The racing comes thick and fast over the holiday season, and the Welsh Grand National returns to it’s usual slot of the 27th December, having been rescheduled twice in the last three years.
A typically gruelling renewal in what is always a bit of a bog down at Chepstow and although the rain and frost has mostly stayed away at the end of the year, don’t be fooled that this race will be run on anything better than testing conditions.
Notwithstanding the unseasonably warm weather, it probably does rule out some of the true bottomless ground specialists. That includes the likes of Mysteree and Baie Des Iles, who have run well in Nationals in the past, and it’s arguably asking too much of Raz De Maree, who became the oldest horse in recent memory to win the Welsh Grand National last January, to repeat the fairy-tale off a marginally higher mark.
Vintage Clouds will be popular again having put in a career-best last time out and was sent off 7/1 favourite for this last year. But Sue Smith’s charge didn’t jump brilliantly in this event – despite finishing fourth – and is 6lb higher, which does not make his task any easier.
The performance of Ramses de Teillee in the Trial for this a few weeks ago has put him firmly on everyone’s radar. He is becoming a bit of a course specialist, and is officially a few pounds ahead of the handicapper despite carrying a 4lb penalty for that success. He might go close, but has been well-found in the market and there are niggling doubts about whether he will truly see out this trip.
This race always goes to an out-and-out dour stayer, someone who keeps finding when all others have cried enough. I was extremely tempted by the likes of Final Nudge who goes well fresh and the progressive Looksnowtlikebrian as potential candidates.
But this looks tailor-made for 11-year-old Irish raider, FOLSOM BLUE, who was desperately unlucky not to claim the Irish Grand National last April. He would have surely won if not for being badly hampered at the last, and he is now just 3lbs higher having been kept away from fences ever since.
It’s best to ignore his two most recent starts over hurdles at the end of last season and at the beginning of this one as he never puts his best foot forward for those types of events, and quite frankly, it’s not an accurate reflection of what he is all about – generally sound jumping and bags of stamina.
Folsom Blue had the perfect spin over hurdles to commence this season (behind the exciting Paisley Park), when he stayed on encouragingly over much too fast a surface and that will have put him spot-on for this.
With plenty of staying chasers in Gordon Elliott’s ranks at home, it’s quite remarkable to think that this is his first ever runner in the Welsh National, and it looks significant that he only brings one over from his yard, and perhaps even more significant that J J Codd has long been booked to take the ride with an exceptional 32% strike rate for Elliott over the last 12 months underlining this jockey-trainer combination’s threat.
Folsom Blue may not necessarily tick the ‘age box’ of recent winners of this race, but he ticks pretty much everything else and I really struggle to think that he won’t be in the frame come the business end. At 8/1, he’s probably just a fair price, but he’s folly to ignore in a contest that should really suit.
And I’m afraid, we can’t just leave it there with one selection as I’ve not been put off at all by the current odds of the favourite ELEGANT ESCAPE.
He must surely be the one they all have to beat, and is the class horse in the field, with his staying-on second in the Ladbroke Trophy behind Sizing Tennessee providing plenty of encouragement that he will see out this extended trip. Joe Tizzard has also been very confident about his chances in the run up to this as his connections look to make it two wins in three years.
There are several comparisons to be drawn with his stablemate Native River, who won this in 2016 under top-weight when 8lbs well-in. Elegant Escape comes into this with a similar preparation and is officially 4lbs well-in. I’m not suggesting that comparison extends to his outright ability, given that Native River went on to finish third and first in two consecutive Gold Cups. But Elegant Escape remains on an upward curve and with plenty of previous strong form at Chepstow (which is so often a question mark for entrants in this) there is every chance the outcome could be the same.
He looks like he has the minerals for this type of slog having smashed the current second favourite by a whopping 13 lengths last season over 3m on heavy ground at Exeter, before putting in an excellent third-placed performance going down to the current Gold Cup favourite, Presenting Percy in the RSA Chase at the Cheltenham festival.
If Elegant Escape does go on to win this then he probably puts himself in the hunt for the Gold Cup, which looks wide-open, given the result in the King George on Boxing Day. Again, I am not suggesting he is of that standard, but he may not need to be to win this given that he’s officially the best-handicapped horse on ratings.
I don’t think it’s a negative that his usual rider Harry Cobden is at Kempton with Tom O’Brien an able deputy that has already won on him three times before as well as winning a Welsh National previously to boost his chances.
1pt each-way Elegant Escape @11/2, 14:50 Thursday, Chepstow, Welsh Grand National (1/4 odds, five places with several bookmakers)
1pt each-way Folsom Blue @8/1, 14:50 Thursday, Chepstow, Welsh Grand National (1/5 odds, seven places with Skybet)