The beginning of April is marked by several key elements. For starters there’s an hour less in the sack to get accustomed to.
An extra hour of sunlight breathes more life into a more cheerful looking day and suddenly winter appears to be out the back door.
Just as all that winter brings with it, National Hunt racing included, looks gone for another year, a phone call from your mum asking “what does each-way mean again?” will all but confirm that the Grand National is indeed on the horizon.
Of course we’ve known this for months. We’ve been busy beavering away, studiously comparing form guides, weights, prices and imagining every possible scenario, only to be told that we’re useless at what we do by our nearest and dearest when the ‘tip’ that they belligerently ground out of us falls at Bechers.
It is of course a spectacular occasion, unique. It’s the greatest steeplechase of the racing calendar and it’s the one that every jockey, trainer and owner wants to win. Steeped in history and tinged with a little bit of magic, it’s quite simply the stuff of legend. I could talk all day about the majesty of the great race, but with one winner from forty runners, I’d better get a shift on.
Right then, where else to start but at the head of proceedings. That brings in my old mate, Teaforthree. If any of you four or five people that read my rabble every week remember as far back as the weights being published, you’ll recall me being quite sweet on this lad and why not? He ran a fantastic race in this last year when, in my hugely biased opinion, he was the moral victor. He was the only horse in the first eleven home to be lugging more than 11st around and did that in a brave, front-running display, jumping like a stag until floundering at the second last. He lost nothing in defeat that day and only enhanced his reputation as the perfect ‘National type’.
Off a 2lb lower mark and burdened with 5lbs less this year, he’s bound to be on the scene. The problem with backing him now is value, or lack of rather. When I put him up back in February there was still 20/1 available for him. Go to back him now and you’re staring down the barrel of a single figure favourite in a field of forty. Although I like the horse a lot and think he’ll probably be in the mix, I simply can’t back at the odds. No tea for me thank you.
Another bound to be popular in all walks of life come Saturday afternoon is Monbeg Dude. Michael Scudamore’s admirable nine year old has surpassed all levels of expectation once harboured by egg-chasing owners Mike Tindall and James Simpson-Daniel. Throw in the horsey royal touch of Tindall’s wife Zara Phillips, granddaughter of the Queen and gold medal winning eventer and you have enough stories with connections alone.
The fairytale hasn’t ended there with him though. After a pretty obscure start to last season, he came from nowhere under a brilliantly cool Paul Carberry ride to just out-gun favourite Teaforthree in the Welsh National. He also took a hot handicap at Cheltenham in December to prove that was no fluke. Reports of rain being on the way will also be music to connections’ ears and there’s plenty to like about his chances on paper.
Personally however, I’ll be siding against him on Saturday. His sticky jumping can often get him in trouble and, although there’s plenty more give in the fences than there used to be, I just can’t trust that it’ll stay together. Carberry’s hold-up tactics, although brilliant and necessary on this horse, could have him out of the race before he’s even started to creep into it if he clouts one or two. Recent money has meant he’s another that’s short enough and he’s not my idea of the winner.
There are plenty of side stories that individual scenarios could throw up on Saturday. What about Tidal Bay? Were he to win he’d be the first thirteen year old to taste Grand National glory since Sergeant Murphy in 1923 and the first to win off top weight since Red Rum back in ’74. While we’re busy reminiscing, were Long Run to win he’d be the first former Gold Cup winner to win the race since L’Escargot, a year after old Rummy in 1975. Both have been given a chance by the handicapper although have tough jobs burdened with big weights. They make up a clutch of the class horse brigade.
A horse yet to take his place in a Grand National line up, although could be considered very unlucky not to do so is Prince De Beauchene. He could also be thrown into the bracket of being a classy animal, although his best form hasn’t been seen for a while. Being bang on your game is hardly a prerequisite for a winner here though – far from it – as often the victor will line up with little in the way of recent form on their plate.
A dip in form has seen his mark drop accordingly, giving him a very real chance at his best. His style of running could be well suited to this test and he’ll go on any ground. The very fact that connections also kept On His Own away from here and opted to send him instead could prove ominous for a horse that Willie Mullins himself once deemed ‘good enough for a Gold Cup’. He’s definitely one for consideration.
A horse I’ve had one eye on for this for some time now is Burton Port. His switch to Jackdaws Castle at the start of the current season was eye catching in terms of prospective targets, as has been his typically Jonjo-esque slip down the ratings to get him to a workable mark. He’s now down to 145, staggering when you consider the C.V. that this horse possesses.
He seemed to show little interest at the beginning of the season, although that wouldn’t concern me. He probably took a little time to settle in to his new surroundings and has been trained with this in mind all year. His last run was far more encouraging however, with a much more aggressive tactic used when finishing a bold second to a horse he was giving 13lbs. There’s no one better for training a horse for one day only and with further progression expected he looks every bit a potential winner to me.
The outsiders of the piece are always lurking around, looking unloved in the market, only to spring a surprise on the day and run the race of their lives. Last Time D’Albain looks potentially well treated off his Topham third last year and could go well again over these obstacles over the longer trip. Dessie Hughes had the fifth home last year and his stout stayer Raz De Maree could run another big race for him should the rain arrive.
The one I like to fill the places at bigger odds though is One In A Milan. Despite the fact he’s only having his seventh run over fences on Saturday, he’s achieved a fair amount already, having being placed in two Nationals (Midlands and Welsh). That’s well received for this as past National form is a big tick in the box for any runner.
Welsh trainer Evan Williams has placed in this for the last five years now so he certainly knows how to handle his animals for Aintree. When he sent out Cappa Bleu for the first of his placed efforts he was also having just his seventh spin over fences. Taking that into account, along with the softening of the fences since, you couldn’t rule him out for inexperience. He’s going off an absolute featherweight and certainly looks a bit of each-way fun at 66/1.
Finally, I wish everyone the best for the weekend. From the hardened studiers to the once-a-year pin-stickers, it can be a devil of a race to get anything from so all the best in making your money back. Let’s just hope that all forty runners and riders make it home safely and that this National is a Grand one. Good luck everyone.
1ST Burton Port
2ND Prince De Beauchene
4TH Once In A Milan