish Saint who has been kept fresh for this and Rolling Star both look too short based on what we now know of the juvenile form.
Friday’s stand out race is the Melling Chase. Sprinter Sacre stepped up to 2 ½ miles against Ireland’s best chaser at this trip, a fully recovered (we hope) Flemenstar. He is a poor traveller, apparently, so let’s hope he’s dosed up on the Quells. Cue Card has now proved himself the best 2 ½ miler in Britain, despite Joe Tizzard booting him in to every fence on the circuit, and will ensure a true test. Finian’s Rainbow might have been a threat on last season’s form but has plenty to prove here. Sprinter at a canter then, but a very different test nonetheless, and credit to connections for taking it now rather than at a lower key event in the Autumn.
The day kicks off with the Top Novices Hurdle where My Tent Or Yours will no doubt confirm his class whether he pulls McCoy’s arms out or not. There is no Champagne Fever in this field to deny him. Though Forgotten Voice and Melodic Rendezvous will go well, having missed the Festival. I’ll be on the latter and Dodging Bullets assuming they line up for this instead of the 2 ½ mile novice hurdle.
Dynaste won’t get his favoured soft ground this week, but surely will be routed to the Mildmay over 3 miles this time rather than 2 ½. Vino Griego - remarkably still a novice - is fascinating (if lining up here rather than humping top weight in a handicap) now that connections have stumbled on the hold-up tactics that seem to suit him so well.
Winners of the Grade 1 Sefton Novice Hurdle over 3 miles don’t exactly roll off the tongue. Iris’s Gift is the only recent winner to have troubled the judges at the very top level subsequently. A couple here could change all that. At Fishers Cross, if taking to better ground, could be special. Ballycasey, forced to miss Cheltenham, comes with a very tall reputation. I may stick with Our Vinnie who was brought down before the going got serious in the Albert Bartlett.
Saturday’s card is difficult to assess at this distance because of multiple declarations. I’ll be looking to get after the progressive Many Clouds if he runs in the Mersey Novices Hurdle and Donald McCain’s Up And Go must have a chance too. The Maghull Novices Chase might cut up, leaving Overturn facing only a few rivals. Alderwood, if he is one of them, looks the business and comes with the best form after a scintillating win in a top class Grand Annual. I’m a big fan of the willing Sire De Grugy, but he has only place claims at best.
The Liverpool Hurdle will be a small stakes bet on the day. After being spoilt with Big Buck’s, Iris’s Gift, Inglis Drever and Baracouda, the World Hurdle felt like a return to the bad old days of ageing, slow two-milers stepping up in trip to clean up weak staying hurdles. Solwhit and Celestial Gold filling the first two places doesn’t say much for the strength in depth of this division.
And so to the Grand National, with a tweaked start and soft core fences. Here’s hoping for a safe, controversy-free renewal. I’m already tooled up with potential pot-winning Chicago Grey in our local Ten To Follow comp and a share of Join Together with the boys using the remnants of the whip money from Gold Cup Day. Surely that’s enough for the biggest lottery of the year? Probably not. At fancy prices 50-1 and up, Across The Bay (an improver who goes well on the track and will get the trip) and Lost Glory (a Jonjo quietly campaigned type with the right credentials) both caught my eye. Who is to say how many more might do the same before the jostling at the tapes begins.
Plenty of time too for Granny to call and ask for her pair of £2 each-way bets to be placed on “anything Irish, or an Irish-sounding name or with green in the colours”. That sounds like a sure fire route to success to me. Stick with the Celts.