Matt Tombs / Monday 13th April 2015 / 17:29
The tracks looked in great condition for the meeting, and were watered to keep the going on the slow side of good.
The big race on the opening day was the Grade 1 Aintree Hurdle, (2m4f.) I’d been concerned that both Arctic Fire and Jezki would be too keen over the longer trip. However, both settled better than I’d expected, (the stayers Volnay De Thaix and Rock On Ruby went a good gallop early on which helped,) and looked set to fight out the finish, when Arctic Fire stepped at the last and took a horrible looking fall.
With his stamina unproven, you couldn’t be dogmatic that Arctic Fire would have won, but he seemed to be travelling best when coming down. It’s to be hoped that this doesn’t affect his confidence as he looks to be a potential champion hurdler in the making, for all that Faugheen will be a formidable opponent. Arctic Fire is 12/1 for the Champion Hurdle and that would be tempting if there wasn’t the depressing possibility of him being focused on the flat instead.
Jezki looked a lucky winner and I still think he’s best over a fast run 2m. He’s 25/1 for the Champion Hurdle and, given the race wasn’t run to suit at all this year, and that he’ll only be 8 next time, that’s tempting. He’s 10/1 for the World Hurdle but ex-Champion Hurdlers have a terrible record and, despite his breeding, I’d be surprised if he stayed 3m. He’s big enough to jump a fence and the Arkle (12/1) is another option. He shouldn’t be written off.
Whilst Rock On Ruby would have finished much closer had he not been hampered by Arctic Fire’s fall, the other one to take out of the race might be Volnay De Thaix. He paid the price for trying to run the finish out of the big two, but still ran a good race and Nicky Henderson wouldn’t have hard trained him for this, with a novice chasing campaign in mind in the autumn. Whether he’s a JLT or RSA type isn’t clear, but he looks a cracking prospect.
The other open Grade 1 was the Bowl over 3m1f, and Silviniaco Conti showed again that he’s a top class performer on a flat track, jumping superbly and making all to record a win that was a bit more decisive than the distances suggest. It seems clear now he doesn’t like Cheltenham so the Gold Cup (25/1) is likely to be off the agenda. His season might revolve around the King George (6/1), though it would be interesting to see what mark he’d get for the National under the compressed weights methodology, especially after Many Clouds win off 160.
I’d got very close to putting Ballynagour up for the Ryanair before David Pipe announced he’d had an interrupted preparation and might miss the race. Equipped with a first time hood, he ran a blinder to get within a head of the winner, looking fully effective at the trip, (race was run at a sound gallop). He’s clearly hard to train and looks to go so well fresh, he might be trained for just a couple of races next season. 25/1 for the King George looks big. He’ll be 10 next year and I doubt the Gold Cup is his race.
Holywell had been a fair 4th in the Gold Cup and, back on the better ground that suits him, ran another solid race without looking like winning. He didn’t travel that well but stayed on dourly. He’s just shy of top class and the National might be more his race next season, rather than the Gold Cup, (25/1).
The meeting kicked off with a 2m4f Grade 1 novice chase, which provided another example of the folly of so many novice races. It had looked as if Un De Sceaux would run in the 2m novice chase on Saturday which frightened 4 of his Arkle victims into this – but there was still only a field of 6.
It produced a likeable winner though in 5 year old Clarcam, who had been benefitting from huge weight-for-age allowances earlier in the season, but had to race at levels here. This wasn’t Grade 1 novice form but he looked to relish the step up in trip and it’ll be interesting to see whether he tries 3m next season. He could well be the horse to give Gigginstown a win in the Ryanair (16/1).
It might be that Nicky Henderson will find a physical issue with Josses Hill, which can be sorted out for next season. If there isn’t a physical problem then the obvious conclusion is that he doesn’t enjoy jumping fences. He’s only 7 and looks to have a big engine, so there’s no reason why he couldn’t be a player in the top 2 – 2½m hurdles over the next couple of seasons. Unless The New One recovers from his back problems, the British 2m conditions hurdles look there for the taking. He’s not quoted for the Champion Hurdle at this stage, but that’s not an unrealistic target.
The rest probably aren’t Grade 1 horses, though I’m keeping an open mind about Vibrato Valtat. He paid the price for trying to put it up to Un De Sceaux in the Arkle, and looked an unlikely type for a step up in trip, (though Paul Nicholls seemed confident about him staying beforehand.) He’s worth trying in the top 2m chases next winter, though 33/1 probably reflects his Champion Chase chance.
The first race over the National fences was the Fox Hunters over an extended 2m5f. I’d been concerned about On The Fringe’s stamina over 5f further at Cheltenham, but he’d won easily there and there were no concerns about this drop in trip. He jumped and travelled beautifully and cruised clear on the run in, winning by 3¾l, becoming the first hunter to do the Cheltenham-Aintree double since the great hunter Double Silk in 1993. He’s 10 but he’s only had 16 races and he should take all the beating again in the top hunter chases next season.
Wednesday’s feature race of the day was the 2m4f Grade 1 Melling Chase. This has fallen to some of the modern greats with Moscow Flyer, Master Minded and Sprinter Sacre all on the recent roll of honour. This year’s renewal lacked a proven in-form star but there were plenty of talented types, most of whom had question marks against them.
Plenty were let down by their jumping though and Don Cossack annihilated the field to win by 26l. He’d met trouble in running in the Ryanair but he wouldn’t have won with a clear run, and the obvious conclusion is that he was flattered here. He showed plenty of speed and is to be aimed at the Gold Cup (20/1) next season. He hasn’t looked a stayer so far, (beaten all 3 attempts at 3m+,) but with another summer on his back, he might get further. It isn’t going to happen, but given the toe he showed here, I’d have been tempted to give him a try at 2m, (yet to run over shorter than 2m4f over fences.)
It’s hard to be too positive about the performance of any of the others, but I wouldn’t be giving up on Champagne Fever just yet. He’s been inclined to throw in the odd stinker, and he ran a strange race here. He looked in trouble turning in, then rallied before a mistake 3 out. He then faded before finishing quite well. He’s not one to steam into at a short price, but he could present decent value dropped back to 2m at Punchestown. He’s 16/1 for the Champion Chase and if anything were to happen to Un De Sceaux, he would be a good understudy.
Perhaps the most impressive horse to burst on the scene at the meeting was Cyrus Darius, who bolted up in the Grade 2 Top Novices’ Hurdle, (2m). Whilst this race has a mixed record in terms of producing stars, the quality of recent winners has certainly improved and Cyrus Darius is very much in the could-be-anything category. He’s a big, strapping 6 year old and Brian Hughes said he’s already schooled over fences. He’s 16/1 for the Arkle and that looks the right target, (33/1 for the Champion Hurdle). He’s exciting.
The other novice performance of the week came from Saphir Du Rheu in the 3m1f Mildmay Novices’ Chase. Despite generally looking a decent jumper, he’d tipped up in 2 of his 3 chases before reverting to hurdles, (won the Cleeve and 2nd in the World Hurdle.) Back chasing over the stiff Mildmay fences, he jumped and travelled like a class act to stroll clear of a couple of decent horses, winning by 15l. He’s apparently an immature type and might benefit from being given plenty of experience next season. The Gold Cup division looks strong at this embryonic stage but 20/1 looks a big price for a horse of his ability.
Carraig Mor ran a sound race in 2nd, putting it up to the winner but beaten when making a bad mistake two from home. He’s held in high regard by Alan King, and the vibes are that he hasn’t be too hard trained this season. He was rated 144 coming into this and it’ll be interesting to see how the handicapper reacts. The Hennessy looks the obvious target.
The Grade 1 Sefton novices hurdle, (extended 3m,) often goes to a surprise package, unexposed at the distance - and Thistlecrack kept up that trend when winning this year by 13l at 25/1. He’d only raced once beyond an extended 2m, when flopping in the extended 2m4f Grade 2 at Cheltenham on trials day in January. Colin Tizzard had always insisted he was a good horse though, and he relished the step up in trip. He’s apparently been difficult to train and, already 7, a switch to fences beckons in the autumn. He’s obviously going to be a chancy ante-post proposition, but if he gets to the Festival next year, he could easily be a leading RSA contender.
The only horse to make a race of it was Alpha Des Obeaux, who had looked to be getting the worst of it between the last two flights, but was rallying and nearly upsides again, when falling at the last. The consensus was that he’d have finished 2nd, but I’m open-minded. He’s had a couple of tough races over 3m this season and this looked a nasty fall, so its to be hoped he can bounce back next season. He’s effective at a range of distances, which will give connections plenty of options if he goes novice chasing in the autumn.
National day kicked off with the Grade 1 Mersey novices’ hurdle (2m4f.) I’d been really disappointed with Nichols Canyon in the Neptune, where he was far too keen when held up in midfield off a slow pace. They went a bit faster here and he settled better, before quickening clear in good style to win easily by 4½l. Willie Mullins thought he’d gone in his coat, and there should be plenty more improvement to come.
Mullins had previously suggested he might be a Champion Hurdle (33/1) horse, whereas Ruby Walsh had suggested he was more a stayer – he’s 20/1 for the World Hurdle. It’ll be interesting to see how he’s campaigned next season, but given his ability to cope with soft ground, he’ll take all the beating in races like the Hatton’s Grace.
Parlour Games has had a good season, winning the Grade 1 Challow over 2m5f at Christmas and finishing 2nd here and in the Neptune. He’s 7 already and connections are considering a switch to chasing. If he takes to fences he has the basic class to be a leading novice chaser.
With the late defection of the brilliant Un De Sceaux, the Grade 1 Maghull novices’ chase was a weak event for the grade, with only God’s Own having any sort of form that suggested he could win a Grade 1. There were some unexposed horses in the line up – and my fancy Sizing Granite stepped up in good style. His Naas win had been well advertised, and he jumped and travelled like a class horse, before idling with the race won. Un De Sceaux could do with some competition in the top 2m chases next season, and Sizing Granite can hopefully provide it. 33/1 for the Champion Chase looks big given the division has so little depth.
God’s Own isn’t the most fluent jumper and that cost him here. He was never able to land a blow and just stayed on after the winner had flown. He seems at his best going right-handed and likes good ground, so has end of season options at Punchestown and Sandown. He showed in the Arkle he acts at Cheltenham though, and the Ryanair appeals more than the Champion Chase.
The other one to take out of the race is Traffic Fluide who lacked experience but showed plenty of raw talent here to be beaten just 3¼l. He’s only 5 and the impression is that he wasn’t hard trained this season, as Gary Moore sees him a prospect for the top races next season. He’s one to keep an eye on.
The Grade 1 Liverpool Hurdle (extended 3m) featured my nap of the week, Cole Harden. I’d been really impressed by his World Hurdle win, and thought he’d been seriously underestimated for both this and next season’s World Hurdle. He ran another bold race from the front, but couldn’t pile on the pressure in the same way as at Cheltenham and wasn’t able to cope with course specialist Whisper, going down by 3½l. I was a bit disappointed, but Inglis Drever always got beaten in this race and still won 3 World Hurdles so I’m still optimistic about Cole Harden’s chances of defending his crown next season, (12/1).
I’d thought Whisper would be the danger and he clearly had come on a lot for his World Hurdle run, after an interrupted preparation. He loves it here and hopefully he’ll get a clear run next season. He won last season’s Coral Cup so the track holds no fears and 14/1 for the World Hurdle would be good value if he were to stay over timber. He might well have another go at chasing though and he could easily end up a leading RSA contender.
Un Temps Pour Tout ran a sound race in first time blinkers on ground that was plenty quick enough, beaten 9½l. He looks a terrific novice chasing prospect and dropping back in trip won’t be a problem.
The Grand National really needed a shot in the arm, and it got it with the brilliant victory of Many Clouds. Time might show this was freak result for the ‘new National’ but for a Hennessy winner to score in the National, off a mark of 160, is a fantastic incentive for connections of top horses to try their luck in the future.
He was 25/1 and I thought he had too much weight, needed softer ground and wouldn’t get the trip. He has the class to win good races at 2m4f, and I’d mis-read how tired he finished in the Hennessy, believing his stamina had ebbed away there. He’s just an incredibly tough and game horse that puts absolutely everything into his races, and often finishes tired.
In my time watching the National, only Suny Bay’s gallant 2nd in the mud to Earth Summit, (off 170 and carrying 12 stone,) compares to Many Clouds performance here. He didn’t fire in the Gold Cup, but he won the Grade 2 at Cheltenham in January and clearly acts on the track – 20/1 for next year’s Gold Cup looks big, for all it’s looking a hot division. To put it in context, Hedgehunter won the National off 144, was 2nd in the following season’s Gold Cup before also finishing 2nd in the National off 156. Many Clouds has much more speed than Hedgehunter and shouldn’t be underestimated next season for the resurgent Oliver Sherwood.
My fancy Saint Are jumped well except for a mistake at Bechers 2nd time, and Paddy Brennan appeared to be looking round for dangers crossing the Melling Road with 2 to jump. Given his chance again, he might have gone for Saint Are a bit earlier as he gallops rather than really quickens, and he stayed on well to close the gap to 1¾l at the line. It’ll be interesting to see what the handicapper does, but he’s only 9 and could well be a leading contender again next year.
The winner had won a Hennessy and an open Grade 2 chase, and the runner-up had won a Grade 1 novice hurdle. That classy pair were chased home by two real sloggers, who stayed on past beaten horses. Former Welsh National hero Monbeg Dude had stayed on for a remote 4th in the Hennessy and grabbed 3rd in similar fashion here. He’s been a great servant to connections. Alvarado continued the incredible Maloney/Rucker sequence of places in the race, which now stands at 7. Sadly, there was no fairytale finish for the great AP McCoy as Shutthefrontdoor faded to finish 5th.
My visual impression, (watching on television,) was that the fences were a bit stiffer than in the last couple of years, and the track was riding quicker. Hopefully the media spotlight is moving away from assessing the viability of the race and the Aintree management will be able to focus on what’s best for the horses, jockey and the race – rather than placating those who often have little idea of what that would constitute.