0.5pt win Tea For Two @18/1, 14:50 Aintree, Thursday

Round two of the spring festivals starts today with Aintree hosting four Grade 1 races at its Grand National meeting.

The feature race is the Bowl, a three-mile Grade 1 chase with practically no resemblance to its Cheltenham Festival equivalent the Gold Cup.

That’s because the ground is typically quicker in April and Aintree is flat, taking the emphasis away from stamina and towards speed.

Not your typical Grade 1 staying chase, then, and most Gold Cup winners give it a skip or blow out entirely with none having won it.

Cheltenham form in general is very dangerous to follow at this meet, as horses leave their best form in Gloucestershire and find the three-week gap between the meets too short for a full recovery.

Reigning champion Cue Card is back for his defence after a third-last fence fall in the Gold Cup – he fell at the same fence in the same race last season en route to winning this, so it’s hard to see that as a negative and he arrives fresh.

As a three-time Betfair Chase winner, a King George winner and winner of this last year, he is undoubtedly best on flat tracks like Aintree and would be a banker in this in any of the past three seasons.

However, two Grade 1 wins this year might flatter to deceive, as I’m not convinced he’s in the same form as when turning up last year when he took advantage of his relative freshness to beat the placed Gold Cup horses Djakadam and Don Poli – both looked knackered after their exertions in the big one.

Cue Card was a big disappointment after winning this last year when next out at Punchestown, but can blame a long, hard season for that defeat and has so far plotted exactly the same path this year.

Excuses aside, he’s not won back-to-back races since getting up to beat the great Vautour in the King George in 2015, and I have to take him on as the favourite with such a mixed recent record.

Now is where it gets tricky.

Silviniaco Conti is the same age as Cue Card and boasts an almost-identical chasing record with two wins in this, two in in the King George and two in the Betfair Chase – all Grade 1s.

He’s 10/1 for good reason, though, as he’s looked short of that sparkling form of late and is held by Cue Card on this season’s King George form – but only just as he stayed on from the back to miss out on second by a short-head.

He’d be a good value bet in a rematch with Cue Card but I can’t see him winning given he was hopelessly outpaced on the final lap of the King George, while just a head back in third was TEA FOR TWO, who is a far bigger price at 18/1 and arguably the better bet.

That evidence suggests he shouldn’t be that price, and he too is a Grade 1 winner on decent ground at a flat track – Kempton – when he beat Gold Cup-third Native River by five lengths.

Lizzie Kelly’s mount has continued that decent form this season, running a fine second at Huntingdon to Josses Hill, over a trip far shorter than ideal, and winning easily at Exeter.

He ran in the Gold Cup but rather embarrassingly unseated Kelly at the second fence on her big day, and hardly had a race as a result.

I’m not sure if it’s a positive or not, but aged eight he’s got scope to improve again, whilst he’s up against some ageing legs.

Bristol De Mai is the youngest in the field at six, and we’ve seen many times in the past horses disappoint at Cheltenham and then go on to Aintree and emphatically stamp their class on the sport.

Bristol De Mai’s best form is on flat tracks with some cut in the ground, so whilst one box is ticked he might find things a little quick here if the track hasn’t been watered.

The big positive for his chances is it looks like only Smad Place is likely to challenge him for the lead, and he’s the kind of horse that jumps much better when he’s dictating his own fractions at the front.

He stays well but he’s not the fastest – though having done most his racing, and winning, over shorter trips, he should still have this lot covered in that department.

Empire Of Dirt’s best form includes a close second to subsequent Gold Cup winner Sizing John in the Irish Gold Cup, and that obviously looks top-class.

But he does have to bounce back from a relatively poor show at Cheltenham, where he didn’t have the pace to go with eventual winner Un De Sceaux, which makes me wonder how he’ll cope with Aintree on good ground.

He’s simply too short for me and I’d rather back Cue Card of the two.

0.5pt win Tea For Two @18/1, 14:50 Aintree, Thursday

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