Despite a lack of recent good form since the Cheltenham Festival ended some four weeks ago I head straight into the Aintree three days of racing in full confidence to turn around this poor form. The idea behind this upbeat approach is that when it comes to horses running at the top level, I have a certain level of belief that I know what I am talking about!
Hopefully when I do stray from the horses focussed at the head of the market I can be successful with my fairly decent outsiders. On the first day of Aintree last year when I attended the course the day was going from bad to worse until Gordon Elliot's Russian War came flying home in the very last race of the day at a superb double figured price. Today I hope for more of the same and would have pleasure if you followed me on the road to finding some winners over the next three days.
Once again I head to Aintree to experience the opening day of the Festival once more. This year it looks suspiciously like the weather may play a part in proceedings and with rainfall having fell quite heavily in recent days, on already watered ground, some people may be ripping their hair out by late Saturday evening.
There is no point blaming course officials for the desperate ground that is likely to be seen over the course of the three days, it was their remit to make sure that the ground was safe and with more rain falling than has been expected it is just something that punters will have to deal with and in some respects, be very careful of.
The first feature race on a seven race card comes in the 2.00PM BGC Partners Liverpool Hurdle (Grade 1). This is just one of FOUR Grade 1 races featured on the schedule of the opening day and the reason why I commit to attending each year despite the impromptu weather on the odd occasion.
Quite simply, the opening race is all about Big Bucks. At 1/5 odds you cannot get rich backing him but you can make a profit. I could never touch any horse over obstacles at any price shorter than Even money but there will be plenty willing to do so, and to very big stakes I am sure. There are however EIGHT runners set to line up which could make each way betting quite a fancied task, but there is obviously a danger that one may pull out and make this a very awkward seven runner betting event (paying out on just two places).
WON IN THE DARK is a contender at a huge price of 66-1 having already finished THIRD in this race previously behind Big Bucks in 2010. He has only ever been given two tries at 3m during his career as he does appear suited to shorter but with the sharp Aintree track likely to play more to his strengths I see him with claims of finishing third at massive odds (currently 66-1 with most major firms).
Restless Harry will appreciate the soft ground but is more accustomed to a galloping and undulating track layout. Pountach has clearly been kept fresh for this in the hope that he can claim the 1-2 finish for trainer Paul Nicholl's but his inexperience may count against him in this long distance battle on soft ground. Smad Place should be considered the most likely horse to give the mighty Big Bucks something to think about late on. This youngster is still progressing through the ranks as a hurdler and was seen to good effect when finishing 3rd behind Big Bucks, on ground plenty quick enough, at Cheltenham in the World Hurdle last time.
I had got myself all excited with the prospect of a wonder sized bet in the second event on the card having seen my intended selection priced up at 16-1 courtesy of Timeform's Betfair SP predictions. However it seems the bookmakers are not thrift enough to make such an obvious pricing error and his value remains less distinctive as a result.
The race in question is the 2.30 Matalan Anniversary 4-y-o Juvenile Hurdle (Grade 1) in what promises to be a fast and frenetic renewal. I had backed Grandouet in this race last season and he was one of two selections I had that were brought down on the day. He looked to have a fighting chance before departing and would have given Zarkandar much to think about one imagines having seen how his later career has progressed since.
This season I take to the race in full confidence that my selection will prove a fruitful one and give his all in trying to dislodge the recent Triumph Hurdle winner Countrywide Flame. The race fell into his lap quite noticeably that day on the quicker ground at Cheltenham and in a race that had been run at a fast clip he was able to power through having raced from a steady position since the middle part of the race.
To win this race due to the speed with which it is run at, a horse needs to be given a prominent ride and under these circumstances it looks a race that could be perfect for recent Cheltenham flop SADLER'S RISK. On that day he tried to lead from the very start and with 20 horses lined up behind him, it was sure to prove a colossal task, on a track invariably suiting those held up or racing in mid division.
Aintree though as stated, favours the horses that like to race with the pace and Sadler's Risk will most certainly be setting the fractions under a leading ride from jockey Richard Johnson. As I stated in my Triumph Hurdle preview, his trainer Phillip Hobb's has been quoted on record as stating this horse is "better" than Detroit City was. I still have the power of mind to keep faith with the runner in these circumstances as Detroit City won this race in 2006 by fully EIGHT lengths.
Grumeti is the only runner I am fearful of which means I am not put off by the inclusion of the Triumph Hurdle winner or the 4th placed finisher Dodging Bullets. There is also the small matter of Pearl Swan who looked himself likely to finish in the mix before falling at the final obstacle last time out. His confidence may have taken a knock and I expect he may finish behind both Grumeti and the selection Saddler's Risk this time around.
The main highlight of Day One comes in the 3.00PM Betfred Bowl Chase (Grade 1) with 11 capable runners going to post to compete for the £85k first prize. No less than SEVEN of the horses lined up featured in a Cheltenham race four weeks ago and after two recent disappointing renewals this looks much more like it.
The two most recent winners of this event once again line up with What A Friend (2010) and Nacarat (2011) ready to attempt their second victory each in the race. The feeling though is that these two most recent renewals have been substandard, with small fields, and favourites under-performing quite noticeably. Denman was favourite last year but at the end of his racing career after his exertions in the Gold Cup just three weeks previously. The year previously, Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Imperial Commander was struggling before unseating his rider.
It may matter in some respects that those two flops by past Cheltenham Gold Cup champions came about as their exertions in their last race had been just 19 days earlier. This season though horses who ran at Cheltenham have been fortunate with how the racing calendar has fallen with a FOUR week gap existing between festivals. This extra 7-8 days is what should make this years renewal a stronger affair.
Any chance Nacarat had of winning is diluted by the impact Carruthers is likely to have in setting a fast pace. As a result of the genuine pace likely to be on offer it should result in the best horses featuring in the finish and with that in mind RIVERSIDE THEATRE should take all the beating.
The horse ran unimpressively at Cheltenham last time on his second start since a long lay off but quite extraordinarily still found enough impetus up the hill to score a victory in the Grade 1 Ryanair Chase. He beat some very solid rivals including Medermit which resulted in the handicapper raising him 2lb to a new mark and career high of 170.
With three miles likely to help cut out the mistakes incorporated by Riverside Theatre last time, he gets the vote ahead of Medermit who will also appreciate this new distance and the 2010 winner of this race What A Friend. The latter may have benefitted from his early departure at Cheltenham in the Gold Cup to be running fresh and ready here. The intriguing runner is Hunt Ball but with FIVE races already under his belt in 2012 he must be due a break soon and this may be one race too many in just 3 and a 1/2 months.
One point worthy of mention finally is that on the last three occasions Riverside Theatre has tasted defeat when finishing his race, the horses who have won have been Hurricane Fly, Sizing Europe and Long Run. All three being Grade 1 Champions at Cheltenham. Therefore it has to be declared that with no such horses running in opposition this afternoon, his 100-30 odds look quite rewarding for those choosing to invest.
The flurry of betting continues with the 3.40PM John Smith's Foxhunters' Chase (Class 2), but with the Paul Nicholl's stable back in first class form I can see no other winner than race favourite Gwanako, should he be kept upright and not make any alarming errors during his race. The selection won the Topham Chase in 2008 aged just FIVE over the Grand National fences before falling a year later at Valentine's.
Having clearly been aimed at this race with two recent spins in hunter chases to get qualified for the race, he has all his opponents beat if he can jump cleanly. Doubts however are raised by his inability to finish his race on two of his three visits to the track.
If Gwanako does fail in his attempt to win for Paul Nicholl's there are some highly established names in opposition such as Cloudy Bay and My Way De Solzen. There is also past winner Silver Adonis amongst those lined up alongside last years runner up Boxer Georg.
With so many high profile runners featured a chance is taken with a value punt on recent Walrus Hunters' Chase winner UNOWATIMEEN. The horse could have been top class according to his latest trainer who bought him late last year as he was already qualified for this Aintree event. For a 12yo he has been incredibly lightly raced, mainly due to his brittle nature and weak legs, but his trainer seems to believe he has him in the best possible conditions ahead of the run in his target race of the season.
The softer the ground the more chance he will have, so if it does have an urge to rain in the clouds above me at Aintree I will be content, as I will know I have a huge player come the Fox Hunters' chase. The 25-1 available each way seems more than fair, but the main chance of winning must be with Gwanako as originally stated. It could be worth an exacta bet on the tote however as I imagine this would pay a huge windfall.
The 4.15PM Matalan.co.uk Red Rum Handicap Chase (Grade 3) ends terrestrial television coverage on Day One with a bang in what looks a very competitive renewal of an often eventful race. Two miles of racing filled with speed and durability see's runners tackle the fast track in earnest. Recent winners have tended to be ridden quite prominently and Silk Drum ran out a lucky winner last season when 9lb out of the handicap proper. That was negated by a talented claimer aboard and good fortune from abysmal luck had by rival Oiseau De Nuit (another contender that brought me terrible luck on the early part of the day last year).
My selection last year has a very strong age stat to overcome which consists of 22 of the last 23 winners having won this race being aged under TEN. Therefore this race appears to point towards those with less experience who can still muster a strong gallop with a reasonably low handicap mark and racing weight on saddled to them.
I am willing to take a chance on TARA ROYAL once again proving that a fast pace before him and a sharp flat track are what he appreciates most. This liking for speed came about after a clear cut victory in the Scottish Champion Chase at Musselburgh before mistakes once again came to the fore back over the undulations of Cheltenham last month. With the race likely to be set up to suit his style of running he could be a valuable each way selection at odds of 20-1 now Jason Maguire is back in the saddle.
For the non-televised races I do not envisage a shock in the 4.50PM Betfred Manifesto Novices' Chase (Grade 1) with Al Ferof likely to strike for favourite backers. With softer ground assured the only viable alternative would appear to be impressive mare Pepite Rose who is on a steep upward curve at the present time. Having only first set eyes on a fence on the final day in February she has rocketed home in all her four starts which culminated in a dominant victory in the Mares' finale at Newbury three weeks ago.
Of the other runners it would appear Menorah needs better ground to perform to his best capabilities and Cristal Bonus, who was readily outclassed it appeared in the Jewson, is perhaps running here to try and claim valuable placed prize money. Perhaps a small bet on the favourite will pay for a bet in the final event that follows, but I am not keen to recommend any bet in the race whatsoever.
This last race of the day is the most complex puzzle and one I am not certain I can solve no matter how long I spend studying the different aspects of form. What is certain, is that Gullinbursti will be the race favourite having shown high class Novice form over hurdles and an ability to stay.
There is little to oppose Gullinbursti on, besides his shortish price, but I feel it is quite likely that the racecourse attendees will witness a shock in the finale event. Three contenders catch the eye from a form and ratings perspective and they include Reindeer Dippin, Timesawastin and Deireadh Re.
Reindeer Dippin needs respect as he was undone courtesy of the quicker Cheltenham going last time which hardly would have suited this battling type. He finished as close as he could do in the Pertemps Final and still looks capable of competing in a race of this nature with the underfoot conditions moe in his favour. The sticking point is perhaps that he is now a 10yo and will not be getting any quicker as he gets older and with the emphasis at Aintree on speed as well as staying power he may find a couple too good.
Timesawastin is a very backward novice in some ways and he has shown his lack of intelligence already when the only time he ran right handed, he ran off the course on a bend. In all his other career experiences he has been kept to a left handed track but has hung quite markedly and his trainer has said previously that if the horse could get his act together he could be very decent. He would be a horse I'd be more interested in during the race, as any inadequate behaviour would seriously hinder his chances of pulling off a shock result.
There is however no denying that he has potential, but whether he can put his best foot forward is a different matter altogether.
Lastly, the Paul Nicholl's trained DEIREADH RE seems to be ignored in the betting due to a substandard recent run at Newbury. However if you remove that uneasy performance from the recent form book you will see that not only has the horse been successful in a Grade 2 Novice event, but also he has only once been beaten over hurdles from four previous outings. Admittedly, his Grade 2 win came through the final hurdle fall of Sea Of Thunder, but he proved that day three miles was within his reach.
Interestingly Paul Nicholl's was keen to keep this horse to hurdles until the end of the season having seen signs that he could win a decent prize in this sphere. The initial plan had been to go chasing with him, but his consistency over the smaller obstacles has made connections wait for their chance in this event. With softer underfoot conditions guaranteed he can run well at a big price and pull off the shock I believe he may be capable of with 7lb claimer Harry Derham in the saddle, reducing his burden to just 10st 8lbs.