Now that Cheltenham has been and gone, it’s time to start focusing on this year’s Grand National Festival, at Aintree (12th-14th April). Read on, for previews of the big races we can look forward to at this famous Liverpool racecourse.
Injured Jockeys Fund Handicap Hurdle
This was a Listed affair up until 2010, when it was given Grade 3 status. Fountains Windfall was last year’s winner.
Jonjo O’Neill’s Albertas Run is probably the most famous champion (2007). The Trevor Hemmings-owned horse went on to win the Reynoldstown Novices’ Chase (2008), the Royal and SunAlliance Chase (2008), the Amlin 1965 Chase (2009), the Ryanair Chase (2010, 2011), the Melling Chase (2010) and the Old Roan Chase (2011).
Betway Bowl Chase
First run in 1984, the race was created to cater for horses that were unable to take part in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, along with horses that did take part but failed to win. However, as it has been a Grade 1 event since 2010 it is no longer thought of as just a consolation event!
Wayward Lad, Docklands Express, First Gold and Silviniaco Conti all won the race twice. The last of those was trained by Paul Nicholls and he remains the leading trainer, with 4 victories. No horse, under the age of 8, has won since What A Friend (2010). Desert Orchid (1988) is undoubtedly the best-known winner. It was the grey’s first success on a left-handed track.
Might Bite, runner-up to Native River in the Gold Cup, is now being aimed at this race by Nicky Henderson, although connections will not be taking any chances.
“Nicky will tell us a lot nearer the time if he’s ready for that. He’ll only go, I guess, if Nicky’s 100 percent happy with him. He’s had fewer races this season, but I think Friday (in the Gold Cup) was probably the first time he went into the red zone. You can’t tell what the recovery would be, but unless he was absolutely right I don’t think we’d consider sending him – he’s far too precious to take a chance on.” said co-owner Simon Philip, earlier this week.
Anniversary 4-Y-O Novices’ Hurdle
This contest has traditionally been viewed as the next natural step for juveniles that have won, or at least impressed, in the Cheltenham Triumph Hurdle. However, only Defi Du Seuil and Zarkandar have followed-up in the last ten years.
It was made a Grade 1 encounter in 2005 and we’ve certainly seen stronger fields since the turn of the Millennium. The likes of Al Eile, Detroit City, Katchit and Binocular have all won in the last 15 years – along with Apple’s Jade who was the 2016 Champion.
Alan King has an outstanding record, winning 4 of the last 11 renewals. Redicean was disappointing for him in the Triumph Hurdle, but perhaps King will look upon this race as a chance for him to make amends?
This is the feature contest, on the opening day at Aintree and the big guns will be out in force. The last 5 winners have been Zarkandar, The New One, Jezki, Annie Power and the 2017 Champion Buveur D’Air who will be seeking consecutive back-to-back Champion Hurdle and Aintree Hurdle doubles if Nicky Henderson’s brilliant inmate lines-up.
The have been so many great Aintree Hurdle Champions, but Morley Street is the one that really stands out. Trained by Toby Balding, Morley Street’s dam was not even a thoroughbred, but that didn’t prevent him from winning the race 4 years straight – from 1990-1993. Morley Street also recorded back-to-back wins in the Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase and was named American Champion Steeplechase Horse twice (1990 and 1991).
Our man Sam Twiston-Davies was the pilot, when The New One won in 2014. The race looked already in the bag at the 2nd-last, but Rock On Ruby proved very game and Sam had to muster all his riding skills to hold-off the challenge and win by a head.
Red Rum Handicap Chase
Named after the horse who won the Grand National 3 times, this race has gone up and down in status having actually been a Grade 2 event between 1999 and 2001.
12 fences must be negotiated, over the 2 mile trip, with the contest being open to horses aged 5 and up. It used to be a limited handicap (with a restricted weight range), but was standardised in 2001. Since then, no trainer has won the race more than once.
Horse that have tasted success, in the Red Rum Handicap Chase in recent years, include Parsnip Pete, Surf And Turf, Katachenko and last year’s winner Double W’s.
Manifesto Novices’ Chase
The final race on opening day was only introduced in 2009. It was initially a Grade 2 encounter, but was upgraded within 3 years.
It’s named after Manifesto, a double Grand National winner who took part in the race on no less than 8 occasions.
As of yet, none of the 9 winners have gone on to achieve what connections might have hoped. Tartak won in 2009 and he was followed by Mad Max, Wishfull Thinking, Menorah, Captain Conan, Uxizandre, Clarcam, Arzal and last year’s champion Flying Angel – a horse trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies.
6-year-olds have won 4 of the last 5 renewals. It’s regarded as being on the soft side, compared to other Grade 1 encounters. Will the winner of this year’s Manifesto suffer the same fate as previous champions?
Top Novices’ Hurdle
This race will be the next step for some of the horses that competed in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, at Cheltenham. Recent winners include Darlan, My Tent Or Yours, Buveur D’Air and Pingshou who landed the spoils for Colin Tizzard’s yard as a 7-year-old last term.
With 5 winners since 2010, Nicky Henderson has utterly dominated this race. However, only Claimantakinforgan represented him in the Supreme and that horse finished 5th behind Summerville Boy, Kalashnikov, Mengli Khan and Paloma Blue. Tizzard fielded 3 runners, but only Lostintranslation made it home (7th). Shoal Bay pulled-up at the final flight, while Slate House fell at the same obstacle.
Harry Whittington is expected to aim Simply The Betts at this race. The horse was disappointing in the Supreme, but Whittington felt the conditions did him no favours.
“He hated the ground at Cheltenham but he stayed on all the way to finish mid-division. Sean (Bowen) said the ground was too soft. He is a very tough horse and we will keep him on the go. If the ground dries out, we might consider running him in the two-mile Grade One there (at Aintree). If he wins great, but if he gets beat he is still a novice for next season. He could well be one tailor-made for those valuable two-mile handicaps next season.”
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The Topham is one of 3 races that are run over the Grand National fences, the other 2 being the Fox Hunters Chase and of course the National itself. It’s a contest that has been dominated by Peter Bowen and Nicky Henderson, since 2007, although other trainers have won it very-recently including Jonjo O’Neill with Eastlake (2016) and Colin Tizzard with Ultragold (last year).
Older horses tend to do well. 4 of the last 9 winners have been aged 10, or over. The oldest horse to ever take the Topham was Sirrah Jay, who went first past the post at the ripe old age of 13 in 1993.
Barry Geraghty was on-board 3 of the last 5 winners. 7 of the last 9 winners carried 10st 11lbs, or less.
Sefton Novices’ Hurdle
Barton Bank is almost-certainly the best-loved horses to win this race. Trained by David Nicholson, he triumphed in 1992 and went on to land the Worcester Novices’ Chase (1992), the Charlie Hall Chase (1993, 1995), the Martell Cup Chase (1997) and the King George VI Chase (1993). Thistlecrack, champion in 2015, was expected by many to have an even more successful career although Colin Tizzard’s inmate has yet to recover from the epic defeat handed to him by Many Clouds in last year’s Cotswold Chase.
Nicholson won the race 3 times, in the 1990s (also with Corner Boy and Forest Ivory). Nigel Twiston-Davies is the only other trainer to have saddled a trio of champions (King’s Road, Pettifour and Ballyoptic).
The Sefton is often the next destination for horses that ran in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle, at Cheltenham, so perhaps we will see the likes of Santini, Chef Des Obeaux and Calett Mad line-up for the 2018 renewal?
Mildmay Novices’ Chase
Along wit the RSA Chase, this is where pundits will be looking for horses that look capable of going on to win the Gold Cup, at some point in their careers. Looking at recent winners, it’s easy to see why. Native River was the victor in 2016, while Nicky Henderson’s Might Bite won last year. That pair finished 1st and 2nd, respectively, in the 2018 Gold Cup.
There can be little doubt that the best horse to have won the Mildmay was Jenny Pitman’s Burrough Hill Lad. By the end of his outstanding career he had scooped the Welsh National (1983), the Gainsborough Chase (1984, 1985, 1986), the Cheltenham Gold Cup (1984), the Charlie Hall Chase (1984), the Hennessy Gold Cup (1984) and the King George VI Chase (1984). He’s regarded as one of National Hunt’s greatest ever performers and rightly so.
It’s possible that we could see a mare going very close, in the 2018 renewal. Anthony Honeyball’s Ms Parfois finished runner-up to Rathvinden in the Cheltenham National Hunt Chase. Her trainer was gutted to have lost the race and eager to put her back into the fray at the earliest opportunity.
“She ran very well at Cheltenham and we were pleased with the run, but I was very disappointed not to win and I can’t hide that. She got there in tip-top shape after a great season. It was not necessarily the target but with the ground coming right, it looked like the right thing to do. It was an amazing race and the two pulled a long way clear. I thought she might do it halfway up the run-in, but she didn’t quite have that extra injection of speed. We will keep her ticking over and see what the weather does. There is the three-mile-one Grade 1 novices’ chase at Aintree or there is a Listed handicap over the same trip we could stick her in.”
Introduced in 1991, this encounter is often the next port of call for Champion Chase runners. Sprinter Sacre was the 2013 winner.
The conditions at this year’s Cheltenham Festival led to some notable absentees in just about all of the major chasing contests and it would be a surprise if several aren’t in-line for a return in this famous race.
Waiting Patiently is among those who could figure. Ruth Jefferson’s charge held-off the challenge of Cue Card, in the Grade 1 Ascot Hurdle, a race in which Nicky Henderson’s Top Notch failed to shine. It would be a surprise if this terrific jumper began his 8-year-old career without having raced at either Cheltenham or Aintree and Jefferson will probably be in the process of deciding whether the Melling Chase represents a better option than the Betway Bowl.
Some true greats have won the Melling Chase, over the years. They include Remittance Man, Viking Flagship, Martha;s Son, Moscow Flyer and Alan King’s Voy Pur Ustedes.
Maghull Novices’ Chase
Saturday gets off too a real bang with a race that his been a fertile field for 6-year-olds to plough, since 2012. All but 5 of the winners have been that age, including last season’s champion Sam Benedeto – trained by Paul Nicholls.
Under Nick Schofield, San Benedeto became Nicholls’ 6th winner since 1999 and he’s the top trainer in the race’s history.
Arkle runners often take part, although Nicholls had no runners in this year’s renewal which was contested by just 5 horses. The race was easily won by Footpad, trained by Willie Mullins.
Jonjo O’Neill’s Night Nurse must be ranked the greatest-ever winner of the Maghull. The Peter Easterby-trained gelding’s triumphs are too numerous to list fully, but include the Champion Hurdle in 1976 and 1977. His Timeform rating of 182 was the highest ever awarded to a hurdler and it remains the case to this day.
Grand National Chase
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The world’s most-famous jumps race shows no signs of losing popularity and once again people will be tuning-in from all around the planet to watch one of sport’s greatest spectacles.
Horses expected to run in the 2018 Grand National include Total Recall, Blaklion, Tiger Roll, The Last Samurai and Willie Mullins’ Bellshill.
Keep an eye on the blog, as we will be publishing a special in-depth preview of this race very soon!
Most of us know the great Big Buck’s for winning a quartet of World Hurdles, at the Cheltenham Festival, but he also won this race 4 times as well (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012). However, it isn’t Paul Nicholls (Big Buck’s trainer) who holds the record for victories. That honour goes to Martin Pipe Snr, whose 5 wins came via Pragada (1992), Sweet Glow (1994), Galant Moss (1999), Maid Equal (2001) and Deano’s Beeno (2003).
Yanworth won the 2017 renewal and Barry Geraghty was on-board Alan King’s mercurial inmate. He was disappointing in the Stayers’ Hurdle though and King is still unsure if he’ll be returning to Merseyside to defend his crown.
“I was very disappointed with Yanworth in the Stayers’ Hurdle. I wouldn’t have thought the ground or the slow pace would have been a problem but he finished distressed, which he’s never done before. His tests were clear afterwards but that wasn’t him. We’ll need to discuss whether to send him to Aintree.”
The Liverpool Hurdle has favoured British trainers, in recent years and no horse over the age of 9 has won since Deano’s Beano.
Champion Standard Open NH Flat Race
You can bet that the talk around the Twiston-Davies’ dinner-table will turn to this contest, soon enough – if it hasn’t already. The family has enjoyed huge success, in the Liverpool bumper.
RaceBets’ brand ambassador, Sam, rode both The New One and Ballybolley to victory, both for his father Nigel who has 4 wins in total to his name.
The New One won in 2012, the same year that Champagne Fever won the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham. Subsequent winners of both encounters have not really enjoyed careers as impressive as that pair though. Lalor won this race in 2017, but has yet to win since then and looked out of sorts in the Betfair Hurdle, at Newbury in February.
Let’s hope that this year’s renewal can produce a genuine star of the future.
Mersey Novices’ Hurdle
The final Grade 1 race of the Grand National Festival tends to feature horses that ran in the Baring Bingham Novices’ Hurdle (The Neptune).
Few would disagree that the greatest ever champion was the Henrietta Knight-trained Best Mate, who was the victor in 2000. This incredible campaigner went on to secure the November Novices’ Chase (2000), the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase (2001), the Haldon Gold Cup (2001), the Cheltenham Gold Cup (2002, 2003, 2004), the Peterborough Chase (2002) and the King George VI Chase (2002). Best Mate won 14 of the 22 contests he started and never fell at a fence or hurdle.
Finian’s Oscar won in 2017, for Colin Tizzard.
Betting With RaceBets
Good luck, if you are having a bet at Aintree. Our Grand National ante-post market is already live, if you fancy an early flutter!