Greatest race on turf
Alex Hammond reveals her picks for this week's Grand National meeting, including the main event.
Last Updated: 13/04/12 9:27am
The world's greatest steeplechase is here, it's Grand National time with the three-day meeting getting underway on Thursday.
There has been rain in the area and the going at the beginning of the week on the Mildmay and hurdle tracks was described as good to soft, soft in places with the National course soft, good to soft in places.
Here's a look at the major races on each day with my selections in bold.
The opening race on day one is the Grade 1 Liverpool Hurdle over three miles and what a start for fans of horseracing with the record breaking Big Bucks bidding to win his 17th race on the trot.
He had to pull out a bit more to win his fourth World Hurdle at the Cheltenham festival last time but he's the kind of horse that doesn't do things in too flashy a manner. As ever, it will be a massive shock if he can't continue his run and he is 1/5 favourite with Sky Bet to win.
Paul Nicholls will be hoping to win as much prize money this week as possible as the race to be champion trainer enters the closing stages. It neck-and-neck between the reigning champ and Nicky Henderson with the latter marginal favourite, but it should be first blood to Nicholls here.
So, what about each way value in this race? Well, Nicholls could win some of the place prize money too with Poungach (16s) and Tidal Bay (18/1) with obvious chances. Alan King's Smad Place handled the step up in trip and grade to be third to Big Buck's at Cheltenham and he will be strongly fancied to run well again, he is 6/1 second favourite. Crack Away Jack has switched trainers yet again and is now with Tom George having been trained by Emma Lavelle and latterly by Nicholls.
He has stamina to prove over this trip but if the change of scenery has perked him up could run well at a big price (40/1). Smad Place is the obvious selection to finish second but Poungach comes here a fresh horse and could be the one for each way punters providing all eight go to post. Sky Bet have formed a market without Big Bucks and I like Poungach at 4/1.
The Grade 1 four-year-old Juvenile Hurdle looks tough with Triumph Hurdle winner Countrywide Flame bidding for the double. His Cheltenham win was a surprise to trainer John Quinn, but he's a tough experienced performer. I think there are horses that finished behind him there that could improve past him though. Dodging Bullets showed plenty of promise for an inexperienced horse for Nicholls and this test at Aintree should be right up Grumeti's street. I fancied Sadler's Risk in the Triumph, but he looked there like a step up in trip will suit him in time and this may find him out once again.
Pearl Swan is another horse of interest despite falling in the Triumph, he's trained by Nicholls as is Hinterland who hasn't run since January so has the advantage of not having to get over Cheltenham exertions. I'm going with potential here and more prize money for Nicholls with Dodging Bullets.
The Bowl is the third Grade 1 on the card and the Ryanair Chase winner Riverside Theatre is 7/2 favourite for this three-mile one-furlong race. His trainer Henderson has a strong hand in this with another fancied runner, 4/1 shot Burton Port and also Master of the Hall (14/1). Burton Port had the option of the National but his owner Trevor Hemmings has Ballabriggs for Saturday's race. So Riverside Theatre will step up in trip for the first time, he was second to Long Run in last season's King George over three miles so it's not a complete leap of faith if you back him.
He is the pick of Barry Geraghty, whilst AP McCoy rides Burton Port. Medermit was third behind Riverside Theatre at Cheltenham but I think the step up to this trip will favour this horse more and he really deserves to win a decent race after decent efforts at the highest level for Alan King, he is 9/2.
You would be brave to rule out Hunt Ball who continues to go from strength to strength for his connections and is the most improved horse in training this season. He still has to improve to beat some of the runners here as off a mark of 154, he is bidding to beat the likes of Burton Port who is rated 166 off level weights.
However, his enthusiastic owner said he had a stone in hand at Cheltenham and he will have to be right to win this. He will make a smashing horse next season but this is a tough test at this stage and he is 11/2. Nacarat won this race last year and he won the Racingplus Chase at Kempton on his last start.
Unfortunately the rain that has fallen really detracts from his chance and he will do well to win a race as competitive as this on softish ground, he is 9/1 to repeat the win. I'm hoping the step up in trip will bring out that extra bit of improvement required for Medermit to win his second race at Grade 1 level.
The Manefesto Novices' Chase is the fourth Grade 1 on the opening day. There's no doubt that Al Ferof was disappointing in the Arkle. He got warm beforehand and it was well advertised that some of Nicholls' horses were out of sorts at the time.
He is a class act at his best but the rain won't have pleased his trainer as he needs top of the ground to be at his best. He has won over this two-mile four-furlong trip, but not in this company.
Champion Court can run well having finished second at Cheltenham in the Jewson Novices' Chase. He has won at Aintree and hasn't had a busy season. Menorah is smart, but his jumping just hasn't convinced over fences. Up in trip he may have more time to think about his fences and give himself a better chance. Cristal Bonus ran badly in the Jewson, but the rain will have aided his chance and he looked a horse on the upgrade prior to Cheltenham, but he deserves another chance.
Pepite Rose continues to progress over fences for Venetia Williams and she is entered in this and the Maghull Novices' Chase on Saturday. I'm taking a chance on Champion Court.
The two-mile four-furlong Melling Chase is the first Grade 1 on Friday's card. Albertas Run was also entered in the Ryanair Chase but instead heads back to try to win this race, which he was successful in in 2010. He ran a blinder in the Ryanair Chase on his first run since October and the dreaded bounce factor may be a worry for his backers.
The likely market leader is Champion Chase winner Finian's Rainbow who won over this sort of trip as a novice hurdler and has learned to settle much better this year. He just beat Sizing Europe at Cheltenham and the second there can be classed as a bit unlucky having been inconvenienced when bypassing the last fence.
Cue Card was also entered in the Manefesto Novices' Chase, but steps out of novice company to run here and is effective over two to two-and-a-half miles. All three had hard races at Cheltenham but have hopefully come out of the festival well.
A horse that didn't have a hard race at Cheltenham was Kauto Stone, who fell at the first in the Champion Chase. It's worth remembering he was among the best in France, where he won the premier Grade 1 chase for four-year-olds in 2010 and although he has the burden of being Kauto Star's half-brother he is very talented. He should be better suited to this trip and I'm going to give him another chance.
The Topham Chase is over two miles and five-and-a-half furlongs of the National course and the market has been speaking in the favour of both Triangular and Little Josh. Triangular is now with Tom George, but was based in France with leading trainer Guy Cherel for whom he won a couple of races and jumped round Auteuil, so hopefully these fences won't phase him.
He came over to the UK in the summer and has won two for his new trainer including a decent two-mile six-furlong Handicap Chase at Newbury where a tongue tie seemed to help him. He was raised 13lbs for that win and is Sky Bet's 15/2 favourite for this race.
Little Josh (12/1) won the 2010 Paddy Power Gold Cup for Nigel Twiston-Davies and he has been well supported for his first try over the national fences. He was considered for the National but has disappointed in his last two starts. He ran well in the Argento back in January though and he has dropped to a realistic mark.
Frankie Figg is the 10/1 second favourite for Nicholls who will no doubt have had this race in mind for him for a while. He has a mixed record over these fences but has been putting in clear rounds of late. He runs off the same mark as he did in winning the Grand Sefton in November 2010.
Willie Mullins trains Apt Approach (14/1) who is a class act, but his handicap mark reflects that. However, despite running disappointingly last time out in the Red Mills Chase he should be considered on his first try round the National fences on ground he will enjoy. Always Waining (14s) has form over these fences having won this race for the last two years off marks of 128 and 133 - he is rated 138 this year.
He ran well to be fourth in the Becher to West End Rocker on heavy ground and has had a couple of spins over hurdles. Although his chance is an obvious one he will only run in this if the ground turns heavy. So, it looks like he will line up in Saturday's big race instead for which he is 40/1 with Sky Bet. If he runs here I would really fancy his chances, but in his absence I'm with Apt Approach.The Sefton Novices' Hurdle is the other Grade 1. It's great news that Fingal Bay is heading for this three-mile contest after missing Cheltenham with a setback. Philip Hobbs's charge pulled a hamstring in the run up to the Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle and missed the race.
He is unbeaten in five starts, including a win over subsequent Cheltenham winner Simonsig at Sandown in December. Hobbs has chosen to run him here rather than go straight to Punchestown thanks to the recent rainfall, but he may head there after this race if all goes well. I won't be looking beyond him on Friday.
So the National takes place on Saturday and what a race it promises to be.
Gold Cup winner Synchronised comes here in the form of his life and thanks to his progression he is well in at the weights in this. He still has top weight though and still has to prove he is as effective over the big fences and his jumping wouldn't fill you with confidence, at 7/1 I'll be opposing him.
I've liked West End Rocker for a while now and the rain has only further enhanced his claims. Unfortunately, as a result he has been well supported and is now 10/1 second favourite. He won the Becher on heavy ground back in December and although the ground is likely to dry out a bit before Saturday he can go well. Last year's winner Ballabriggs is 12/1 along with Junior who has disputed favouritism for some time.
Ballabriggs has taken the same route as last year, but he got tired at Kelso last time and trainer Donald McCain expressed himself satisfied with the run. It's worth bearing in mind that no horse has won back-to-back Grand Nationals since the legendary Red Rum in 1973 and 1974. It would be some result if Ginger's son Donald could repeat that achievement. He reports the horse to be in great form at home. McCain also runs the talented, but fragile Weird Al who is 33/1.
Junior ran well to be second at Doncaster in his trial and he is a lovely horse who is capable on the flat, over hurdles and fences. Other 12/1 shots include On His Own, Giles Cross and Cappa Bleu. On His Own has been given the Ruby Walsh vote of confidence but he has only had nine starts in his career, winning four of them. He has just had the two starts for Mullins having joined him from Howard Johnson and he comes here fresh as he hasn't run since January. Giles Cross is another of the runners that will appreciate the rain.
Victor Dartnall has booked Paddy Brennan to ride as regular rider Denis O'Regan can't do the 10st1lb he is set to carry. He is well handicapped and is a tough stayer who would love it to turn into a bog but that looks unlikely. Cappa Bleu has a touch of class about him and he represents Evan Williams. Astonishingly for a horse that seems to have been around for years, he has only had eight starts under rules. He has plenty of stamina and has had a satisfactory run up to this race which includes a third-place in the Welsh National and third at Ascot last time out.
Chicago Grey (14s) is trained by Gordon Elliott who won this race with Silver Birch in 2007. This horse won the National Hunt Chase at the Cheltenham festival last year. He wouldn't want the ground to be very testing and there is plenty of confidence coming from his connections.
Katie Walsh has the chance to become the first female jockey to win the National, she rides her father's Seabass who is 16/1. Ruby Walsh had the choice of riding him, but felt he should ride for one of his two retained stables, Nicholls or Mullins and also had some doubt about his chance of staying four-and-a-half miles. Nonetheless it's a great opportunity and he has very good claims coming here having won his last seven races.
Nina Carberry also has strong claims on Organisedconfusion for Arthur Moore. The horse won the Irish National last year and is only a seven-year-old and is 22/1 to win another National. Killyglen is also 16/1 and he was in the process of running a good race when he fell at the fourth last.
A recent breathing operation has also helped him and there are worse horses to back than him providing it's not too testing. Jonjo O'Neill also has Sunnyhillboy (18) in the race. He's not the biggest and may not be the ideal horse for Aintree but he comes here in form having won the Kim Muir at the festival last time out.
Becauseicouldntsee was second in the Kim Muir and he is 20s. 10.3 looks a very nice weight though and he was fancied for last year's National but departed at the end fence and he stays well. Henderson's Shakalakaboomboom is also a 20/1 shot and Barry Geraghty rides.
Henderson has yet to saddle the winner of this race although Geraghty knows what it takes having won it on Monty's Pass in 2003. Henderson has trained the horse specifically for the National and despite being beaten over hurdles at Warwick last time out he is another you can give a chance to although he wouldn't want a slog round in testing ground.
Calgary Bay (25/1) is just the right sort of horse for the National. Henrietta Knight's charge fell at the fourth last year but hopefully he can put that behind him as he's generally a good jumper. He finished in front of Shakalakaboomboom on his last run at Doncaster in January.
Treacle (20/1) can go well for Tom Taaffe. He ran a very promising third in the Irish Hennessy in February staying on in a taking fashion. According to Pete is 28/1 for Malton trainer Malcolm Jefferson. He was two places in front of Ballabriggs in the Premier Chase at Kelso last time out and he's a grand staying chaser.
Black Apalachi is 13 years old now but Dessie Hughes' horse has a fair record over these fences. He won the Becher in 2008 and was second in 2010. He should hopefully give you a run for your money if you take the 28/1 available. Dessie Hughes also has Rare Bob who is a massive 40/1 but may lack the necessary stamina, although he jumped round in the Becher in December.
Another 28/1 shot is Always Right who isn't without a chance if he can put a couple of disappointing efforts behind him. This better ground should help his cause and John Wade's horse isn't one to discount. Sky Bet are now non-runner/no bet on the National and are paying five places each-way and it's great to have that extra place to play with.
My main fancy is West End Rocker, but I also like the claims of Treacle and Killyglen and will back them both each way.
Simonsig runs in the opening Grade 2 Mersey Novices' Hurdle and he can get Geraghty and Henderson off to a winning start. The grey looked awesome when winning the Neptune Investment Managament Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham and this two-and-a-half mile trip looks ideal for now. He's an exciting chasing prospect but for now he is doing more than enough over hurdles.
The Maghull Novices' Chase is a Grade 1 race over two miles and Sprinter Sacre has a chance to prove his dominance of the two-mile novice division.
Henderson's six-year-old is unbeaten over fences with his latest victory coming in the Arkle at Cheltenham. Whatever turns up to take him on looks like they will be playing for places and if he is anywhere near the form he was in at Cheltenham his unbeaten run should continue.
Amongst the entries are Al Ferof, who was well beaten in the Arkle after a bad mistake, his trainer Nicholls has also entered Toubab. Australia Day could represent Paul Webber, while Menorah who is also entered on Thursday, could run for Philip Hobbs. Venetia Williams has also entered Pepite Rose but this is one of two Grade 1 options for the mare at the meeting. For me it doesn't matter what takes on the favourite as, like Simonsig, I think he's a banker.
The Grade 1 Aintree Hurdle is top class. The market for the two-and-a-half mile contest is dominated by last year's winner Oscar Whisky and Champion Hurdle winner Rock On Ruby. This is a mix of horses stepping up to the trip or dropping back to it. Oscar Whisky was fifth over three miles in the World Hurdle where it appeared he didn't stay, so the drop back to this trip will be in his favour.
Thousand Stars was second in this last year and the drop back to this trip will suit him too as he was a bit free in the World Hurdle. Rock on Ruby steps up from two miles after his Cheltenham triumph. He was third over this course and distance in novice company at this meeting 12 months ago and is yet to win over this trip. That doesn't worry me though because he was just touched off in the Nepune at Cheltenham in 2011.
Zarkandar steps up to the trip for the first time in his career so stamina has to be taken on trust. I'm a big fan of Overturn who ran a great race to be second in the Champion Hurdle and providing he has come out of that race fine I think he's the horse I'll be backing here. He is effective at this trip and always runs his race.
There are some fun special bets for the National. Sky Bet's What Ifs include 25/1 available if Junior wins by ten lengths or more, 22/1 for the same margin from Synchronised and 9/1 is available on another win for Donald McCain who has chances with Ballabriggs and Weird Al.
There are loads of special bets available, though my favourite is winning distances for some of the protagonists as there is some value to be found if you have a strong opinion.