Whilst most people are more keen about looking towards next Saturday’s John Smith’s Cup to find a winner, you will find me looking more long term than that towards Grand National 2014, which by the way, currently has no sponsor. It’s the one race of the year that I spend most of my time studying as nothing gives me greater pleasure than picking out the winner of this majestic steeplechase. After finding Aurora’s Encore at a big price this year, looking at next year’s race is a priority to me. Looking for a position to start from is difficult, especially when you don’t have an entries list to go with but Willie Mullins is guaranteed to have a strong hand when we get to the 5 April next year and leading his likely contenders towards next year’s race include the Graham Wylie trio of Back In Focus, Prince De Beauchene and On His Own. Back In Focus tops the ante-post market and it’s not hard to see why. A good novice chaser last season with a liking for softer ground, he won the Grade One Topaz Novice Chase over Christmas at Leopardstown by showing his strongest quality; his stamina. This was also seen to excellent effect at the Cheltenham Festival when plugging on to beat Tofino Bay. Whilst some people would be worried about this horse’s ability to go the pace in a Grand National, what must be remembered is that he is a Grade One winner and some shrewder people than myself believe he would run well in a soft ground Gold Cup. He tends to jump well and although he can throw in an error, he is the type of horse who can get into a nice rhythm which is needed around Aintree, so he is definitely a key player. Prince De Beauchene has been trained for the race twice now but sadly both times has failed to make it to Aintree due to injury. Both years at the weights lunch, Mullins has said this horse is his number one hope, so it will be interesting to see whether he can come back from injury again and take his chance. If he does, my concern would be him lasting out the trip due to his breeding, although he does have a touch of class about him so he would have to be respected. On His Own has had his chance around Aintree for me. His 2012 run had plenty of promise especially as he was knocked around at the start with nothing going right through the race before he was impeded and fell at second Bechers. In this year’s race, he kept making fiddly mistakes and seemed to be struggling when falling at second Valentine’s. His campaign this season will be interesting but in my eyes, he is not a National horse and we are better off looking elsewhere. Willie Mullins has three at the top of the Grand National betting market but there are some of his not even mentioned in any markets that merit respect if they come over. For example, the novice Vesper Bell who ran some nice races in handicap company towards the end of the season, especially on his last start where he was just touched off by Goonyella on testing ground at Punchestown. Before that, he was badly hampered by Galaxy Rock in the Kim Muir before staying on past beaten horses to be seventh. Although most of his form is on softer ground, better ground wouldn’t harm his chances. There’s also Away We Go who was second in the Irish National and third in the Bet365 Gold Cup but would need to jump a lot better if he was to figure in this and Up The Beat who has been absent since a good fourth to Sunnyhillboy in the Kim Muir in 2012. If he comes back, then he could be an interesting contender. Away from Willie Mullins’ contenders, the home side is led by last year’s winner Aurora’s Encore who came in at 66/1 for Sue and Harvey Smith under a brilliant ride from Ryan Mania (not talking from my pocket either!). The campaign next season will undoubtedly lead back towards Aintree but he will probably be handicapped out of contention although another big run wouldn’t come as a huge shock. The placed horses Cappa Bleu and Teaforthree merit respect especially the latter who was the only horse over eleven stone in last year’s National to finish in the first twelve plus he was in front going to the last fence which highlights how much of a big race Teaforthree ran. If he runs a few times this season over fences to bring his mark down, then he will have another winning chance. Cappa Bleu will probably run his usual race like State Of Play did every year and consolidate himself as a very good National horse. Out of the others from this year’s National, both Colbert Station and Soll deserve a mention. Although Tony McCoy stated he wouldn’t have won last year’s race as he was too keen, another year’s experience will probably help him to settle more in the race plus he did jump the fences really well. Soll ran a massive race for an inexperienced horse especially after making a bad mistake at the Chair. Like Colbert Station, another year with more experience could make him a potent threat. Sticking with form over the National fences before looking at horses that haven’t tackled the course, this year’s Topham winner Triolo D’alene is apparently being aimed at the race but the trip is a major concern. Walkon and Last Time D’albain who were second and third would be more interesting over the longer trip but they would also have some stamina doubts. After Imperial Commander ran in this year’s National, the prospect of another former Gold Cup winner running wouldn’t be surprising and Long Run could be aimed for the race. This horse divides opinion but he is one of the most consistent horses in training and if he did take his chance at Aintree, he would be a big threat even off top weight. The fences wouldn’t be an issue for the horse and the trip would help too. I would be more confident of his chances than Imperial Commander’s this year. Katenko is another interesting competitor if the colic operation hasn’t taken too much out of him. He was improving at a massive rate of knots and it will be fascinating to see what route is taken with him. Rocky Creek looks an exciting prospect for this season with his first main target the Hennessy Gold Cup, which will prove whether he is able to handle a big handicap and will point towards the future for the horse. The National Hunt Chase that Back In Focus won had some interesting runners with some of them looking good National types, headed by runner up Tofino Bay who proved that day he could handle the better ground at Cheltenham and looked the likely winner until he stopped due to being lonely in front. My only concern would be his handicap mark being slightly high for him but the trip wouldn’t be an issue. The third horse home that day Godsmejudge went onto win the Scottish National beating Big Occasion. Considering softer ground suits both of these better, the going at Ayr which was more good than soft, highlighted they are more versatile with going conditions so I wouldn’t be worried about the state of the ground. Godsmejudge is a sound jumper and seems to have the ideal profile of a National winner whilst the worry for Big Occasion is his age as he is only 6 years old. The unlucky horse of the National Hunt Chase was Rival D’Estruval who was given an extremely patient ride by Derek O’Connor before falling two out. His run in the Scottish National can be forgiven as he is a much better horse fresh, as indicated by his run at Cheltenham, so a light campaign around Aintree would be wanted. He is a very good horse but my concern would be him lasting out the trip. If the ground came up soft then Highland Lodge would have a nice chance in the race but he does seem to be a small field bully as showing when winning at Cheltenham in December. Others to note include Well Refreshed who won the Haydock National trial but only after demolishing the final fence. His jumping would be a cause for concern although with the new style of fences, he might get away with making mistakes but he would need soft ground to be seen at his best. Wyck Hill was fancied for this year’s race before a disappointing run at Kempton ended his hopes of making the line-up, but he did shape better at Punchestown at the end of the season. I do believe he will handle better ground but it depends whether connections believe he is a Gold Cup horse or not. A horse I know is being trained for the race is Paul Nicholls’, Aiteen Thirtythree. He looked to be a very good horse in his novice days when winning impressively on two starts at Newbury before disappointing in the RSA Chase behind Boston’s Angel. He then disappointed in the Hennessy before injury ruled him out of last season. Having read on Twitter a while back that this would be the aim, this son of Old Vic would be a dangerous player on the best of his form, but he would need to prove he still has the ability whether it be over hurdles or in a chase. Romanesco would be a dark horse for the race as he was consistent in most of his races last season before falling at the last in the Irish National. Goulanes would be an interesting contender although a lack of experience would be a worry but my final mention goes to two Irish trained greys that have both been off the track for over a year; Portrait King and Groody Hill. The former won the Eider Chase back in 2012 having improved for the step up in distance but was slightly disappointing in the Scottish National. If Portrait King comes back to form then he must have an excellent chance with his jumping and stamina being his strong suits. Groody Hill won the Troytown as an inexperienced 5 year old before finishing an excellent third to Cross Appeal in the Paddy Power at Leopardstown. He ran badly in the Irish National but the year out won’t be a hindrance to the horse with him being so young. To conclude this early analysis, Back In Focus, Teaforthree, Up The Beat, Portrait King and Groody Hill would be five that I would be interested in now although three of them aren’t yet priced up. What are your fancies at this stage? Let us know in the Comments below.
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