Many Clouds: the National bet of a lifetime

It was the late, great Richard Baerlein of The Observer who upon witnessing a colt by the name of Shergar obliterate his rivals by ten lengths in the Guardian Classic Trial at Sandown in 1981 famously exhorted his readership to have their orchestra stalls on for the Epsom Derby with the phrase: “at 8/1 Shergar for the Derby, now is the time to bet like men.” Needless to say he romped to victory two months later winning Baerlein, whose bet had clearly been of the masculine variety, so much money he bought a house in Sussex on the proceeds and named it after the Aga Khan’s dazzling three-year-old. Now as very much a ten quid each-way man I would never advocate risking the sort of hard-earned he must have done at those prices a generation ago, but based on the available historical evidence there is no doubt in my mind that Many Clouds in April’s Crabbies Grand National is the best bet I have ever seen in all my years enjoying the world’s greatest steeplechase and if he remains around the 12/1 mark simply has to be backed and backed big.

As I highlighted in my blog prior to the 2014 renewal, the National is littered with examples of horses who have run well in the race on more than one occasion. It is a bombproof trend that echoes through generations of the race and has held up just as robustly in recent years. Already in the second decade of the 21st century Dont Push It (1st and 3rd in ’10 and ’11 respectively), State Of Play (3rd in ’10 and 4th in ’11 – to go with his 4th in ’09 as well ), Oscar Time (2nd in ’11 and 4th in ’13,) Cappa Bleu (4th and 2nd in ’12 and ’13 respectively), and Alvarado (4th in both ’14 and ’15) have managed two in-the-money finishes while others such as Ballabriggs and Monbeg Dude have not been too far away from achieving the same feat. As outlined in the aforementioned blogpost from a couple of years ago this is quite simply because the National is such an unusually long test of stamina. Yes there are other four mile chases, but none run at quite the relentless gallop or indeed on such a vast, galloping track as Aintree. It is a test that stretches the thoroughbred breed to its limits and only a small and select band of horses are up to it.

However, there is a bit of a catch here. As anyone with even a passing interest in the great old race will tell you, very few horses have actually been able to win the National on more than one occasion. Many have tried but only Reynoldstown (1935 and 1936) and the incomparable Red Rum (1973, ’74 and ’77) have done so since the turn of the 20th century (a horse named Poethlyn did as well but one of his two victories came at Gatwick in 1918 while Aintree was indisposed during the Great War). So why do so many horses repeat good performances but so few manage to repeat victories? Well, quite simply the official handicapper has always been pretty tough with those who have won the race and try to back up. As the slightly wonky table below shows (how do you construct a nice clear table on wordpress, by the way?), since Red Rum waltzed to his second and most impressive victory in 1974 – defying a 23lb rise in the weights I might add – those attempting a repeat success twelve months later have often had to shoulder double digit poundage rises. This has made their task much trickier but, given what we know about Grand National repeaters, it is not surprising to see that a large portion have posted gallant efforts. Since 1974 24 horses have tried to win again the following year with eight – Red Rum, Corbiere, West Tip, Papillon, Monty’s Pass, Hedgehunter, Comply Or Die and Don’t Push It – finishing in the first four and seven of them having to labour under weight rises ranging from five to 17 pounds.

 Year  Horse                         Weight rise    Placing    Age/weight          Placing for 1lb rise

1975  RED RUM                      –                     2nd          10-12-0                          2nd
1980 RUBSTIC                      11lbs                Fell          11-10-11                           –
1982 ALDANITI                    10lbs               Fell          12-11-9                            –
1983 GRITTAR                         7lbs               5th          10-11-12                          5th
1984 CORBIERE                    10lbs               3rd            9-12-0                           1st
1985 HALLO DANDY           10lbs              Fell          11-10-12                           –
1986 LAST SUSPECT            11lbs               PU            12-11-2                            –
1987 WEST TIP                      10lbs              4th           10-11-7                           1st
1991 MR FRISK                      14lbs               PU            12-11-6                           –
1992 SEAGRAM                     12lbs               PU            12-11-4                          –
1995 MIINNEHOMA             10lbs               PU            12-11-4                          –
1999 EARTH SUMMIT            9lbs              8th            11-11-0                         7th
2000 BOBBYJO                      20lbs             11th           10-11-6                         9th
2001 PAPILLON                       7lbs              3rd            10-11-5                         3rd
2003 BINDAREE                      7lbs              6th             9-10-11                         5th
2004 MONTY’S PASS            17lbs              4th           11-11-10                      4th
2005 AMBERLEIGH HOUSE  7lbs            10th           13-11-3                         8th
2006 HEDGEHUNTER           11lbs             2nd           10-11-12                       1st
2007 NUMBERSIXVALVERDE9lbs            6th            11-11-3                         6th
2009 COMPLY OR DIE             11lbs            2nd          10-11-6                         1st
2010 MON MOME                      7lbs             Fell          10-11-7                         –
2011 DON’T PUSH IT                 5lbs             3rd          11-11-10                       3rd

2012 BALLABRIGGS                  9lbs             6th           11-11-9                          3rd
2015 PINEAU DE RE                  8lbs            12th          12-11-0                         11th

So why is Many Clouds such a good bet to not only run very well should he turn up on Merseyside on 9th April but also succeed where all those above him failed? Well, because of his previous high-class form he turned up at Aintree in 2015 already positioned very close to the top of the handicap at 11 stone 9lbs. Quite simply, the BHB official jumps handicapper has now virtually no room for manoeuvre. If a horse like Monty’s Pass hacks up off 10-7 like he did in 2003 his connections can expect, and indeed in his case got, a hike up into the higher echelons of the eleven stone plus brigade. This cannot happen with Many Clouds who can only go up one further pound to the maximum weight that any horse is permitted to carry which is 11st 10lbs. Now the keen eyed amongst you will have noted a fifth and final column on my table which is an extrapolation of how each and every one of those 24 horses would have fared in their attempt at a consecutive National win had they too only been subject to a one pound rise in the weights a la Many Clouds. Taking the weight/distance conversion for extreme staying handicap chases of 0.6 lbs per length that I learned as an acne-ridden young punter many moons ago, I calculated that Corbiere, West Tip, Hedgehunter and Comply Or Die all would have won in their repeat bids while Don’t Push It and Ballabriggs would have got within a handful of lengths of doing so as well. Add to that the three further horses that would also have made the first four in those circumstances and another three that would have made the first six and I have concluded that, based on his 1lb rise in the weights, Many Clouds is a 5/1 chance to win the 2016 renewal, a 13/8 chance to be in the first four and Evens to be in the first six*: prices considerably under what is available at the moment and probably will still be so come the morning of the race.

(* Betfair do a whole host of different place markets nearer the time, one of which will involve five to be placed, may involve six to be placed and also ten to be placed, in which by my above calculations, Many Clouds would be an 8/13 chance.)

Oliver Sherwood’s galloper’s chances also increase when you factor in his age. If you look at the above table again you will see that horses aged ten or younger have done considerably better than those eleven or above. Of the ten in the younger group, six finished in the first four (four of those being Corbiere, West Tip, Hedgehunter and Comply Or Die who would have won on the basis of a one pound rise), a further two finshed in the first six with only Bobbyjo – who was crucified by the handicapper for his 1999 win to the tune of 20lbs in 2000 and finished 11th – and Mon Mome- who fell at the 26th in 2010 – failing to get on the radar. Many Clouds was a very sprightly eight when he triumphed last term so, on that basis, has an even better chance to make history.

Now of course much can go wrong. He has to get there in one piece first and even if he does he may go the way of Aldaniti in 1982 and Hallo Dandy in 1985, both of whom got no further than the first, or Rubstic who slithered into The Chair in 1980, or indeed he may do a Seagram or Miinnehoma and decide that another slog around Aintree twelve months later is not on his to-do list. He will also have to give weight to thirty-nine other staying chasers whose abilities will range from top-class to more-than-useful, but if he wins on April 9th and gallops out of history and into legend you really ought to have been on.

Grand National Angles

With the field now whittled down to sixty-five at the five day stage the Grand National punting picture is becoming a little clearer. Below are five horses who should be able to go well and make you a few quid in the myriad markets that exist in the world’s greatest steeplechase. Feel free to respond with your own thoughts here or on my twitter feed at @johnblance1. Try and refrain from gratuitous abuse, though.

ALVARADO

Those kind and patient souls who have read previous blog posts will know how keen I have been on this horse for quite some time. If you watch the video of last year’s race you can see him getting into a bit of trouble in the early stages and it was interesting that in his recent interview with the Racing Post jockey Paul Moloney confirmed that he had not intended to ride him from so far off the pace but was a bit of a hostage to fortune. On that basis, therefore, his performance was even more commendable and if he can run mid-pack this time around he should be well placed to pounce in the latter stages. I still think he is relatively unexposed for a 10-year-old staying handicap chaser and he ran perfectly repectably in a veterans chase at Doncaster last time. In terms of how to play him I would suggest a bet that is more heavily weighted towards the four and five to be placed markets but with a saver on to win.

GODSMEJUDGE

His prep-race in an hurdles contest at Bangor the other week was hardly scintillating but I still think this horse is ideal for Aintree. His two cracking runs in the Scottish National over the last two season proves he is a thorough stayer and I like his prominent running style too. He is also a proven spring horse and the mild, sunny weather that we are forecast for the next few days could just be a little extra factor in his favour. He is well handicapped and is worth a decent sized win bet.

OSCAR TIME

This old boy is a fantastic Aintree horse and, while he is most unlikely to win, there could be a great chance to make him a nice little earner. Obviously his age – 14 – is against him as is the fact that he probably doesn’t truly see out the trip, as I found out to my cost when I had him in the trifecta at 66/1 in 2013. However, like Hello Bud has shown recently, classy geriatrics with light racing weights can still be relied upon to give a good account of themselves and I reckon, with a clear round, he can make the first five and is a copper-bottomed certainty to finish in the first ten. Our friends at Betfair have produced a 10 TBP market for the last few years and it has served me well in the past with the likes of Swing Bill. Also, while I am not normally an in running player, I reckon there might be a bit of mileage in backing him in the win market before the off – he should be around 60s or 70s – before laying him off when he hits much lower in the race. He should figure prominently for a large chunk of it and I would expect his price to have collapsed by the Anchor Bridge crossing for the final time.

PINEAU DE RE

Like I said in a previous post, the eight pound rise Pineau De Re received for last year’s win could have been much worse when you consider some of the hikes that other winners have had and I think he is well capable of emulating Monty’s Pass, Comply Or Die, Hedgehunter, Don’t Push It from earlier this century and finish in the first four the year after his win. Also, when you consider that Bindaree and Ballabriggs both finished sixth the year after their successes it means that he must have a great chance in some of those extra place markets. If he was anywhere near 2s in the 10 TBP list then history says he simply has to be backed.

CHANCE DU ROY

This fellow has been very consistent over the National fences and has a Becher Chase, a Topham second place and a Sixth in last year’s big one on his CV. Last year’s run probably showed that he might be up against it vis-a-vis winning, but when you consider that he was only beaten a short-head by Rocky Creek last year, is re-opposing on exactly the same terms and is four-times the price of the Nicholls charge then he represents a bit of value. I would back him in both the 5 and 10 TBP markets.

Grand National 2015

This year has been busier than I anticipated, both professionally and personally, so I have rather wimped out of adding much to my blog in the 2014/15 campaign. During quieter times in September I was able to flag up my staying handicap chasers to follow and they yielded one or two big race winners. The link to it for those who want to check is below.

http://wp.me/p4qlmR-52

Punting-wise, save for dear old Oscar Time nabbing the Becher Chase at 45/1 on Betfair in December, it has been a quiet season. Not disastrous at all but one in which no financial progress has been made. Still, one of the keys to successful punting is to keep things in perspective, play the long game and not worry about bad or unspectacular runs no matter how protracted. The publication of the Grand National weights always gets the juices flowing, however, and given that I posted a Tolstoy-esque epic on the subject last year I thought it would be rude not to follow up this time round. Although one year out of date, everything I wrote for the 2014 race is still relevant to this year’s running and, even if it wasn’t desperately proficient at highlighting the winner or indeed the trifecta perm, they are still long-term trends that have served me well in the past and could well be relevant to this time around. Once again, the link is below.

http://wp.me/p4qlmR-3g

The system can usually whittle the field down to a workable shortlist and, at the time of writing a day or so after the publications of the weights, I have it down to an initial shortlist of 22 for the trifecta perm with a much smaller handful for wagers either in the traditional win and place markets or the very generous ten-to-be-placed market that our friends at Betfair have offered over the last few years. In racecard order they are:

SAM WINNER  11st 8lbs

High-class staying chaser who powered up the Cheltenham hill to win the big staying handicap chase at the Open meeting. He followed that up with victory in a Grade 1 at Aintree before running a blinder in the Lexus at Christmas. Very classy so high in the weights but it would be no surprise to see him emulate his stablemate Rocky Creek and go well under a big burden. His lacklustre run over an extreme trip in the Scottish National a slight concern but his Cheltenham run qualifies him for the trifecta perm.

BALTHAZAR KING 11st 2lbs

Ran a fantastic race to finish second last year when ridden in a more patient fashion. He is renowned for his prominent style of running, especially over the cross country course at Cheltenham, but they were tactics that did not serve him well at Aintree in 2013. However, the change of tactics worked 12 months ago and, provided we don’t get Earth Summit or Miinnehoma style heavy ground, he should be thereabouts. Obvious for the first ten, possible for the first four and has to be on the trifecta shortlist.

HOME FARM 11st 2lbs

Bit out of his depth last time in the Irish Hennessy and disappointing in the Irish National last year, but his third placed run in that race in 2013 qualifies him for at least the long range trifecta list

SHUTTHEFRONTDOOR 11st 2lbs

If you like your Grand National runners young and unexposed this is definitely the horse for you. Only six runs over fences have yielded three wins most notably in last year’s Irish National and it is still possible that he could be better than just a handicapper. He is an obvious and worthy favourite in most lists.

HADRIANS APPROACH 11st 0lbs

His win in the Bet365 Gold Cup last year qualifies him for the shortlist and all the evidence is that he is much better in the springtime. He certainly needs good ground as his poor performance at Sandown in a bog last time showed.

PINEAU DE RE 11st 0lbs

As previous winners go, this horse has got off relatively lightly. If we take the last ten years as a benchmark, Hedgehunter (2005) was put up 12lbs for his win the following year, Numbersixvalverde (2006) 11lbs for the 2007 running, Comply Or Die (2009) a whopping 15lbs and Ballabriggs (2011) went up 10lbs for his defence in 2012. BHA handicapper Phil Smith has only seen fit to put up Dr Richard Newland’s charge eight pounds though for his heroics last year so for students of the race’s history he has to be of massive interest each-way. Also, if you look at the re-run of last year’s race Pineau De Re, after initially jumping a bit sketchily, really warmed to his task and in the end won with probably more in hand than the official winning margin suggested. Not surprisingly he has done very little over hurdles in preparation this season and, whilst not necessarily a likely winner, he is good for a place and, given a clear round, bombproof for the first ten.

THE DRUIDS NEPHEW 10st 9lbs

Stayed on doggedly up the Cheltenham hill when chasing home Sam Winner in November and qualifies on the basis of that for trifecta consideration.

AL CO 10st 8lbs

Shock winner of the Scottish Grand National last year, and nothing much to shout about this season, but as Aurora’s Encore showed a couple of years ago, the Ayr race can be a very good pointer to Aintree so he is included on the trifecta list.

BENVOLIO 10st 8lbs

Ran a belter in the Welsh National a race which, as my piece last year showed, is the best park-course indicator for Aintree. He blotted his copybook at Haydock last time but I think the galloping expanses of Aintree and the mammoth trip will bring out the best in him. Would be surprised if he won but not if he plugged on for third or fourth.

GODSMEJUDGE 10st 8lb

I wrote about this horse at length in my staying handicap chasers to follow and nothing much has changed since September. If he gets there in one piece then the National is absolutely made for him. If we had a monsoon prior to the race I would be worried but normal Aintree April ground would be perfect. He has no experience of the fences but jumping and stamina will not be problems. Definitely a win and place selection.

SUNNYHILLBOY 10st 8lb

Came within a hair’s breadth of winning this great old race in 2012, just losing out in a head-bobber to the classy Neptune Collonges. He was then disappointing when attempting to go one better twelve months later, unseating his rider at the last when tailed off behind Aurora’s Encore. Injury meant that he didn’t take his chance last year and, while nothing could really be gleaned from his run over hurdles at Haydock the other week, I would be surprised if he is as good as three years ago. That said it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that he could go well at a big price and may have to be included in the trifecta.

MONBEG DUDE 10st 7lbs

Potentially nicely weighted and his Welsh National win a couple of years ago qualifies him nicely, but his ninth place finish here last year suggested that he maybe doesn’t quite get home over the four and a half miles. On at the moment but may get culled if the list is too long come the day.

TEAFORTHREE 10st 7lbs

Third in 2013, I was extremely keen on this horse last year only for him to unseat at The Chair. Frankly, I thought he was in the process of running moderately and I wasn’t particularly confident that he was going to justify my lumpy bet. However, if you take the opposite view then he has slid down the weights nicely and has an excellent chance with the proviso of a clear round. At his best he is ideal for this race: a good jumping front runner with plenty of stamina and, although beaten in a hunter chase at Haydock last time, he still has the potential to go well at a much better price than twelve months ago.

MERRY KING 10st 5lbs

Extremely consistent type who rarely wins but virtually never runs a bad race. Has been fifth in a Welsh National and fourth in a Scottish National and should have the requisite stamina to finish thereabouts at Aintree too.

OSCAR TIME 10st 5lbs

A real Aintree specialist who added this season’s Becher Chase to second and fourth placed finishes in the Nationals of 2011 and 2013 repectively. At the age of 14 he is a most unlikely winner but, if they decide to run him, I can see him emulating Hello Bud who ran a mighty race at the same age when finishing seventh in 2012. He is certainly a potentially great ten-to-be-placed investment.

WYCK HILL 10st 4lbs

Just occasionally winners of slightly lower grade extreme staying handicap chases like the Eider Chase or Midlands National have found themselves in the first four and I think this fellow might have a chance of running well. Certainly the front-running style adopted when he won the Newcastle marathon last year seemed to have the desired effect. Connections have obviously had this race in mind all year and he could easily plod into a place.

PORTRAIT KING 10st 3lbs

Like Wyck Hill another former Eider winner who jumps and stays well. Both are entered up in this year’s renewal at Newcastle this Saturday so we may know a bit more about their potential participation then.

ALVARADO 10st 3lbs

The best ante-post bet of the lot and taken to at least keep up the amazing record of his owners who have had horses placed in the first four in each of the last six runnings of the race without ever actually winning. He lashed home last year to finish fourth despite jumping the second last in tenth place and the last in eighth and has been campaigned with this race solely in mind this term. For a ten-year-old he is comparatively lightly raced over fences and still a tad unexposed. His victory at Cheltenham in December 2013 was an eye-brow raising performance given the way he steamed home past some very decent types and there is just a chance he is still a good few pounds lower than he should be. Also, on last year’s run he is 2lb better off with Balthazar King and 7lbs better off with the winner Pineau De Re.  He is  He will probably get the usual Paul Moloney ultra-patient ride and while, as I rule I prefer prominent runners in the National, I am willing to make an exception for this fellow.

MOUNTAINOUS 9st 12lbs

2013/14 Welsh National winner who fell early on in the race last year. Signs of life at Haydock last time but his decline in form since his finest hour at Chepstow has meant he has slipped so far down the weights he may not get in.

HARRY THE VIKING 9st 9lbs

Inconsistent performer who looked the bees knees a few years ago but has had his problems. A gallant effort in the Haydock Park Grand National Trial qualifies him for the shortlist but he probably won’t get in.

RIGADIN DE BEAUCHENE 9st 9lbs

Another who won’t get in but has posted two mighty efforts on bottomless ground in the Haydock Park Grand National Trial. Even if he did get a run he would only be considered on a bog.

GLENQUEST 9st 8lbs

Ran very well in this year’s Welsh National and has a good effort in the valuable Troytown Chase at Navan in his native Ireland but he too will be lucky to get in.

That, then, is the early work done. Things will change a bit in the coming weeks and I’ll update accordingly.

Staying Handicap Chasers to keep and eye on for the coming season.

Staying handicap chasers to keep an eye on for the coming season.

Autumn, that wonderful time of the year comprising Wordsworthian vistas, new academic beginnings and the ramping up of the National Hunt fixture list is upon us once again. Many will have their minds focused rapier-like on their ten-to follow lists for the coming campaign, but as a staying handicap chase man first and foremost I thought I would put up a list of 18 horses who, in my view, are sufficiently well handicapped to run well under certain conditions in the coming 2014/15 season. It goes without saying that, given the nature of the handicap system, probably none of them will rack up a long string of victories, but in the profile of each horse I have tried to outline the type of race which will see each individual animal at its best.

Any comments, criticisms or corrections will be welcomed. Try and keep it polite though.


ROALCO DE FARGES
9-y-o
BHA Official Rating (OR) 134
 
Phillip Hobbs' grey is still potentially well handicapped and looks a very interesting proposition for a high-quality staying handicap chase in 2014/15. A useful novice, he split Teaforthree and Golden Chieftan in a smarter than average youngsters race at Chepstow in 2012 before making a more than admirable transition to handicap company later that season. He finished fifth in the Midlands National off 134 before chasing home the ferociously well handicapped Tidal Bay in the Bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown in unseasonably soft ground. He then missed the entire 2012/13 season before coming back last year. After a couple of efforts to blow away the cobwebs at Sandown and Ludlow respectively he then bolted up in a 0-140 contest over the Hennessy course and distance at Newbury last March off 127. On the back of a 13lb rise from the assessor he then failed to get home in the Scottish National before running well for a long time to finish seventh in the Bet365 Gold Cup last April. In that race he looked booked for a place before fading on ground that was probably a bit faster than the advertised Good to Soft.
 
This year could be interesting. Back down to 134 he could get in very nicely off a low weight in races like the Hennessy or Welsh National and given his obvious liking for both of those tracks - he actually won at the Hennessy meeting as a novice back in 2011 while he has posted two RPR ratings of 140 over fences at Chepstow - he could be worth a second look in either or both of those races of he gets in. Failing that he should be fine lumping bigger weights in poorer races in mid-winter, soft ground staying chases on galloping tracks.
 
MANY CLOUDS
7-y-o
OR 144
 
This horse is the archetypal second season handicap chaser. He is still pretty unexposed despite six starts over fences, is not short of top class and has got himself a handicap rating off which he can do quite a bit of damage in the early part of the season. In six starts over the larger obstacles he has won at Carlisle, beating Holywell in the process, finished second to a very useful type (Black Thunder - about whom more later) at Haydock, beaten Indian Castle at Wetherby, finished a close second to the subsequent RSA Chase winner at Ascot in the Reynoldstown, fallen in the RSA at the festival and then finished a perfectly respectable fourth at Aintree in a Grade One. In four of those completed races he has notched an RPR higher than his current mark of 144 which suggests that he is perhaps a bit better than the assessor thinks.
 
There is the slight worry about the big-field hurly-burly of a Hennessy, for example, but he didn't seem to bother about having lots of horses around him when finishing second in the big National Hunt Novices Handicap Hurdle at Sandown on Imperial Cup day two seasons ago so he should be able to handle himself well. For me, if there was a bit of juice in the ground and given his Reynoldstown run as well as a victory at Ascot as a hurdler, he would be an ideal type for a crack at the United House Gold Cup at the Berkshire venue in the early part of the season. Failing that, he should be fine for any three mile plus handicap chase on soft ground at a galloping track. The Hennessy is rumoured to be on the cards for him and there is no reason to suggest that he can't go very well indeed.
 
GODSMEJUDGE 
8-y-o
OR 147
 
The generally available 33/1 about this horse at the moment for the Crabbies Grand National looks a terrific bet. Almost to the extent that I might have a few quid on and I haven't had an ante-post wager since Tony Blair was Prime Minister. Normally, I like a prospective Grand National horse to have some National course form but I'll make an exception for this fellow. His record in high-class spring staying handicap chases - 1st in 2013 Scottish National, 2nd in 2014 Scottish National and 3rd in 2014 Bet365 Gold Cup - is excellent and, as I explained in my Grand National blog earlier in the year, these are races that pop up time and time again in the profiles of horses that win or place at Aintree. Add the high-level stamina to his very accurate jumping and front running style and he looks perfect for the job. Trainer Alan King pulled him out of last year's race on the somewhat enigmatic grounds that he "wasn't quite right." Well, whatever the problem was didn't stop him running a cracker at Ayr seven days later so it is to be hoped that there will be no glitches this time. His handicap mark is perfect and should get him into the race under 11 stone so I expect his trainer to keep him relatively quiet until the publication of the weights in February.
 
NIGHT IN MILAN
8-y-o
OR 144
 
Doncaster came into its own as a National Hunt track last year. The mid-winter floods played havoc with the fixture list elsewhere but Town Moor, with its excellent drainage, never missed a meeting and produced its usual good ground for most of the campaign. Indeed with its increased allocation of meetings it seemed like they were racing there nearly every week. Given its extreme galloping nature and tough home straight it is also a course for specialists and they don't come more specialised than Night In Milan. He was nosed out of things in the class 2 three-mile handicap chase in a bunched finish at the December meeting in 2012, won the corresponding race in 2013 off 130 and then produced a fabulous round of jumping to win the Grimthorpe there last March. In between those last two efforts he ran a mighty race for a long time at the same venue in the SkyBet Chase before fading turning for home. On that occasion not even sieve-like Doncaster could produce anything better than soft ground and we were treated to the rare sight in that race of horses being strung out all over South Yorkshire and the first three coming from well off the pace. Despite disliking the conditions though Night In Milan put up his usual front-running, bold-jumping performance only to tire at the business end. His subsequent electrifying display of fencing in March convinced me that granted decent ground he would have been thereabouts in the Skybet too. True, he has risen up the weights, but he still has the potential to improve at the age of eight and, granted normal Donny conditions, he is well capable of going well in both the Skybet and the Grimthorpe in 2014/15
 
GOLDEN CALL
10-y-o
OR 131
 
And speaking of Doncaster course specialists we could have another in the shape of this chap, albeit at a lower level than Night In Milan. Golden Call kept Night In Milan company for a large chunk of the Grimthorpe before fading in the latter stages to finish a gallant fourth beaten 19 lengths. He had warmed up for his tilt at the Grimthorpe with an excellent round of jumping to win a decent 0-135 three-miler on Town Moor in February and, given his perch of 131, he should be able to get into quite a few of the races of that nature at Doncaster this season. He also qualifies for the three-mile veterans chase over that CD in February. I would rather be with him in those types of slightly weaker contests giving weight to inferior horses than getting it off 140 and 150 types in the Skybet or Grimthorpe. He also has a very interesting record at Bangor under both codes which reads 111P, with the the P coming on unsuitably heavy ground. 
 
 
THEATRE GUIDE
7-y-o
OR 149
 
A very solid novice performer back in 2012-13 he was pitched in pretty deep in the Hennessy on his second start last year and ran an absolute blinder to finish third at a big price. Settled well off the pace he worked his way quietly through the field before staying on best of all to finish a never nearer third behind Triolo D'Alene and Rocky Creek. To do that as a six-year-old off a mark of 145 suggested that there was plenty more to come. He then followed that up with an honourable second behind Monbeg Dude (first two well clear of the rest) at Cheltenham at their pre-Christmas meeting. He's been off the track since then but he must have a huge chance in the Hennessy off possibly only four pounds higher if he turns up at Newbury in November. Madison Du Berlais, Carruthers and the mighty Denman all won or ran really well in that race off the back of a great run the previous year and this chap can do the same. On the evidence of his record so far, though, he probably needs ground no worse than good to soft so the autumn could well be the time to catch him. Failing that, and if he is still attractively weighted, the three-mile National Hunt Handicap Chase at the Festival in March could be right up his alley.
 
 
TOUR DES CHAMPS
7-y-o
OR 127
 
Somewhat under the radar, this horse has compiled a pretty decent staying chase CV. Third in a Reynoldstown as a novice, fourth of 24 in a Scottish National, third of 13 in the Betbright Chase at Kempton, fifth of 23 behind Holywell in the National Hunt Chase at the Cheltenham Festival as well as a couple of other thoroughly commendable efforts in ultra competitive cavalry charge chases at three miles or further. In the past he was prone to the odd jumping error but these appear to have been ironed out and his efforts at Kempton and Cheltenham at the back end of last season were especially commendable with the festival race - won by a future Grade One winner, Holywell, with a seubsequent Topham winner in second - working out especially well. Tour Des Champs does have a tendency to get outpaced in his races towards the business end but he does keep fighting and is one of those horses with the happy habit of finishing a couple of places better than looks possible with two or three to jump. His commendable efforts without winning mean that he has dropped down the ratings and now has the option of running in high quality handicaps off an attractive low weight, or slightly less competitive races with a bigger burden. I reckon the staying handicap chase at Cheltenham's October meeting would be perfect for him as a starter for ten. He chased home Balthazar King on that occasion off a mark of 133 and is, as we have seen, six pounds lighter this campaign. 
 
 
SMAD PLACE
7-y-o
OR 155
 
I was very taken with Smad Place last season and expect him to go all the way to the top. Indeed I would not be entirely surprised to see him win a Cheltenham Gold Cup. Certainly the way he battled up the hill when second in the RSA Chase at the festival bodes well as far as that is concerned. However, I think he is the ideal type, and with the kind of rating, to take a top-class handicap on the way up. He reminds me of horses like Trabolgan and Bobs Worth who were first rate as a novices and took the Hennessy off big weights despite being inexperienced. Prior to his honourable second at The Festival in March, Smad Place had beaten Sam Winner in an excellent novice contest at Newbury (first two well clear of a 144 rated chaser in third) and also comfortably dealt with the useful Ardkilly Witness the time before. He did fall on his chasing debut last season but his jumping looked excellent on his last two outings. It would be no easy task to win the Hennessy first up but on the basis of his last two runs as a novice it is entirely possible. His career record of two from two at the Berkshire track also reads well in that context.
 
BLACK THUNDER
7-y-o
OR 149
 
As always, Paul Nicholls approaches the upcoming season with a host of very good staying handicap chasers to look forward to. Clearly Rocky Creek, who will be aimed once again at the National, is very high class and horses like Sam winner and Easter Day could well be the types to do will as second season chasers over the longer trips. The one that interests me from a handicapping perspective, though, is this fellow. He is rated 149 but some of his Novice Chase form, admittedly in small field races, hints that he could be a good bit better than that. He beat Fox Appeal, now rated 151, first time out last season (first two well clear of the rest.) He then accounted for the aforementioned Many Clouds at Haydock before beating the subsequent Classic Chase winner Shotgun Paddy at Lingfield. After that he went to Warwick where he lost to the more than useful Corrin Wood before tipping up in the RSA at Cheltenham when it was too soon to know how he would have got on. He's not extremely well handicapped, but given he ran to RPRs in excess of 149 on three occasions last year the chances are that he is well treated. It goes without saying that the champion trainer is a master when it comes to placing his horses so it will be interesting to see where they start him off. I wouldn't be overly surprised to see him in the Badger Ales Chase at Wincanton.

POUNGACH
8-y-o
OR 134
 
This horse was sold out of Paul Nicholls yard at the Doncaster Sales in May but is no forlorn hope for 2014/15, albeit at a lower level than his previous connections may have hoped. He ran a perfectly respectable race to finish fourth off 144 in last season's Badger Ales Chase at Wincanton on a track that appeared to be too sharp for him. Similar comments could also apply when he finished a good second in a better than average handicap chase at trappy Taunton in March. The performance though that has got my antennae twitching a bit was his staying on eighth of 19 in the Bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown in April. This exposed him as probably not good enough for the stellar staying handicap chase prizes in the spring, but off his mark off 134 a race like the London National over the same course and distance on bona fide winter ground is tailor made for him. He also gagged up at that meeting over hurdles in 2011.

LOCH BA
8-y-o
OR 124
 
 
Quite simply this horse is very well handicapped at the moment and has to take a prominent position on the staying handicap chase ATR horsetracker. A bit like Tour Des Champs he has run excellent races in good company especially in last year's Tommy Whittle and Classic Chases at Haydock and Warwick respectively. Form-wise, though, one of his more eyecatching performances was when he easily beat the following year's Welsh National winner Mountainous in the Harwell Trophy at Newbury back in 2012/13. He did this off a mark of 125 and the ease of his victory at the Berkshire course meant that he interested many a shrewdie in the following season's Hennessy. But on ground that might have been a shade quick he was always behind the eight-ball and eventually finished 14th. On that evidence, it is probably safe to say that really high-class handicaps are beyond him but his drop back to 124 gives him many options in class two and three events in the coming season. Given what he did to Mountainous in the Newbury race two terms ago I would expect a big run in that same race this season were he to go to there and, with plenty of other 0-130s or 0-140s on left-handed galloping tracks during the season, his connections have a host of options. He's still only eight as well.
 
 
 
EMPERORS CHOICE
7-y-o
OR 132
 
and 
 
RIGADIN DE BEAUCHENE
9-y-o
OR 144
 
There are two types of staying handicap chase: those that take place in the autumn and spring on decent ground - the Bet365 Gold Cup and Scottish National, to name a couple - and those that take place on bottomless ground usually in mid-winter like the Welsh National or the Haydock Park Grand National Trial. Many horses in training can cope with the former but precious few can really revel in the latter. In recent years we have had animals like Le Beau Bai and Giles Cross who have come to the high-class staying handicap chase party when conditions were Somme-like and this pair of Venetia Williams sluggers are in a similar category. Emperor's Choice is probably the most extreme example of a mud-lark in the staying handicap chase division at the moment. His record in steeplechases on heavy ground reads: 2111612, with the last two runs being the West Wales National at Ffos Las - in a time more than a minute over standard - and the Haydock Park Grand National Trial when he chased home his stable companion in equally terrible conditions. Not surprisingly, he then struggled on a much better surface in both the Midlands National at Uttoxeter and the Bet365 Gold Cup. It goes without saying that, given normal autumnal ground in the early part of the campaign, this fellow can be safely ignored. But once the ground turns in the middle part of the season and off his current mark of 132 he could do some real damage. It is a perch that will get him in to races like the Welsh National off a very light racing weight, a big advantage when the mud is flying. He is also only six pounds higher than when he won at Ffos Las in February, so if he turned up there off a similar mark and granted desperate ground he should go very well in any repeat bid.
 
Rigadin De Beauchene produced a magnificent display of front-running, good jumping and thorough stamina to win the Haydock Park Grand National Trial in February, beating Emperor's Choice in the process. His performance was even more meritorious given that it was his first appearance of the campaign after injury had held him back in the earlier part of the year. It is no exaggeration to suggest that he could be named the winner down the back straight for the final time and he absolutely hosed up under five-pound claimer Robbie Dunne. Not surprisingly the handicapper took a rather dim view of proceedings and yanked him up 16 pounds. The horse then did his usual: ie run poorly on unsuitably quick ground in the spring. He's still a bit high in the weights, but given that he is only nine, he must be capable of improving into his mark a bit more. Mid-winter races like the Welsh National, Classic Chase at Warwick, which he won two seasons ago, and another crack at the Haydock race look to be on his agenda again. Also, if we ever did get Earth Summit style heavy ground at Aintree again - something that seems increasingly unlikely - his style of running would be perfect for the Grand National. He would have no chance on good though and would probably not even be declared.
 
 
GULLINBURSTI
8-y-o
OR 142

Trainer Emma Lavelle stated at the back end of last season that the Topham Chase at Aintree is to be this horse's objective for 2014/15 and if that is the case he will probably not be aimed at chases at three miles or further. That said, his efforts in staying contests last year were very encouraging mainly for the consistent level of form he showed and also the accuracy of his jumping. He did throw in a poor effort in the Skybet Chase at Doncaster in January, but his run in a class two handicap off top weight over 3m 2f at kelso was very commendable while his best effort probably came next time out at Aintree. There, in the three mile chase that directly precedes the Grand National, he produced a lovely display of jumping to finish third, staying on well when he looked initially to be fading. He then went to Sandown's end of season jamboree and chased home Menorah in a 2m 6f Listed race. In each of those three runs he posted RPRs of 147, thus indicating that his current mark of 142 could be generous. His best form seems to have been on better ground so early or late in the season could be the time to catch him.

SUN CLOUD
7-y-o
OR 132

Malcolm Jefferson's Sun Cloud fell too early in the Eider Chase at Newcastle to know whether or not he would have won, but he was still going well and the ease of his victory in the North Yorkshire National at Catterick immendiately prior to tipping up at Gosforth Park indicated that he could have been thereabouts. The counter argument to that is that the Geordieland marathon was a much more competitive race than the Catterick contest and his disappointing run down south in the Midlands National at Uttoxeter hinted at a horse just shy of top handicapping company. That may be so, but he really was very good at Catterick, where he jumped quickly and economically before turning for home hard on the steel while everything else was being scrubbed along, and there will be other opportunities for him in the north of his mark of 132. Failing that he could try a satellite national down south if the ground was soft, something he needs to be seen at his best.

ALVARADO
9-y-o
OR 139

Owners Mr and Mrs William Rucker have one of the more remarkable Grand National records in modern times. Thanks to State of Play - 4th in 2009, 3rd in 2010 and 4th in 2011, Cappa Bleu, 4th in 2012 and 2nd in 2013 and Alvarado, 4th in 2014 - they have had a horse placed in the last six renewals of the great old race and with this fellow, as well as a hopefully fit again Cappa Bleu, they have a terrific chance of extending that amazing sequence in 2015. Who knows, they may even win it this time. Of the two Alvarado is especially interesting because he is still fairly unexposed even at the age of nine. The first hint that this horse may want extreme trips was when he charged up the Cheltenham him to finish third in an albeit fairly humdrum race over 3m 1f there at the April meeting in 2013. He then repeated the trick over 3m 3f there the following autumn when eating up ground in the closing stages to win the valuable Grade 3 Murphy Group Handicap Chase, beating the likes of Knockara Beau, Monbeg Dude and Godsmejudge in the process. His only other run prior to Aintree was a return to Prestbury Park where he got bogged down in barely raceable conditions on New Year's Day. Paul Moloney, the man who partnered all the aforementioned Rucker runners in the National, was on board at Liverpool and he gave him his usual patient ride. Out the back until making his way down to Becher's second time, Alvarado slowly improved to finish fourth, beaten sixteen-and-a-half lengths. 

I suppose there is a chance that, with the Crabbies Grand National in mind, he will have his handicap mark protected by connections and only be seen over hurdles or inadequate trips in the early part of the season. However, while his mark of 139 will in all probability get him into the National it is not absolutely guaranteed to do so, so a win somewhere else prior to the publication of the weights may come in handy. Also assessment in the mid 140s would not be enough to stop him going well at Aintree again anyway so there is precious little to lose. Obviously the race he won at Cheltenham last year would be a target as could be a crack at the Becher Chase. I also wouldn't totally rule him out of the Hennessy off a feather weight. He's very interesting.

ROBERTO GOLDBACK
12-y-o
OR 137

Granted, this horse is not in the first flush of youth but there is the possibility that the handicapper has been rather generous to him. In his heyday in his native Ireland he was good enough to win at Grade Two level as a novice as well as finish second in the 2012 Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown. Since coming to England and the stable of Nicky Henderson he has run some decent races in handicaps, most notably when winning the 2012 United House Construction Gold Cup in 2012 off 150. Last year he was good enough to finish fourth in the same race off 151 and also ran a belter to finish third off 144 in the Kim Muir at the Cheltenham Festival. Since then he has been pulled up in the Scottish National - he is not the first and won't be the last - and also fifth at Fontwell on a track that couldn't really have suited him worse. On the back of this the assessor has dropped him a further seven pounds to 137, a mark that will not only get him into decent races off low weights but also drops him into 0-140 level at which he could still be quite a force. He will also be very dangerous in veterans races.

KNOCKARA BEAU
11-y-o
OR 146
 
An old favourite and, while there is absolutely no room for sentimentality when having a bet, if you are well enough versed in the form of one that you have got emotionally attached to, and thus well aware of its strengths and weaknesses, then there it can be a perfectly sensible way to invest. Also, as we saw last year, George Charlton's charge is almost always simultaneously under-rated and over-priced. This was most obvious when he upstaged Big Buck's et al in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham - when I didn't have a farthing on, I hasten to add - but also when he ran a cracker at a big price in the race won by Alvarado mentioned earlier on when, thankfully, I did. He absolutely loves Cheltenham and, although he has only won there once in seventeen starts, he has always produced a very consistent and high level of form there. I don't have the stats at my fingertips, but I am convinced that a level pound each-way on his runs at Prestbury Park would be showing a very handsome profit. His last run there was an excellent seventh in the Cheltenham Gold Cup staying on well up the longer New Course home straight, posting an RPR of 154 in the process. On that evidence he is still perfectly capable of running a big race there this season at the usual remunerative odds. Also, if he did fall a pound or two in the weights, the 0-145 Borders National at his beloved Kelso would be well within his compass.

Punchestown

The second race on the card at Punchestown tomorrow is the somewhat inelegantly titled Madra Dog Food Handicap Chase and it features a horse who ran well for me last time and should be able to do so again. FOLSOM BLUE finished strongly in the Irish Grand National last time and may have finished a bit closer than fifth had he not been slightly hampered by a faller as they got to the business end of the race. He stayed on especially well here back in February when winning the Grand National Trial over 3m 4f and the extra two furlongs should be fine. My slight doubt about him prior to Fairyhouse was that he might be more of a bottomless ground, mid-winter horse rather than one to bounce off a sound surface in the spring. However, his performance went a long way to dispelling those reservations and given that this race, while competitive, is no Irish National, he is taken as a confident selection. Kevin Sexton taking off five pounds is also a plus.

Also, I can’t resist having a little bet in a 2m 4f Handicap Hurdle later on on the card. MIKAEL D’HAGUENET has a very solid record at this meeting and at others at Punchestown throughout his long career. His last effort at the track was a perfectly respectable third in the Grade One Morgiana Hurdle in November and, on the basis that I always like having big-priced class horses on my side in handicaps, he will be carrying a few quid of mine.

FOLSOM BLUE (7/1)

MIKAEL D’HAGUENET (20/1)

 

Bet365 Gold Cup and a Chepstow dabble

So the 2013/14 jumps season concludes tomorrow and, for the first time, is a National Hunt only card. Ultimately this is a sensible decision. As soon as the powers-that-be decreed this to be the final day of the season a few years ago it always seemed a bit incongruous for it to be accompanied by flat racing. The mixed fixture was fine when it didn’t denote the seasonal denouement but now that it does it is better to let the jumps take centre stage.

Not surprisingly the supporting races have been beefed up and the appearance of Sire De Grugy will be a treat for all making the trip to Esher but, as it always has been, it is the Bet365 Gold Cup – formerly of course the Whitbread – that is the feature race on the card. Regular readers of this blog – come on, there must be at least a couple of you – will know that I have been banging on about ROALCO DE FARGES for quite some time. He bolted up at Newbury on his third run back after a long break back in March and he was going very nicely for a long while in the Scottish National two weeks ago. Turning out of the back straight for the final time he looked nailed on for a place but faded in the closing stages and was pulled up very quickly by his jockey who maybe had this race in the back of his mind. He was second behind Tidal Bay two years ago as a mere seven-year-old and is only a pound higher this time around. It was also unseasonably soft here in 2012, conditions which may be replicated tomorrow. He was a single figure price for this race before his run at Ayr but is now around the 12/1 mark and will surely be bigger on the machine. He is marvellous value.

Also, I do rather like the look of HOUBLON DES OBEAUX. He has top weight which will not be easy to carry but he is a high-class staying handicap chaser who seems to be slightly better going right-handed. His recent remote efforts in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Betfred Bowl will be pounced upon by some as evidence of poor form but (a) they were perfectly respectable given the level of opposition and (b) are totally irrelevant vis-a-vis this particular race. At around 20/1 he is good value and any further softening of the ground will also be a major plus.

On the basis of his run here last year I would also have been keen on Same Difference. However, he is very short given the competitive nature of the race and would have been better on better ground. That said, Nigel Twiston-Davies’ charge, who loves the spring time, will have to go onto the trifecta shortlist. Another trio for that list are Ardkilly Witness, Poungach and the under-rated Summery Justice, who has plugged on for good place money in both the Midlands and Scottish National and the easing ground could mean he could quite easily do the same here.

ROALCO DE FARGES 12/1

HOUBLON DES OBEAUX 20/1

Trifecta Perm:

Houblon Des Obeaux, Roalco De Farges, Same Difference, Ardkilly Witness, Poungach and Summery Justice.

There is also a very interesting runner at Chepstow in the 3m 2f contest tonight by the name of NIGHT SAFE. This 13-year-old was pretty decent many years ago and clocked a very good performance here back in 2009. He was then off the track for a dickens of a long time before making a comeback in 2013. His level of form since then has not been quite up to what it was but the handicapper has been kind and, with a claimer taking off seven pounds, effectively gets in here of 82 in a pretty poor race. He ran better than the bare form suggested at Ffos Las last time and, at a double figure price, he has to be backed.

 

Irish National

Perales-Del-Puerto in Extramadura is all very Ernest Hemingway: white-washed houses with terracotta roofs, weather-beaten locals who revel in the kind of casual rudeness that Spaniards seem to be almost admirably unconcerned about, the odd donkey-drawn carriage and a lemon tree in every back garden. It would be fair to say that it is not the type of place where the Irish Grand National is high on the list of conversation topics. It is also not blessed with particularly brilliant wi-fi – or wee-fee as the Spanish call it – coverage. But it is here, the day after a particularly protracted all-night party that included a band of high-class Mariachis led by my father-in-law and a couple of distinctly less-classy transvestites (don’t ask) that, blinking gingerly in the brilliant sunshine, I have managed to get a peep at the form for today’s big race at Fairyhouse.

As is often the case in high-class staying handicap chases, previous renewals are as good a place as any to start when trying to find a bit of value and this year we have plenty of Irish National veterans to run the rule over. It is no surprise to see Home Farm so high in the betting market given his third-placed finish last year as a wet-behind-the-ears six-year-old. With anything approaching a normal level of improvement from last year to this then he is very likely to at least make the frame. Lurking, though, at more than double the price is last year’s second, AWAY WE GO. He was travelling like the winner when turning for home twelve months ago before being undone in the finish by Liberty Counsel. He then followed up with a very creditable third at Sandown in the Bet365 Gold Cup, proving his liking for extreme staying trips. His record at Fairyhouse reads 5th of 15 in a bumper, 1st of 12 in a handicap hurdle, 1st of 11 in a handicap hurdle and 2nd of 28 in this. He clearly likes the place. The fact that he hasn’t run this season is not something to be concerned about as he has won first time out twice in the past. He isn’t the Mullins stable’s first choice but Katie Walsh is more than capable and he is no worse off with Home Farm from last year. Yes he is 11 and not necessarily open to the kind of improvement that Arthur Moore’s charge is, but he hasn’t got too many miles on the clock for a horse of his age and is more than capable of going very close indeed. At around 25/1 he certainly represents excellent value especially with many bookies giving you five places.

I also like FOLSOM BLUE. He has a bit of graded form but, crucially, has proven his stamina with victory in the Punchestown Grand National Trial over 3m 4f in February. He also ran very well in the Leinster National back in March and although most of his form is on soft ground there are one or two nuggets way back in his profile that suggest decent ground shouldn’t be too much of an inconvenience.

Also, at the forecast prices I simply can’t let OSCARS WELL go unbacked. The trip is a total step into the unknown for him and he hasn’t always been the safest jumper of fences, but this time last year he finished second in a Grade One at Punchestown the race after running respectably here in the Powers Gold Cup. Both those runs came with the application of a tongue tie which has been conspicuous by its absence in all but one of his runs this term. It may not work any magic tomorrow but at around 50/1 it is worth a few quid just to find out. He’s certainly slipped down the handicap and may well have finished much closer in the Coral Cup over hurdles at Cheltenham last time had it not been for an error two out.

AWAY WE GO 25/1
FOLSOM BLUE 20/1
OSCARS WELL 50/1

with

LION NA BERNAI, HOME FARM and ALFIE SHERRIN for a little dart at the tricast.

 

Cheltenham tomorrow

Being on holiday with my girls in Spain has meant limited opportunities to watch any racing whatsoever. Evidently the Scottish Grand National didn’t go quite as planned. Godsmejudge was clearly about as right as Alan King could get him and has run a stormer to finish second. It wouldn’t be the biggest surprise in racing for him to emulate Merigo and come back next year and sandwich his second place between two wins. Good jumping front runners are more suited to this race than Aintree and it will be fascinating to see what his trainer does with him. He is clearly a spring horse as well, so I would be keen on him for the Grand National next year if they went down that road.

The selection, Mister Marker, just didn’t run as well as last year or was maybe just a touch outclassed in a tougher renewal. He has a good record at Ayr, though, and indeed at Kelso and I reckon that the Borders National will be top of his agenda for 2014/15. He would have a very solid chance in that.

Tidal Bay was always going to find the softly, softly, creepy, creepy tactics harder to execute at Ayr than at a more galloping track. He is still in the Bet365 Gold Cup a week on Saturday although not as well handicapped as when he hosed up in 2012. He also got freakishly soft going that day, something he is unlikely to get this time around.

It is still too early to get too firm an opinion on that race at the moment but i still wouldn’t put anyone off Roalco De Farges. He seems to have run well for a long time at Ayr before
fading and the layers have still pushed him out to a best priced 14/1. That is now very tempting indeed.

The three-mile handicap chase at Cheltenham tomorrow contains a couple of horses who have run well for this blog in the past and need to be considered again. This is not because it is sensible to carry on backing horses blindly, but because both have been placed by their respective trainers in a race in which they should be capable of running well. GAUVAIN’s effort in the Ascot Veterans Chase the other week hinted that three miles is definitely his trip now and on the New Course at Cheltenham, where he has gone well in the past, he should go well at a sporting price. Also ACKERTAC ran very well in an extremely hot race at the Festival last month and, as indicated on these pages back then, looked primed to go well at the April meeting. He won a very decent Novices Chase at is meeting last year off the back of a terrific effort at the Festival and I reckon that history has a good chance of repeating itself here. That said, his tissue price is pretty skinny.

Hasta luego.

Scottish National

A ferociously comptetive renewal of this race means that, although I am always tempted by a staying handicap chase over an extreme trip, I’ll be keeping stakes to a minimum. Green Flag is a worthy favourite on the strength of his Cheltenham run – a race that could hardly have worked out better – but the trip is still a bit of a question mark. If Godsmejudge had not run two such deplorable races since his very encouraging run at Cheltenham in Novembe then he would have been the confident choice, but Alan King thought he was insufficiently right for Aintree last week – a race in which he had been primed for all year – so there have to be reservations about him tomorrow only seven days hence.

Of the rest, I could make decent cases for Alpha Victor, Tidal Bay and Rigadin De Beauchene, the former because he evidently thrived on the trip at Uttoxeter last time while  both the last two mentioned have top class staying handicap chase form and may just be helped by the touch of cut in the ground. Mind you, it would need to ilicit improvement from Rigadin De Beauchene who ran badly in this twelve months ago.

However I am going to go back to last year’s race for the selection. MISTER MARKER ran extremely well to finish third twelve months ago. Technically speaking he is not that well in on his return given that he is essentially running of 140 as opposed to 133 last year. But because this year’s race is much more competitive with a higher rated top weight he gets in here off 10 stone as opposed to 10-11. Now the fact that it is a much better race does temper enthusiasm but his liking for extreme trips – he has been placed in a Scottish Borders National as well – means that he is more than capable of overcoming whatever technical weights and measures disadvantage he might have. Also, given that most firms are paying out on five places each way then, at the 25/1 mark, he represents a bit of value. I can’t necessarily see him winning but the first five is realistic. If you can get a bet on in the place only market – I can’t because of the new Betfair rules in Spain – I would recommend it.

Grand National de-brief

Well there is no other place to start than to offer congratulations to all concerned with the winner of the 2014 Crabbies Grand National, Pineau De Re. Dr Richard Newland is clearly some sort of training genius when you consider his background and level of success with such a small pool of horses. He gives hope to anyone who has ever dreamed of training racehorses but may not have a conventional horsey or racing background. It was also great to see big-race success finally come the way of Leighton Aspell. The Grand National has a wonderful habit of levelling the jockeys playing field: for every Tony McCoy, Ruby Walsh or Richard Dunwoody who has won it there has also been a Mr Marcus Armytage, Nigel Hawke or Liam Treadwell. This kind of egalitarianism is rarely evident in the big graded races and shows that, given the chance, many hitherto unheralded pilots are perfectly capable on the big occasion and renders much of the debate about fashionable and unfashionable jockeys nebulous to say the least.

Aspell also seems to be refreshingly old-school. There were no arm-waving histrionics on crossing the line or tear-strewn, breathless interviews with Clare Balding in the winners enclosure, just an understated but contented smile as he calmly received the congratulations of his weighing room colleagues some of whom seemed more delighted than him. The 1950s have been on the phone, they want their jockey back.

As for Pineau De Re himself, he didn’t really have the level of form on the system I outlined. Yes he had won at three-and-a-half-miles,  but that was only the Ulster National at Downpatrick, a 0-135 handicap, so could not be shortlisted. That said both he and Balthazar King could boast  form at the trips comfortably longer than three miles and shows once again that you can have all the class in the world but stamina is still the most important contributing factor to all Grand National winners. As history shows us, he will be up against it next year at the age of 12 and off a bigger weight in his effort to emulate Red Rum and win again but, as history also shows us, it would be no surprise to see him finish in the first four or five should he return to the scene of his triumph in twelve months time.

Balthazar King was a bit of a head-scratcher. He has a marvellous record in those cross country races at Cheltenham, but I have always been a bit sceptical of them vis-a-vis the National; they are run over a long trip but on a sharp, turning course sometimes at a funereal early gallop and do not always have great strength in depth form wise. True, Silver Birch won the National off the back of it but he had high-class Welsh National form as well. Balthazar King had come up short in Bet365 Gold Cup, the November staying handicap chase at Cheltenham and had run poorly in the National in 2013. I thought it was safe to put a line through him.

Of the other two that finished in the first four, both are young enough to come back and have a big say in future renewals. Double Seven had never been over an extreme trip but handled it really well, whereas Alvarado, the best performing of my system horses, seem to benefit from the usual Paul Moloney patient ride. He flew home in exactly the same way that other Rucker-owned runners State Of Play and Cappa Bleu have done in every renewal since 2009. Indeed if the latter of those two and Alvarado both turn up next year then they should give their owners the mouthwatering prospect of two proper Aintree horses running in the same race.

Now lets look at the rest of the horses on the nine-horse trifecta shortlist: Tidal Bay was unlucky but his style of running is always likely to attract trouble in the National; Mountainous fell at too early a stage to tell; Teaforthree was never going with the same zip of last year and I was already of the opinion that he wouldn’t get close to winning when he ejected his jockey at the Chair; Lion Na Bearnai crept into the race after a slow start but faded out of it and was pulled up while One In A Milan was still thereabouts when falling at Bechers second time. His jumping wasn’t great  but I am confident that he would have been in the first ten and might have even got a bit closer. His jumping needs to improve, but he has the requisite stamina and will be interesting in both the Welsh National and the 2015 Grand National.

Of those that finished, Hawkes Point jogged around in his own time, while Monbeg Dude was beginning to look a major player before clattering the Canal Turn on the second circuit. If his jumping was better he could go closer next year but it is a bit of an if.

Undoubtedly the star of the show for me was Swing Bill. You can just set your watch by him at Aintree and his ninth place finished meant I copped nicely on the first ten market, as I advised. He was a very tasty 4.5.  It certainly softened the blow of Teaforthree’s exit and the badly performing trifecta.

So a system that worked beautifully last year – it nailed the first five home – did, shall we say, not quite so brilliantly this time around. That said, I am pretty sure that sticking with it will pay dividends in the years to come.

In the earlier staying handicap chase, Carruthers didn’t even give us a run for our money whereas Unioniste went from floating around to vigorously pushed along without much of an intervening period. He boxed on a bit towards the end but it was a disappointing effort.

Of course the staying handicap chase bandwagon shows no sign of stopping at this time of the year. It chugs on nicely to Ayr and the Scottish Grand National on Saturday, the five dayers for which will be out tomorrow.