Saturday’s Grand National at Aintree is the best known of all British horse races, not because it is the highest class race over jumps – it’s a handicap – but because nothing else in the calendar really comes close to recreating its theatre.
A typical renewal is devilishly tricky to call, but this year might – might – be different, with arguably the best field ever assembled and a host of well handicapped Grade 1 winners in contention.
As usual, a whopping forty will go to post, tackling 30 of Aintree’s famous fences and a marathon four-miles-three furlongs – that’s over a mile further than the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
The race requires a bomb-proof jumper who stays and stays and stays, and last year’s winner Many Clouds is the archetype of a Grand National horse.
At their peaks the very best staying chasers go for the Gold Cup, the most prestigious prize in the sport, but very few are good enough and many turn to the National in the twilight of their careers.
Many Clouds did not; aged eight last season and in his prime, he was outclassed by Coneygree in the Gold Cup and pointed the direction of the National as a punt by his owner.
It was painfully obvious in hindsight – and he was a nice price too.
He arrives this season a year older, but still young, and in fine form after two excellent placed efforts behind Gold Cup contenders Don Poli and Smad Place and, most recently, a runaway win at Kelso.
He’s just 1lb higher in the weights this year and looks certain to go very, very close indeed – perhaps deserving favouritism more than any National horse in recent memory.
There’s a catch: his price has crept in all season to 8/1 and the value has probably gone – particularly as I’d argue he isn’t even the class horse in the race.
That accolade belongs to Paul Nicholls’s seven-times Grade-1 winning chaser SILVINIACO CONTI, two years Many Clouds’s senior.
The winner of two King George Chases, two Betfair Chases, an Ascot Chase and, most significantly, three wins and a second in the last four renewals of the Aintree Bowl – all are Grade 1 staying chases – Conti is the best horse to run in the National for many years.
He’s never acted at Cheltenham but thrives on flat tracks like Aintree, and though he’s never raced beyond three-and-a-quarter-miles he too is a thorough stayer and excellent jumper.
He seemingly has all the qualities of a National winner, benefits from the considerable training talents of Paul Nicholls – who in 2012 won this with his half-brother Neptune Collonges – and is 2lb better at the weights than Many Clouds.
His thumping win in the Ascot Chase, after the National weights had been published, ensured he goes into the race 6lb well-in, and if he does stay the trip – Nicholls is adamant he will – then the 12/1 about looks a great bet.
“Throughout his career in the Betfred Bowls, the King Georges we’ve always wanted to make plenty of use of him and make every post a winning post as stamina’s his forte, always has been.”
The other one I like is Jonjo O’Neill’s Holywell, who also has some excellent form at Aintree having hacked up in the Mildmay Novices’ Chase a few seasons ago – thumping this year’s Gold Cup winner Don Cossack in doing so – and placing in the Bowl last year behind Conti.
Aged nine he too should have plenty of big performances left in him, and if you conclude he outstayed Many Clouds and Silviniaco Conti in last season’s Gold Cup – where he finished fourth in a strong renewal – then you’d have few reasons to doubt his stamina, nor his class.
And then there’s the fact he’ll be receiving 12lb from Many Clouds and 10lb from Conti – two horses he has soundly beaten off level weights in the past.
He arrives after a good run in the Ultima handicap at Cheltenham, where he attempted to give Un Temps Pour Tout 5lb, and was beaten seven lengths into second.
I highly doubt he was fully wound up for that race as the National has been the plan for some time, so it was a very good performance on the whole.
The timing of the run ensured he escapes a penalty for the National and with a mark of 153 he arrives 10lb well-in from the one earned after that Gold Cup fourth.
There are concerns, though, as he’s only a small horse and thirty of Aintree’s National Course fences pose a significant challenge.
My big concern is that the only time he’s jumped the National fences was on his seasonal début two seasons ago when he unseated his rider, and all his form at Aintree is on the Mildmay course over the more traditional fences.
He’s a only small horse and can be quite temperamental, so the chaos of the National might faze him and I don’t think that’s been fully factored into his 16/1 price.
Given his likelihood to either boom or bust, he’s not an each-way bet, and there are far more solid bets out there than backing him to win.
My other fancy is a 40/1 outsider and nine-year-old Grade 1 winner, Rebecca Curtis’s O’FAOLAINS BOY.
Despite being beaten over 50 lengths, he ran a huge race in this year’s Gold Cup, jumping brilliantly and boldly making the running until three out, where he ran out of puff.
Curtis was delighted by the run and claimed he wasn’t ‘hard fit’ in the aftermath, so improvement seems likely.
That’d make him a player, though my first impression was he’d actually improve for dropping in trip, but Curtis is adamant he’s a thorough stayer and reckons the extra nine furlongs of the National will suit him.
I’d like to think any doubt about his stamina is more than factored into his price.
It’s hard to say with confidence he’s well handicapped, as he missed all of last season through injury and is set to race off the same 156 mark earned in his finest hour, getting the better of Smad Place in a photo-finish to the 2014 RSA Chase.
A certain Many Clouds was well beaten that day and Don Cossack was a faller in what looking back reads as a very strong renewal.
If you consider how easily Smad Place won this season’s Hennessy at Newbury off a mark of 155, O’Faolains Boy – who like Smad Place has had a wind op this season – has the potential to make a mockery of his mark.
He goes on all ground and arrives in far better form than the literal Gold Cup form suggests, so if he gets the trip the 40/1 looks strong each-way value.
Good luck (you’ll need it),
1pt each-way Silviniaco Conti @12/1, 17:15 Aintree, Saturday (Ladbrokes, 5 places, NRNB)
0.75pt each-way O’Faolains Boy @40/1, 17:15 Aintree, Saturday (SkyBet, 5 places, NRNB)
Paul’s National tips will be added to this article later in the week.Leave a comment