As I’m unavailable to feature on Aintree JPFestival.com TV this week (family commitments on Easter Monday and I doubt I’ll be fit for a live broadcast by 7pm on Friday!) below are my early thoughts on the opening two days of the Grand National meeting at the 5-day entry stage. Before I go on, we should try and get a feel for the ground and it is reported that selected watering could start as early as today (Easter Sunday). Having seen the track covered in snow only last weekend, this is hard to believe, but we have had a dry week in the area and the sun has been out for several days, plus Aintree does seem to have a good drainage system. Many of you will have witnessed the action from nearby Haydock on Saturday, where the ground had dried out appreciably under similar weather conditions, so I think we should expect no worse than good-to-soft at this stage. The track looked in splendid condition when I walked down Melling Road yesterday morning. Thursday With a new race format in place, the opening day now kicks off with the Anniversary 4-Y-O Hurdle, one of four Grade 1s on the card and, with runaway Triumph Hurdle winner Our Conor being saved for a crack at the Champion 4YO Hurdle at Punchestown, Vasco Du Ronceray (5th) finished best of those that line-up here having run in the Triumph. Given that he earlier looked like a horse that wanted a sharp track such as this, it was encouraging to see him run on through beaten horses at Cheltenham, passing stable-mate Rolling Star in the closing stages. He had earlier been beaten by Irish Saint, another who re-opposes, on 3lb worse terms at Kempton in the Adonis and, though he finished ¾ length behind Vasco Du Ronceray last time, I expect Barry Geraghty to retain the partnership with Rolling Star, who had created a favourable impression when beating Irish Saint on his British debut at Cheltenham on Trials Day. He travelled well to the foot of the hill in the Triumph, but was unable to go with Our Conor and Diakali once they kicked for home and he looked tired after the last. Heavily backed in to favourite before the off, connections will be hopeful of recouping losses here and, assuming he has got over what looked a hard race last time, he holds sound claims. Quicker ground would be an unknown, though he did finish second on the Flat on good-to-soft at Segre last June. The aforementioned Irish Saint arrives here fresh having skipped the Festival and he looked a smart juvenile when winning at Kempton over Christmas. Beaten 2¼ lengths by Rolling Star in January, he stayed on strongly to beat Vasco Du Ronceray in the Adonis, having looked in trouble before two out. The 2m4f Mersey Novices’ Hurdle was mentioned as a possible target after that, so it will be interesting to see if he is given an entry in that contest on Monday, though it should be remembered that, despite the sharp track, this race often turns in to a test and you do need to stay. Finally, Swnymor ran better than the bare form would suggest for a long way in the Triumph and it was much more encouraging than his Doncaster third the time before. The Newbury winner had looked unlucky when coming down at the last in the Finale Hurdle in January and remains a useful prospect. Assuming his fall in the Gold Cup hasn’t left too many marks on him Silviniaco Conti (2:30) sets the standard in the Betfred Bowl and has upwards of 7lbs in hand of his 10 possible rivals. The winner of the Mildmay Novices’ Chase at last year’s meeting, the seven-year-old had done little wrong this season before the Festival, winning the Charlie Hall, Betfair and the Denman Chase, jumping slickly on all three occasions. He made a couple of uncharacteristic mistakes prior to coming down at Cheltenham, when he still appeared to be travelling well three out and, while we will never know if he would have come up the hill as strongly, it’s hard to believe he would not have been involved in the finish. If he turns up in the same form as earlier in the campaign he is very much the one to beat and, though he has gone well fresh in the past, he has also won twice inside a fortnight, albeit at a lesser level at Bangor and in the Persian War Novices’ Hurdle on his first two starts in Britain. Ryanair runner-up First Lieutenant ought to appreciate the step back up in trip judged on his run behind Cue Card and he has some solid place form to his name this season, namely when third to Bobs Worth in the Hennessy and second to Tidal Bay in the Lexus over Christmas. The drying ground will suit Mouse Morris’ charge, who undoubtedly has the class to land a race of this nature, though it is worth noting that he has now not won a race since early November 2011 and he has only actually won twice from 12 chase starts. Gold Cup fourth and fifth The Giant Bolster and Cape Tribulation are also set to line-up, but Silviniaco Conti was travelling much better than that pair at the time he departed and he also gave The Giant Bolster 4lb and a 7 length beating at Newbury on their penultimate starts. Despite winning at the meeting over hurdles last season, the drying ground would be a concern for Cape Tribulation in this company. The race of the day on Thursday is without doubt the Aintree Hurdle in which Oscar Whisky goes for a third successive victory in the contest. This is his optimum trip and had he headed here without turning up at the Festival the eight year old would have been a worthy favourite. But, he did run at Cheltenham and was pulled up in the World Hurdle, having looked in some trouble a long way from home. Reported to have been slightly lame afterwards, it is a huge concern that he arrives here on the back of such a poor effort. It will be interesting to see if Barry Geraghty keeps the faith rather than taking the mount aboard stable-mate and Champion Hurdler faller Grandouet who steps up to 2m4f for the first time. The six-year-old still appeared to be travelling strongly when coming down four out, but he should have been travelling strongly at that stage in all honesty and it was too early in the race to guess where he may have finished. The drying ground and Aintree’s sharp track will certainly play to his strengths as he is the quickest horse in the field for me. He will travel strongly throughout and at his current odds (6/1 though only 4 firms have priced the race up) he may interest any back-to-lay players. If he gets the trip he has serious claims, though he has yet to show me anything that suggests he will improve for an extra half-mile. Nicky Henderson also saddles former Champion Hurdle winner Binocular, though he failed to sparkle in this year’s Champion and that form will also be represented here by the third and fourth home, Countrywide Flame and Zarkandar. Countrywide Flame ran a blinder at Cheltenham, keeping tabs on Rocky On Ruby throughout and, having been tapped for speed briefly at the foot of the hill, he came home really strongly, crossing the line 2½ lengths in front of Zarkandar. The step up in trip ought to suit the Fighting Fifth winner, who ran well here as a juvenile last season, beaten just a length by Grumeti. That proved he can back up a hard race at the Festival and, at the prices, he looks the each-way value (currently 5/1 whereas Zarkandar is 7/2 joint favourite alongside novice The New One). Zarkandar won here as a juvenile two years ago but took a heavy fall in this race 12 months ago when sent off 2/1 favourite. He won all three starts prior to the Champion, in which he ran a similar race to Countrywide Flame, chasing the pace before staying on after being outpaced. He didn’t travel as sweetly as John Quinn’s runner throughout the race, however, and, as already stated, he has 2 ½ lengths to make up on him. He, too, ought to appreciate the step up in trip, though would ideally like softer ground than he is likely to encounter. Finally, The New One steps out of novice company for first time, following an impressive victory in the Neptune Investment at Cheltenham. Nigel Twiston-Davies’ five year old, who beat My Tent Or Yours in the bumper here 12 months ago, has gone from strength to strength this season and is arguably unlucky not to be undefeated. The drying ground is very much to his liking and he showed a fine turn of foot last time. He arrives here at the top of his game and clearly on the upgrade while some of his rivals have questions to answer, but much more will be required of him here and this will be by far his sternest test to date. The fourth Grade 1 on the card is the penultimate race of the day, the 2m4f Manifesto Novices’ Chase, in which four of the first five from the Jewson have been entered, including first, second and third, Benefficient, Dynaste and Changing Times. Dynaste is the first place to start as, prior to the Festival, he had looked the pick of this season’s novices, with a fluent victory in the Feltham at Kempton on Boxing Day completing a near faultless hat-trick. Earlier in the season, he showed he handles Cheltenham and also has the pace to cope with this trip, so neither could be blamed for his Festival defeat. He hit the front three out and appeared to hold every chance, having eased by leader and eventual winner Benefficient. The grey didn’t lengthen away as expected, however, and arrives here with a question mark. It could be that he needs softer ground to show his best, plus it is worth noting that his five career victories have come in either November or December, so he might just be better in the first half of a season. I’m sure I’m not the only judge/punter who ignored that stat before Cheltenham, but it is certainly worth considering now. On early season form, he would be the one to beat in either this or the Mildmay on Friday (also entered in that 3m1f contest) and, while it would be no surprise to see him win well, he is hard to recommend at likely short odds after his Jewson defeat. Benefficient came back strongly after being headed and stayed on stoutly up the hill to score under a fine Bryan Cooper ride. A Grade 1 winning hurdler last season, he had earlier beaten Oscars Well in the Irish Arkle (form that will be highlighted in today’s Powers Gold Cup at Fairyhouse) and, according to Tony Martin, he relishes decent ground. Front-runners tend to go well around here over fences but, if he comes off the bridle at the same stage as at Cheltenham, he may find it tough to fend off the finishers this time. Changing Times ran on through beaten horses and maybe better stepping up in trip for the Mildmay the following day, especially if the ground continues to dry out. Fifth home in the Arkle Captain Conan travelled well and the previously unbeaten novice looked a huge threat turning in. Approaching the last he looked the likeliest winner, but soon emptied and clearly didn’t see out the trip up the hill. A dual Grade 1 winner earlier in the season, it could be a different story around this tighter track and, having got pretty close to his ill-fated stable-mate Darlan at this meeting on good ground last year, everything points to a bold showing from Nicky Henderson’s six year old. In hindsight, I wonder if connections wish they had taken on stable companion Simonsig in the Arkle and, with the grey set to wait for Ayr, he will probably be given an entry in Saturday’s Maghull Novices’ Chase over 2m, too. Henderson’s Rajdhani Express deserves to step up in class following his Cheltenham handicap success, Tap Night will appreciate the step up in trip following his fifth in the Arkle, Paul Nicholls’ Racing Plus Chase second Rolling Aces is capable of going well from the front, while the rejuvenated Vino Griego remains in the form of his life and is likely to give a good account wherever he turns up this week. This looks a cracking renewal. Elsewhere on Thursday’s cards, the two handicaps look tricky to assess to say the least, with no fewer than 33 in the Red Rum and 63 in the concluding Silver Cross Handicap Hurdle. I will be going through these races in full nearer the time, so check out my daily column at Betrescue for my previews and selections. At this stage, however, Henry De Bromhead’s Absolutelyfantastic catches the eye among the Red Rum entries, though he has been handed a lowly mark of 124 so would need a few to drop out to get in. Even if Wishfull Thinking misses the race, he would still be 5lbs out of the handicap, but he relishes decent ground and warmed up for a spring campaign with a second at Dundalk in February. If he doesn’t make the line-up, keep an eye on the lightly-raced novice, who was last seen over fences behind Arkle second Baily Green, having bumped into His Excellency on his chase debut last May. On a line through that pair, he could be well treated. The John Smith’s Fox Hunters’ Chase is the race over the Grand National course on day one and connections of Bold Addition will be pleased with forecast conditions, as the eight-year-old relishes good ground. A useful performer for Paul Nicholls, who still owns a share in him, he is two from two in this sphere, winning easily by 15 lengths at Sandown before beating Silverburn at Warwick last month. At his best around this trip, he is one for the shortlist, despite his inexperience. Nicholls is likely to saddle Gwanako, who was going well when falling last year. A winner over these fences in the 2008 Topham, he has now tipped up three times here, but showed his wellbeing when bolting up at Sandown last month. The Irish pair of Warne and Battlefront are also worthy of plenty of respect. Friday Ladies Day at Aintree kicks off with the Grade 2 Top Novices’ Hurdle, a race won by Nicky Henderson, JP McManus and AP McCoy last year with Darlan, and the team can repeat the trick this time around with My Tent Or Yours who will probably go off a short price but will be very difficult to beat. Runner-up in the Supreme (Henderson’s last three to finish second in that race – Darlan, Spirit Son and Binocular – all went on and won impressively at Aintree) the Betfair Hurdle winner will relish this less demanding track and the better ground. His potent turn of foot will be a lethal weapon around here and it will be disappointing if he does not return to winning ways. Of the opposition, both Pique Sous and Dodging Bullets might get a bit closer than in the Supreme on this better ground, but Melodic Rendezvous would probably give My Tent Or Yours most to think about, if lining up (I expect he will be entered in the 2m4f Mersey Novices’ Hurdle on Saturday, too). A bad scope forced Jeremy Scott’s seven year old to miss the Festival, which was a real shame as he had looked smart when winning at Cheltenham and the Tolworth at Sandown. On a line through Puffin Billy, who he beat last time at Exeter, he has a bit to find with My Tent Or Yours on Supreme form. Should he line up here, Dynaste is likely to prove popular in the Mildmay Novices’ Chase and his chances have been covered already (see Manifesto preview above), while the RSA Chase form is likely to be represented by third placed Hadrian’s Approach. Nicky Henderson’s six year old had his jumping errors earlier in the campaign but ran in snatches at the Festival, before keeping on to take a place. He has the ability to win a race of this nature if things click in to place and he gives the impression he might improve for a decent surface, though it could be that he comes in to his own in handicaps next season. Super Duty will certainly improve for better ground and he went close under a fine Derek O’Connor ride in the Kim Muir. Though he has a bit to find with a few of these on official ratings, he can go well on a track that clearly suits, having run well behind Simonsig here last year. As he did with Silviniaco Conti last year, Paul Nicholls deliberately skipped the Festival with Rocky Creek with this race in mind and the fact he arrives here fresh is in his favour. A winner at Doncaster on his second start over fences, the seven year old, who has long been handled as a long-term project, looked good when following up at Warwick before winning the Reynoldstown at Ascot. He was workmanlike rather than impressive that day and, while he remains a promising individual, I doubt that Aintree on decent ground will prove optimum conditions for this thorough stayer. The final one worthy of a mention at this stage is Charles Byrnes’ Sea Of Thunder who has been off the track since tailing off behind Our Father at Cheltenham in November. He had earlier looked good when making a winning debut at Clonmel on good-to-firm ground and he finished runner-up on ground softer than ideal at Cheltenham in October. The quicker the ground the better for him and, if we do get genuinely good ground, he is capable of a bold show, though I suspect he maybe given an entry in the handicap over the same trip on Saturday’s card, too. The feature of the day, and arguably the feature of the season, is the Grade 1 Melling Chase, in which Sprinter Sacre is set to face Flemenstar and, hopefully, Cue Card. At the time of writing the race is still open (re-opened on Saturday) but, in all honesty, it doesn’t matter who else is entered as this is a three-horse contest. Sprinter Sacre was at his imperious best in winning the Champion Chase by an effortless 19 lengths from Sizing Europe, but now steps in the unknown in terms of trip. Beaten over an extended 2m3½f in an Ascot novice hurdle back in November 2010, it is hard to draw conclusions from that run as he was off afterwards for more than two months (reported not right after the race). He has developed physically since then, and of course had a wind op before being switched to fences. He certainly doesn’t look like stopping at the end of his races, but this is sure to be a truly run race with both Cue Card and Flemenstar wanting to get on with things. The former was impressive when dictating in the Ryanair and arrives here at the top of his game, but the Irish raider is sure to take him on for the lead and, of the pair, I prefer Peter Casey’s charge (hopefully the bookmakers will price up a match between the pair). At his best over this intermediate trip (clearly didn’t see out the 3m properly in the Lexus or the Irish Hennessy) Flemenstar is a top-class performer in his own right and I think he could serve it up to Sprinter Sacre on Friday in what should prove a fascinating clash. The other Grade 1 on the card is the Sefton Novices’ Hurdle in which Albert Bartlett winner At Fishers Cross is sure to be popular and Rebecca Curtis’ six year old sets the standard. Having completed the four-timer at Cheltenham on Trials Day, when outstaying subsequent Neptune winner The New One, he got the better of that rival’s stable-mate African Gold at the Festival, staying on strongly on his first try over this trip. He beat another Festival winner in Salubrious earlier in the season at Newbury and it is hard to pick holes in his form, which is rock-solid. But, he is likely to be short if lining up on Friday and will be meeting much different ground than he has been winning on at the end of a long hard season, so it may pay to look elsewhere for a bit of value. Runner-up to him in the Albert Bartlett African Gold is another who has been on the go throughout the winter. A very likeable individual, who will make his mark over fences next term, he too has had a tough campaign and this is often a grueling contest. There are plenty of possible alternatives among the 29 entries, including Willie Mullins’ Ballycasey who was pulled out at the Festival on the morning of the race, but had earlier won both starts over hurdles in effortless fashion. Those victories came on heavy ground, but he has been winning despite the ground rather than because of it according to his trainer and he warrants utmost respect if travelling over (Mullins doesn’t send many over to this meeting other than for the Grand National and the Aintree Hurdle). Given that the supposed stable second string Inish Island finished third in the Albert Bartlett, Ballycasey’s powerful connections will be very hopeful of a bold showing here no doubt. This looks a cracking renewal at entry stage, however, and there are plenty of others who deserve a mention, starting with Broadway Buffalo who remains unbeaten and deserves a step up in class (holds handicap entries too); Cloudy Copper is two from two over hurdles and looks a stayer with a future, who was also forced to miss the Albert Bartlett; Don Cossack who has been a little disappointing this season but could be a different proposition over 3m on better ground; Eduard who was also slightly disappointing last time at Kelso but had earlier looked a very promising individual and one that has been crying out for good ground (regular readers of my various columns and publications will know I’m a big fan of this horse); the completely unexposed Just A Par who cost his connections £260,000 and bumped into Many Clouds on debut for Paul Nicholls; Our Vinnie who was beaten by Ballycasey in a bumper and was brought down early in the Albert Bartlett; Noel Meade’s unbeaten Road To Riches who has been off since December; Taquin Du Seuil who was sixth in the Neptune and could step up in trip for the first time; and Up And Go who beat subsequent winners at Wetherby and Ascot for Donald McCain and Tim Leslie. Connections deliberately skipped Cheltenham with the well-regarded five-year-old who is worth a second glance wherever he lines up (could be entered in the Mersey on Saturday over 2m4f too). Add to the mix the likes of Many Clouds, Gevrey Chambertin, Many Clouds, Master Of The Sea, Lienosus, Lord Wishes, Easter Day and Wilton Milan (who all hold handicap entries on the first two days and would probably be better off down that route) and you have one of the hottest novice hurdles of the season on your hands. Be sure to pay close attention to this race with next year in mind. With White Star Line removed from the entries, I’ve got to start again with the Topham, while the other handicap on the card, the 2m4f handicap hurdle, has attracted no fewer than 88 entries. Again, check out my daily column at Betrescue for updates and selections. The final race on the card is the mares’ bumper, for which I don’t have a particularly strong view at this stage. For more analysis of the first two days at Aintree don’t forget to come back to the site for our JPFestival.com TV Aintree Preview from 7pm on Easter Monday.
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