The media countdown to the Grand National is about 10 months shorter than the one for the Cheltenham Festival and, to be honest, it is all the better for it.
We had all the pomp and posturing of the Weights’ Lunch in mid-February, the latest forfeit stage was last week, but you sense the editorial push is really upon us now. Which is why I am writing this, I guess.
Scottish National first up this Saturday
The waters are muddied a touch by the fact that we are in the unusual position of having the Scottish National (this Saturday) before Aintree, so those that are seemingly well out of the reckoning at the moment as regards to getting a run have to decide whether to give up all hope of scraping in at Liverpool and go to Ayr this weekend instead.
Some horses will fall by the wayside in the next 12 days or so, though – indeed, Betfair Ambassador Paul Nicholls reported on Monday morning that his Highland Hunter, number 28 in the list, is injured and out of the race – and you just hope that it isn’t one you have already had a nibble on that is similarly sidelined.
Santini sitting fairly pretty
We should start this piece by outlining where this column stands betting-wise on the race.
On February 15, after the weights were published, I put up Santini each-way, five places, at 50/1 with the Betfair Sportsbook and he is into 33s now, though he currently trades at 48.047/1 win-only on the exchange.
I suppose I am happy enough given he has been confirmed as on target for the race, and he clearly has the Grade 1 back-class to make a bold bid off a mark of 153 in a marathon test that has always threatened to suit his, shall we say, dour qualities.
Going left-handed and with plenty of dig – I imagine the Aintree executive will water the hell out of the place if we see much more fine weather – is what he wants, and it is just a matter of whether he still has the legs and zest for the mighty challenge as a 10yo.
I must admit I would have liked to have seen a little bit more from him in the Gold Cup, but his eighth there was no disgrace in a race that wasn’t played to his stamina strengths.
And, back in his hurdling days, he did back up a Festival third with a Grade 1 win in the Sefton at this meeting.
Any Second Now has favourite’s chance
Anyway, enough of the old, what are about the new betting opportunities?
Being honest, I suppose the problem for punters is most people’s shortlists will be nudging into double figures as a fair few have very attractive claims. People would be lying if they said otherwise, as it really is that open.
However, no claims are surely stronger than Any Second Now, who trades as the 11.010/1 favourite on the Exchange.
Whereas last year’s winner Minella Times has been handed an extra (and very prohibitive) 15lb for his win last year (as well as running poorly on both starts this season), I imagine connections of Any Second Now are delighted with his weight.
Sure, he is 7lb higher than when beaten over eight lengths last year but we all saw how badly hampered he was there. He comes into this race having beaten Escaria Ten, giving him 8lb and a nose beating in the Bobbjo after the weights came out, with Burrows Saint 42 lengths behind in third.
He has a favourite’s chance, as does Escaria Ten, who trades at 12.5, but it is curious that plenty have kept the faith in the third at Fairyhouse, Burrows Saint, given how poorly he appeared run there.
His price didn’t shift that much after the defeat and he is into 20/1 on the exchange now. That said, he runs off the same mark as when fourth last year and is clearly much better than he showed last time.
Gordon Elliott is sure to be an annoying force for many of the owners and trainers down the running list as he looks set to run a handful, headed up by the Cheltenham Cross Country winner Delta Work, an 11s poke on the Exchange, as well as Escaria Ten.
Throw in National Hunt Chase runner-up Run Wild Fred and Farclas, as well as about two other possibles, then Elliott is set to have a powerful say in this race, certainly before as regards who gets a run down the bottom of the weights, and possibly afterwards, when standing on the winner’s podium.
You can throw a whole heap of other Irish chasers into the mix too – towards the top of the market we also have Enjoy D’Allen (recently purchased by JP McManus for this race) and Longhouse Poet – but they may not have it all their own way, as they did last year.
I forgot that they had the first five home last season, and 10 of the first 11 – quite a staggering statistic – but the Irish didn’t fare well in Cheltenham handicap chases this season (very poorly, in fact) , so maybe racing could be coming home at Aintree on April 9.
Apologies if that made you think of football.
Snow Leopardess leads home challenge
The betting would have you believe that Snow Leopardess and Fiddlerontheroof are the prime candidates for the home team, and it is not hard to see the former getting a lot of love from the TV stations, and feature editiors, in the lead-up to the race.
Yes, I know it is a cliche and simplistic but give the TV producers a prominent-racing grey/white mare – and a mare who had a foal when she had over two years off the track in 2017 – coming here on the back of three wins, including a Becher win in December over these fences, and they are going to be all over her.
She has it all. Aside from the visuals, there is real substance to her chance. In addition to that Becher win, she came out and won impressively at Exeter last time, and a mark of 146 gives her solid form claims.
All her best form has come on soft but, as I said earlier, Aintree will probably ensure it is soft whatever nature decides. And they may not have to, as the weather looks set to turn in the coming days, even if we all know how chancy these long-range forecasts are.
Hold fire for now
The one that I think is probably too big a price at the moment, for those itching for an investment, is Kildisart at 33/1 each-way, five places.
I will stop short of tipping him here though, as I am personally going to resist backing him until after the final decs a week on Thursday. He has had his problems in the last 18 months and you should always be wary of backing fragile horses ante-post.
But what I will say is that I wouldn’t be laying him at 33s. Or 36.035/1 on the Exchange.
A winner at this meeting over 3m1f over fences in 2019, he was just touched off in an Ultima off a 2lb higher mark than this in 2020, and he shaped well enough over an inadequate 2m4f on his return at Newbury earlier in the month, his first start for 467 days.
His trainer made no secret of the fact that was the stepping stone to this race (it was pretty obvious) and a winning interview for Ben Pauling, fresh from a Festival winner and a feisty one by all accounts, would be good value.
I imagine Pauling could well be recalling the cheekpieces, which he wore in the Ultima, for his horse at Aintree.
I feel a bit of a coward for not sticking up either Kildisart or Snow Leopardess, but I will hold fire myself, especially as you know those generous Sportsbook souls will probably be giving us at least seven places on the day.
And we may need all of them given the hugely competitive and open nature of the race this year.
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