What a time to be alive.
This weekend is just the ultimate for all sports fans with the Grand National meeting and the US Masters complimenting the usual array of domestic football action and the countdown to The Crucible continues in Sheffield for the Betfred World Snooker Championships.
But the only AA meetings that matter for the rest of the week are those at Aintree and Augusta.
Day one on Merseyside is an opportunity for British racing to showcase itself once again after the Irish invasion and subsequent domination at Cheltenham. The Emerald Isle only supply ten runners on the opening day, admittedly all with decent claims but it is good of them to give us a chance for some glory!
Also, it will be the first Aintree Festival without a certain Richard Johnson for over 25 years. We wish him well with his retirement and I am sure he will creep into the coverage over the next three days.
The first of twenty-one races on Merseyside this week is the Manifesto Novices’ Chase over two miles four furlongs and Betfred are paying three places for each way bets despite just seven runners heading to post.
The Irish are represented by The Shunter, who plundered the big prize pot of £100k bonus when landing the Plate at Cheltenham where he was clearly very well treated but this is a different ball game. Emmet Mullins has nothing to lose with his progressive eight-year-old and may as well roll the dice. The handicapper raised him 13lb for that effort and so deserves to take his chance, but it will be disappointing for the British novices if he proves too good.
Fusil Raffles was a good second in the Marsh behind Chantry House. That task was made easier by the early departure of Envoi Allen but he is very consistent and a Grade 1 winning hurdler who handles decent ground.
Eldorado Allen was ridden to pick up the pieces behind Shishkin in the Arkle and steps up in trip for the first time with the Tizzards bidding to end a poor season on a high. He was well behind HITMAN at Sandown in the Henry VIII earlier in the season though and it is Paul Nicholls five-year-old who gets the vote. His form is already of a high level with a Grade 1 second behind Allmankind and was going well when an unfortunate faller at Sandown in the G1 Scilly Isles Novices Chase in February, just landing steeply over the railway fences. His fourth start over fences was a canter around Newbury at 1/7f on decent ground which bodes well for this test. His trainer Paul Nicholls is flying with twelve winners from his last 33 runners, and it could be a very good few days for him.
Protektorat is in the same ownership and looked destined for great things early in the season when an easy winner at Cheltenham but he has been put in his place twice subsequently and has something to prove while Umbrigado is another progressing from handicaps and deserves a chance at this higher level.
Phoenix Way was given a lovely ride to get off the mark at Warwick on his chase debut but was pulled up behind Hitman at Sandown. A return to better ground should see him perform better and he could outrun his odds.
Just six line up for the Grade 1 Juvenile Hurdle and Paul Nicholls holds leading claims once again with the unbeaten Monmiral.
He easily won the G2 Summit Juvenile Hurdle at Doncaster and followed up at Haydock in February, claiming the scalp of Nassalam, a form line which gives him the beating of ADAGIO, but the David Pipe trained runner has since improved to be second in the Triumph Hurdle and Monmiral has to prove that decent ground will suit. As previously mentioned, the trainer is in red hot form but it is a skinny price you’re being asked to take.
In ADAGIO, he is taking on a hardy rival who has not run a bad race since heading to Pond House stables from France and landed the G1 Finale Hurdle at Chepstow in January. He has shown he can tackle a variety of ground and was best of the British in the Triumph Hurdle with some good Irish horses beaten off. He had two and a half lengths to spare over Nassalam there, whereas Monmrial had seven and a half in hand at Haydock. However, Nassalam may not have been seen to best effect from the front in that small field at Haydock so the form can be viewed with a little scepticism.
The market may have it as a match but John Locke and Fiveandtwenty are worthy of second looks at big prices.
John Locke travelled well for a long way in the Adonis at Kempton before tiring in the home straight on his first start for five months and his hurdling debut. He was rated mid 80s in a short flat career and could outrun his price if maintaining that challenge a bit longer.
Fiveandtwenty is three from three with all wins coming at Musselburgh, which despite being right-handed, is similarly tight and fast like Aintree. Trained by Donald McCain, she has been targeted at this meeting and gets a 7lb sex allowance from the males. On her beating of Historic Heart last time she doesn’t have too much to find with Adagio on a previous piece of form and is another that I can see running very well and shouldn’t be discounted.
After much deliberation, we do get to see Tiger Roll at Aintree this year, but not in the Grand National, he is in the Bowl. The Owners argued he should not be handicapped as a Grade 1 horse for the big one, yet here he is, turning up in a, yes, you guessed it, a Grade 1 contest.
Anyway, I am prepared to have egg on my face here as I cannot have him at all. He dotted up in the cross country by eighteen lengths. That was against a below par Easysland and an amalgamation of quirky characters and misfits and this is his first race over regulation fences since November 2017. His best piece of chasing form was his National Hunt Chase success that same year at Cheltenham, but even that is a mile from Grade 1 standard, and he needs to improve plenty for me. His official mark has him 3lb behind Native River but that is based on his National and Cross-Country successes. His regular form is not in the same ballpark as others here.
As for Native River, he was best of the British in the Gold Cup but was still beaten thirty lengths and was cajoled for almost the entire trip. He has winning form here but on decent ground, he could find things happening far too quick for him sadly and another solid run, without winning can be expected with Jonjo O’Neill jnr, who has recorded a victory on him previously, taking over from Richard Johnson.
Waiting Patiently had CLAN DES OBEAUX behind in the King George when proving he stays three miles. He was beaten back at two miles at Ascot in January and although he has his conditions and the flat track suits, the yard has not had a winner for six months now and that tempers enthusiasm when around the 4/1 mark.
Everything however seems in favour of CLAN DES OBEAUX. Ok, he has not won yet this year but travelled the best in the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November before being outstayed by Bristol De Mai in his own race. He was probably till feeling that slog when third in the King George and only just failed to give his stable mate, Secret Investor, 6lb at Newbury. This is Clan Des Obeaux’s Gold Cup and the cheekpieces have been added just to put an extra edge on him. He was second in this race to Kemboy in 2019 and with the trainer red hot, he can score for favourite backers in the Bowl.
Of the rest, Clondaw Castle looks ready for a step up to Graded company after an impressive success at Kempton in February. That was his first shot at three miles under rules and the handicapper was also impressed. He likes decent ground too and could run into a place for Tom George who won this a decade ago with Nacarat.
The Aintree Hurdle is one of the most competitive Grade 1 contests I can remember, with six horses all rated the same, just 5lb lower than the top-rated runner Silver Streak, who has a big question to answer with regards to the extra half mile trip.
There looks set to be plenty of pace on here too with Not So Sleepy, Song For Someone, Jason The Militant and Silver Streak all going from the front lately while Millers Bank, Abacadbras and McFabulous likely to be prominent.
The tentative pick is for hold up horse BREWIN’UPASTORM for Olly Murphy. Chasing did not quite work out for him, but his hurdles form as a novice, and in his two wins since returning to the smaller obstacles read very well. He comfortably won a Taunton handicap off top weight before beating McFabulous, who is 6lb better off in this race, in the National Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell. He was second over this course and distance two years ago in Grade 1 Novice company too so has lots of ticks in the right boxes, but he is not the only one.
McFabulous looks like this intermediate tip will suit on a flat track and has a pull in the weights with the selection on Fontwell form. I just feel he is always shorter in the betting than his form warrants, and he has not yet proven it in top company.
Abacadbras has winning form on good ground and last year's Supreme runner-up has run well for most part this seasons including his Morgiana Hurdle win but is coming off the back of a nasty fall in the Champion Hurdle and is stepping up half a mile in trip for the first time.
The form of Jason The Militant’s win at Gowran Park when giving Petit Mouchoir 9lb looks better after that one was second off top weight in the County Hurdle, but connections have been at pains to say he needs cut in the ground, and he doesn’t look likely to get that at Aintree.
The first race over the National fences this week is the Foxhunters Chase with 23 amateur riders in the saddle and Betfred are paying four places for each way bets.
Billaway from the Willie Mullins yard will be the likely favourite after a very near miss at Cheltenham over three and a quarter miles. The drop in trip should not be a problem but he does tend to make a mistake and that may be his undoing here when looking at taking around 3/1.
A drop back to two miles five furlongs will certainly suit Latenightpass who ran well for a long way at Cheltenham, just giving best in the home straight. Another forceful ride will suit at this track and he can run well at a double figure price.
All of Cat Tiger’s form has come on much softer ground but he has jumped around Auteuil on lots of occasions so these big fences should hold no fears for him.
The one to beat though could be SAMETEGAL for that man again, Paul Nicholls. He will be ridden by Will Biddick, who trained Cheltenham Foxhunters winner Porlock Bay who Sametgeal beat at Wincanton earlier in the year.
Sametegal only just sees out the three miles so this trip will be right up his street as proven when finishing third and sixth in recent runnings of the Grand Sefton. The stiff test and soft ground at Fontwell was too much of a test last time and he was a good third in a Veterans’ Chase on the Mildmay course back in October.
At bigger prices, a couple more who have form over these fences are Federici and Ucello Conti. Federici has not shown much this season and was pulled up here in December but the booking of Derek O’Connor catches the eye while Ucello Conti was placed in a Becher Chase in a previous life. Interestingly, he now runs in the colours of Anthony Bromley, who is advisor for former owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede and if he does show some of his old sparkle, can run well for a 50/1 shot.
This race is bizarrely named after three-time Grand National hero Red Rum, but it is only run over two miles. It has attracted a very competitive field though as you would imagine and Betfred are paying five places for each way bets.
Destrier looks to have been laid out for this race by the Skeltons. He was a three length third in a Grade 1 novice contest here in 2019 and was not beaten far in the Haldon Gold Cup on his return the following season. He has not shown much since in good handicap company but all of those have been on soft ground and the return to a sounder surface, plus a handicap mark 15lb lower than that Exeter run in November 2019, makes him a leading player.
Getaway Trump took advantage of a slipping handicap mark when winning well at Doncaster five weeks ago, but a 9lb hike may have dented his chances of following up here despite getting his favoured good ground.
Frero Banbou is another who has been smashed by the handicapper, raised 13lb for winning at Sandown on his third British start, while the 2019 winner Moon Over Germany returns of a 9lb higher mark.
On The Slopes ran a gallant fourth in the Grand Annual where ZANZA was pulled up, but he was nearly brought down at halfway when behind a faller and lost many lengths. All chance had gone and Richard Johnson did the kindest thing and he can reap the rewards here. He was travelling well when departing three out in a Cheltenham handicap in December and was 15lb and 18lb better off with Sky Pirate and Ibleo from that running going into the festival and they were both involved in the finish. Strict form lines suggest Zanza would have been there too with a clear run, and on his favoured decent ground can gain compensation.
The last race of the day fields arguably the most exciting horse as I am really looking forward to seeing the potential freak that is EILEENDOVER.
She will be a short priced favourite and rightly so on her three runs so far. Bumpers are never won by 29 lengths, but the one at Huntingdon where she made her debut was and she was a 28/1 shot. Was it a fluke? Well at Wetherby next time she proved it was not by winning by just 16 lengths this time under a penalty.
Stepped up to listed level at Market Rasen next time, she laughed at her opposition again when winning by six and a half lengths from Miss Lamb with Dublin Racing Festival winner and Champion Bumper sixth Grangee back in third. That form looks strong and connections did not want to run her at Cheltenham, deciding this was always the target. They are reluctant to go hurdling with her also and on her three runs so far she promises to be a very useful flat stayer in the making if the go down that route, despite being bred to be a miler.
Elle Est Belle was given a mountain to climb in the Champion Bumper and did best of those held up for a fast finishing third, beaten seven lengths. She won on debut at Aintree and dead heated for listed hours at Cheltenham before having a break over the winter. She is the main danger to the favourite.
There are five other unbeaten runners in the field in Where’s Maud Gone, Milans Edge, Finest View, Heatbreaker, who only made her debut nine days ago, and Mansoline, but it has to be Eileendover on what she has shown so far and could be a name we hear plenty of in the coming years.