The juggernaut marked ‘Cheltenham Festival’ that is plunging headlong towards us was briefly stopped in its tracks this week by one of racing’s equally iconic standing dishes.
For the £1 million Grand National, backed by debut sponsors Randox Health, blew its trumpet for the first time this year.
There might be only 26 days until the tapes go up for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle to lift the curtain on another Festival. But there are also only 51 days before the National gallops on to all the front pages, through most of our TV screens and into everyone’s minds. And this week, the weights for the world-famous race were announced.
Aintree and their new sponsors very much upped the ante with the occasion this year, staging a swanky shindig at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and injecting X-Factor style drama into the disclosure of the handicap ratings for each of the 109 entries.
By all accounts, the do was more well-intentioned than well-received, and certainly not as successful as chief handicapper Phil Smith’s exercise in framing the weights which, for the umpteenth time, deserved rich praise.
Looking down the list, from OUTLANDER at the top to KILLER CROW at the bottom, I cannot dispute a single rating. Smith’s skill is unquestionably one of the reasons the National has regained its lofty reputation as a sporting event of unparalleled stature in recent years. It’s a stature that is also fragile, teetering on the brink of derailment until the next equine tragedy occurs. But for now, there’s no reason why diehards like myself should not bask in the spectacle of the race as enthusiastically as we did in the misty-eyed days of Foinavon, Red Rum, Aldaniti and Corbiere.
One question does remain, however -- who wins? The sport within the sport at this time of year is to plough through Smith’s handiwork and unearth horses who appear feasibly handicapped to conquer Liverpool come Saturday, April 8.
I have already nailed my National colours to the mast of ONE FOR ARTHUR. An improving, classy, in-form 8yo, trained in Scotland by Lucinda Russell and Peter Scudamore, and an impressive winner of the Betfred Classic Chase at Warwick in January, having taken to the Aintree fences well in the Becher Chase a month earlier.
I am sitting on an ante-post voucher that screams 40/1, and I still think he will win. But here are seven more likely lads that you might like to consider worthy of a speculative each/way flutter to invigorate the countdown to the big day:
THE YOUNG MASTER (25/1)
Neil Mulholland’s 8yo has shown dramatic improvement since his hurdling days when he was tailed off in a seller. He has always been considered a likely type for the National and advertised his credentials last spring when he landed the Bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown after a terrific third at the Cheltenham Festival. Two disappointing runs this term, including a tumble in Aintree’s Becher Chase, raise question marks, but they enable to him to get in here off a mark only 2lb higher than Sandown. Mulholland insists he’s in fine form and ready for a prep run at the Festival, while his likely pilot, Sam Waley-Cohen, has the best record over the unique Liverpool fences of any modern-day jockey, even though he’s an amateur.
UCELLO CONTI (25/1)
Ireland’s champion-trainer-in-waiting Gordon Elliott boasts multiple entries for this year’s National, but his most serious challenger is likely to be this 9yo, who has been earmarked for the race ever since being recruited from France by those most enthusiastic supporters of the Jumps game, Simon Munir and Isaac Souede. His prospects are dimmed by his failure to win a single race in his last 16 starts, stretching back to October 2011, but he has run some stormers in defeat at a high level, including in this very race 12 months ago when sixth under a quiet, educational, waiting ride. He’s been handed the same 149 mark and arrives in prime nick, having handled the Aintree fences with aplomb again in the Becher Chase in December.
VIEUX LION ROUGE (25/1)
Ever since his novice hurdling days, David Pipe’s charge has caught the eye as a horse with bags of natural talent. He even went off second favourite for the 2014 Martin Pipe Handicap at the Cheltenham Festival, won by Don Poli. It’s unheard of for 7yo novices to be suited to the National, but he ran out of his skin as such in last year’s renewal when bang in contention until the Melling Road. As he faded into seventh, the suspicion surfaced that his stamina ebbed away, just as it had in the excellent four-miler (won by Minella Rocco from Native River) at the Cheltenham Festival a month earlier. But Pipe insists he’s getting stronger and more mature all the time, and it certainly looked as if stamina won him a red-hot Becher Chase in December back over the Aintree fences, which he clearly loves. He’s 7lb higher here, but likely to be still improving at his age.
JUNCTION FOURTEEN (100/1)
Three-figure odds are a downright insult to the ability of Emma Lavelle’s 8yo, who was a more-than-useful novice hurdler, won a Grade Two as a novice chaser and is now making his mark in decent handicap-chase company. He hasn’t been seen since October, mainly because he much prefers decent ground, which he is likely to get at Aintree, but partially to protect his handicap mark, from which he is still open to more improvement over long distances (dam closely related to a Hennessy Gold Cup winner). An accurate jumper too, he’s very much on target for the race, according to Lavelle, who plans a prep run in the coming weeks.
O’FAOLAINS BOY (40/1)
I have a sense of deja vu about Rebecca Curtis’s fallen star, having tipped him in this same space last year. And admittedly, I’m in danger of following him off the proverbial cliff. But if only the 10yo could rediscover the form that saw him beat the ill-fated Many Clouds as a novice at Ascot three years ago and then, a month later, land the RSA at the Cheltenham Festival, leaving behind the likes of Don Cossack and Smad Place. Those performances elevated him to a mark of 156, whereas now he finds himself on 148 after a succession of injuries and setbacks that obviously cast a doubt over his resilience. He ran well for a long way, though, in last season’s Gold Cup and a measure of how well he is handicapped for the National is that he receives 7lb from Sausalito Sunrise, whom he thrashed by 15 lengths off levels at Newbury 14 months ago.
DOCTOR HARPER (66/1)
As enigmatic as they come, David Pipe’s Johnson Family-owned 9yo constantly gives the impression that he is being lined up for some coup or other, most recently in the Kim Muir Handicap Chase at last season’s Cheltenham Festival when, as a heavily-backed 4/1 favourite, he left many punting fingers burned. Such a wretched performance was also matched by his latest outing at Warwick, where he sulked into oblivion, but his career is also littered with sparkling examples of his ability and, indeed, versatility over a variety of trips. His performance at soggy Cheltenham on New Year’s Day suggests that even the National’s marathon distance might be within his compass, so it’s a shame that he needs about 30 horses to come out for him to sneak into the bottom of the weights and get a run.
GALLANT OSCAR (33/1)
The intriguing combination of trainer Tony Martin and owner JP McManus lends itself to a well-executed big-race plan, and both had every reason to embrace optimism for this 11yo’s repeat tilt at the National after his luckless initial effort last season. The gelding hadn’t been asked any kind of question in midfield when unseating jockey Mark Walsh on the second circuit. However, I just wonder if connections have been over-protective of his attractive 149 handicap mark in three outings since that day because handicapper Phil Smith has double-sixed them and dropped him 6lb to 143, which means he will be very lucky to get into the race and could miss the cut, as he also did in 2015. It would be a real pity because he is tailor-made for such long-distance challenges.