It is the second of the major spring jumps racing festivals and the centrepiece is, of course, Saturday’s Randox Health Grand National. We look ahead to three days of thrills and spills at Aintree.
What a meeting in store, as Tiger Roll bids to buck a 45-year trend in the main event, while rivals Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls look for key prize money in the trainers’ championship duel amidst an influx of Irish raiders seeking their share of the limelight.
Tiger Roll bids for history
Not since the great Red Rum in 1974 has any horse come back to Aintree and retained their crown in the Grand National. In the intervening 45 years it is hard to suggest any horse has carried such a burden of expectation as Gordon Elliott’s redoubtable little star, evidenced in the fact that Tiger Roll is now the 7/2 favourite to win the big race on Saturday.
He has become a popular figure with the racing public and last month’s romp in the Cross Country race at the Cheltenham Festival ensures confidence is sky high. It also gives punters the money to back Tiger Roll without fear now. He could be shortest-priced Grand National favourite for many, many years, but just how low can he go?
With 39 rivals and more than four miles around Aintree between him and glory, it won’t be easy for Davy Russell’s mount.
Cheltenham Gold Cup runner-up Anibale Fly is 11/1 and a major player alongside the likes of Rathvinden, Mall Dini and Ramses De Teillee. Champion jockey Richard Johnson has ridden without success in this race more times than any of weighing room colleagues and will be hoping Rock The Kasbah can end his long wait at odds of 18/1.
Nicholls v Henderson subplot
Henderson and Nicholls have lorded the honour of being champion jumps trainer in Britain since Martin Pipe retired. Henderson has prevailed for the last two years but the Seven Barrows supremo has his back firmly against the wall now.
Nicholls is in pole position to be crowned champion for the 11th time in his career, leading the way by close to £450,000 over his old rival. With a plethora of Grade One races boasting more than £100k to their winners – and the National itself – this three days is likely to make or break the hopes of both men.
There are some intriguing clashes between their horses to whet the appetite. It begins on Thursday when Henderson’s JCB Triumph Hurdle winner Pentland Hills tackles Nicholls’ unbeaten hurdler Christopher Wood in the Doom Bar Anniversary 4-Y-O Juvenile Hurdle.
Perhaps two races on Thursday are going to define this particular showdown. King George winner Clan Des Obeaux travelled nicely in the Gold Cup last month but simply didn’t stay up the Cheltenham hill. He bids for glory now in the Aintree Bowl and is the 9/4 favourite to take the £112,260 first prize. Henderson has no runner in the race, with last year’s winner Might Bite an absentee.
Buveur D’Air fell last month when attempting to capture his third Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham but Henderson’s star is the 10/11 favourite for Aintree Hurdle glory – a race he won when he last contested it in 2017. With £140,325 for the winner, this is a contest Henderson simply must have.
Beaten at Cheltenham, dangerous at Aintree
Horses for course? Perhaps. There routinely will be horses that, for one reason or another, missed out on glory at Cheltenham but gain their rewards at Aintree. Looking out for them can be profitable and paying close attention to what their trainers have to say is a good place to start.
The first to stick out this week is Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle second Champ for Henderson. He travelling smoothly through that race but didn’t appear to relish the Cheltenham hill as he finished second to City Island.
The flat track at Aintree should be to his liking and he’s set to turn up in the Sefton Novices’ Hurdle on Friday, where he’s 11/4 to score.
In the big race itself on Saturday, Vintage Clouds looks to have a chance at odds of 12/1. He was runner-up in the Ultima Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival last time around and that performance suggests he’s on a workable mark for Aintree.
The aforementioned Clan Des Obeaux and Buveur D’Air are another pair for whom redemption is the aim on Merseyside.
Aintree form and patience rewarded
Form at the course is just as important here as it is at Cheltenham and, to that effect, Arkle disappointment Lalor could be one to note in Saturday’s Maghull Novices’ Chase.
Kayley Woollacott’s charge never really got going in the Arkle last month and for all that he was a winner at the course earlier in the season, it might not be the track that sees him to best effect.
Lalor is two-from-two at Aintree, however, and after a light campaign to date could have his best day back here, where he’s 7/2 to win Saturday’s race.
In the Grand National, perhaps pay some attention to Colin Tizzard’s Ultragold, a 50/1 chance to win.
He’s yet to finish out of the top three in his four starts over the iconic National fences, boasting for figures of 1213 that include third in the Becher in December following on from a career-best win in the Topham at this meeting.
The final point of note in regards to Aintree is identifying a horse for which this meeting, rather than Cheltenham, is the main spring target.
That applies to Warren Greatrex’s dual Grade One-winning mare La Bague Au Roi, winner of the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton over Christmas. That form was well advertised last month when Topofthegame won the RSA Chase at Cheltenham.
She’s isn’t a ‘Cheltenham horse’ and so connections favoured coming here after she doubled her Grade One tally at Leopardstown in February.
They’ll be confident of getting a pay off when La Bague Au Roi attempts to land the Manifesto Novices’ Chase on Thursday, the opening race of Aintree 2019, where she is 15/8 to prevail.