Well, it’s that time of year again. Time to dust off your hats after the punter’s paradise that was the Cheltenham Festival, and try to hit the bookies for six once more.
This race has been kind to them in recent years. 40 runners, 30 fences. Arguably the only event more difficult to predict than the British weather. So where better place to start than with last year’s winner MANY CLOUDS.
After notching up three consecutive victories last season, most notably the Hennessy Gold Cup, he arrived at the Cheltenham Gold Cup fancied by many as a live outsider. Having finished a distant sixth that day, he came to Aintree the forgotten horse, but a superb round of jumping under a beautiful ride from jockey Leighton Aspell saw that tag change very quickly, giving trainer Oliver Sherwood his first Grand National win.
In recent years it has been rare for a horse to taste victory again after Grand National success, demonstrating the tremendous amount of exertion required to win this prestigious race. Pineau De Re became the first horse since Bindaree in 2003 to achieve this when winning at Carlisle last December, and Many Clouds showed his wellbeing when cruising to victory at kelso last month. Prior to that he gave the classy Don Poli plenty to think about at this track in December and finished a decent second to Hennessy winner Smad Place at Cheltenham. He is in great form, has been campaigned around today’s race and has a great chance of becoming the first horse since Red Rum in 1974 to win back to back Grand Nationals.
I’m taking it as an omen that none other than Many Clouds’ jockey Leighton Aspell jogged past me as I walked the course prior to racing yesterday, and he’ll certainly be carrying some of my money. He is bidding to rewrite the history books and become the first jockey to win three Nationals in a row, and when asked if he could do it, he responded “I hope so” accompanied by a cheesy grin.
Sticking with last year’s renewal, runner up SAINT ARE re-opposes again this time around. As well as his brave effort last year, he has finished third in a Becher so he clearly loves these unique fences. He has a pound less on his back this year, will love the ground, and with Tom George’s horses in tremendous form he is sure to give a good account of himself once more.
Few were going better than THE DRUIDS NEPHEW when he came to grief five out last year. He travelled like a dream up until that point and has all the credentials necessary to win this race: He stays, seems to relish these fences and has been trained for this race since the very moment he fell last year. A Cheltenham festival winner as well, he should be bang there come the elbow given a clear round of jumping.
SHUTTHEFRONTDOOR and SOLL also ran with credit in last year’s National. The former went off the 6-1 favourite, albeit due to the hype of being Sir A P McCoy’s last Grand National ride, but didn’t seem to see out the gruelling 4m 3f trip well enough. Soll finished ninth in 2015, but has significantly more weight to lumber round this year, so I am happy to oppose him as well.
Now on to the Newcomers to these historic fences. SILVINIACO CONTI, a dual King George winner, is arguably the classiest horse in this year’s line up. If he takes to these fences and stays the distance, then it would take some horse to beat him. He has always been a sound jumper, so the big worry is the trip. I see no reason why he shouldn’t stay and Paul Nicholls has likened him to 2012 Grand National winner Neptune Collonges – he has a cracking each way chance.
Another horse with a touch of class is dual Cheltenham Festival winner and Gold Cup fourth HOLYWELL. He would have been a triple Cheltenham festival winner had it not been for the well handicapped Un Temps Pour Tout in the Ultima Handicap last month, and is a strong stayer. He is another who will like the ground and his trainer Jonjo O’Neill had the winner of the Topham over these fences less than 24 hours ago.
MORNING ASSEMBLY was a very talented horse in 2014 and missed the whole of last season through injury. He has been crying out for a longer trip and showed he has retained at least some of his ability when finishing fourth in the same race as Holywell last month. He has a very good each way chance.
THE LAST SAMURAI is bidding to give Kim Bailey his second win in this race after Mr Frisk all the way back in 1990. He is a little horse with a big heart, and looks ideally equipped for this trip given that he is a strong finisher. He has a nice weight and I think he has an outstanding chance.
Nina Carberry flies over from Ireland today to replace the injured Ruby Walsh on board SIR DES CHAMPS. He is another in the field who boasts a Cheltenham Festival win and has also finished second in a Gold Cup. I am not convinced he is the same horse after a long injury lay off, but his trainer Willie Mullins is a genius so he can’t be discounted.
Few jockeys ride this course better than Paul Maloney, but it would be some achievement to get his mount BUYWISE round. Maloney has finished placed in his last seven consecutive Grand Nationals, but Buywise is prone to some terrible jumping errors and I can’t see him completing the course.
BALLYNAGOUR, BALLYCASEY, GALLANT OSCAR, GILGAMBOA and HADRIAN’S APPROACH are all others with great each way chances in arguably the most competitive and high class Grand National we have ever seen. Much of the build-up has been marred with controversies regarding the qualification process, with horses such as Alvarado, placed in the last 2 renewals, and Cause of Causes, a dual Cheltenham Festival winner, not making the cut. Calls for certain ‘Win and you’re in’ races have been prolific, but that seems a very unrealistic prospect.
Add in that a win for either Willie Mullins or Paul Nicholls would almost certainly be the defining moment in their pursuit of the trainer’s championship, and you have a race that is jam packed with potential fairy-tale stories.
My tip, albeit very mainstream, is Many Clouds. He loved it round here last year when he wasn’t even aimed at the race. This year has been all about repeating last year’s success, and I think he has an outstanding chance of doing so.
But most of all, don’t discount any of the runners and prey that all horses return safe and sound once more.