The John Smith's Grand National Chase (Handicap) Grade 3 is looking a magnificent renewal this season despite the lowest rated horse gaining a run being a few pounds lower than what is usually the case. The fact remains that this weekend there will be far more quality horses on show than what is usually the case in a Grand National feature event. In that respect the race is certain to be a thrilling spectacle, as the big guns chase the their share of the mammoth £975,000 prize fund.
I am not inclined to discuss too many trends this year as most people know the majority of them off by heart by now and many people will have already placed their bets in advance of the big race itself.
The one variable this year that is worthy of most consideration however, is the weather. It has turned quite dramatically over the last week to such an extent that I am quite reluctant, but feel the need to change my approach to the race in the circumstances. Rain will make this a thorough test of resilience and spirit, therefore we need a horse with a never-say-die attitude who relishes a test and will keep going regardless of the conditions.
One other factor I will have to collaborate into my predictions is the value available on each runner. In recent days the majority of runners have had their odds noticeably slashed and some horses have become no value once more. This trend is certain to continue as the bookmakers try and make their bonanza annual profit on the race, taking advantage of those people that bet late and fail to ask for the current price.
I have already placed a few bets on the Aintree event from early last month. Faith in recent days on some of those has however now dwindled and I may look for a laying opportunity now in case a couple of these picks shorten.
My three early bets on the race considered all of Synchronized, Treacle and Rare Bob as winners. The value on any of those three now has gone so I cannot give them a recommendation any further. I also suspect that both Treacle and Rare Bob only have place chances at best but I continue my faith in believing Synchronised is the horse to beat, if ignoring the race viewpoint from a value perspective.
One horse that has become outrageously short in the market is Killyglen, a horse which I tried to hype up for last years renewal at odds in excess of 89-1! I felt he would offer punters a real thrill for their money with a fair chance of lasting the trip, but unfortunately he fell when still in the mix with an exhaustive four fences still left to jump. His SP was excellent value that day at 66-1 and whilst his most recent run was fairly impressive he cannot be seriously considered at the current price of 16-1. There are plenty more horses more impressively qualified to a run a big race, at far better odds, to believe he is worthy of a bet at this meagre price.
With conditions set to continue to soften in the lead up to race there the going is likely to be declared as SOFT all over the National course. With this in mind I feel is it crucial to side with a proven stayer, who is very experienced, with form already in the book at long distances. Looking through history it is interesting to see just which horses came out on top when conditions were quite bleak.
1989 - HEAVY - Little Polvier - 12
1994 - HEAVY - Miinnehoma - 11
1998 - SOFT - Earth Summit - 10
2001 - HEAVY - Red Marauder - 11
In all other years since 1989 conditions have remained no worse than Good to Soft. In those said conditions winners have been as young as eight years old, so if it would seem that if conditions lean towards testing then an older horse is more likely to win. However if conditions remain reasonable and dry out to good to soft, then quite frankly I would believe that a horse no older than 10 will be successful.
The one horse I remove from this age trend is Synchronised who can stay all day no matter what the conditions before him are. A superb winner of the Welsh National when realistically still an 8yo (2010 renewal was run in January 2011 after a weather postponement) he was able to carry 11st 6lb to victory. In doing so, he conceded a mammoth 16lbs to Giles Cross who looked nailed on at the weights to score. By winning, Synchronised gained my ultimate respect as a horse to treat with caution and try never opposing again, but my heart ruled my head when I ignored him in the Lexus Chase back in January of this year.
That day I was intrigued by Rubi Light and failed to appreciate the class of Synchronised which cost me dear as the latter ran out a somewhat surprising winner. It was however not a surprise post race to me and I was left kicking myself over my ignorance, which was corrected by an immediate 18-1 bet on the horse to follow up with victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Once more he shocked the majority of punters, but this time I was on board and not willing to make the same mistake again.
I am not certain the huge weight can be carried to victory in a Grand National but Synchronised appears to never slow down with a burden in tow. There are only two real reasons why he may not taste victory but even then I feel I am clutching at straws, somewhat. One reason could be that the proximity to his most recent tough race is too short and that he will not be back to his absolute best ahead of this gigantic acid test. Another reason may well be that a flyweight will float over the ground and be able to edge out the Gold Cup winner on the final long distance 494 yard run in.
Looking at the field the only contender to possibly pull off the fly-weight defeat is old adversary Giles Cross. Whilst Synchronised did concede 16lb to that rival in January of last year, he will now have to achieve a repeat bid with an enormous 23lb weight disadvantage. That extra 7lb could be enough but when ultimately breaking down the form book I believe it not to be.
Firstly, Synchronised has improved endlessly over the last 15 months. His rating has risen as a result from 150 to his current mark of 168. However he gets to run in the National off his old mark of 161 which means he is 7lb well in despite carrying top weight. Giles Cross though is himself 6lb well in after victory at Haydock in the Grand National trial and is set to run off his old mark of 138.
When assessing the form book though we see over the last 15 months not only Synchronised has beaten this rival, but also Companero (Eidur Chase) and Le Beau Bai (Welsh National) have both managed to outpoint their opponent into second place. Whilst Giles Cross is a proven stayer there is a chance that 4m 4f may prove a trip too far in these worsening conditions. He is a horse that needs it soft but it could well be that his absolute best form will only ever be shown over a trip of 3m 4f to 4 miles.
On paper though it seems ridiculous to believe that Giles Cross will be out of the first five at the finish and to some extent, barring a huge mishap, the current 12-1 odds should reward each way players a little.
Meanwhile I have two each way chances at far bigger prices that I believe will put up huge unexpected performances at decent odds. These two are Neptune Collonges and the 13yo Black Apalachi.
Neptune Collonges was an exceptional talent when at the peak of his powers a few years ago. He ran out a ready winner in THREE Irish Grade 1 contests and almost snatched second place in a Gold Cup behind Denman, where the line came too soon for him to gain the upper hand over his stablemate Kauto Star. Trainer Paul Nicholls had failed to win a Champion Hurdle before this year and it would be of no surprise if he was able to do the double and win an elusive first Grand National victory in the very same season.
Neptune Collonges has the proven class to compete and has been given a competitive mark of 157 to race from in this showpiece event. At his very best he was accustomed to scoring Racingpost Ratings of 178 repeatedly which is some 3lb better than this years Gold Cup winner Synchronised. He has a 4lb less burden to carry than that rival and appears in the race off the back of a very close defeat by Giles Cross.
Class in a race like this can tell and there is no doubt, that despite being aged 11, Neptune Collonges is almost back to his best after his most recent run. He might not reach the same heights as he was able to in 2008, but he has a chance of outstaying his younger adversary Giles Cross over this longer trip and given these circumstances he must be considered huge value, with only days to go before the event.
Black Apalachi meanwhile is almost in retirement at the age of 13 but he has been brought back to the racecourse in 2012 in fine fettle ready to shock his younger opponents. After almost TWO full years off the track when finishing 2ND in the 2010 Grand National he lined up to contest the Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse in February. He once again finished 2nd behind Prince De Beauchene but is said by connections to be absolutely buzzing ahead of this illustrious engagement.
Ground conditions will be to the liking of Black Apalachi come Saturday as he ran out a very decisive winner in the mud when contesting the 2008 Becher Chase on this very track. When he finished 2nd to Don't Push It in the 2010 renewal of the Grand National, it came on quick ground which would have not been ideal for the horse. He may be two years older and running off the same mark of 154 as he did that day, but he has suffered very little racing in that time gap and comes into this race a relatively fresh horse for one as old as he is.
The realistic note is that it would be a huge surprise should Black Apalachi finish ahead of both Neptune Collonges and Synchronised given the age that he is. However there are no better conditions or course for this ageing stalwart to put in his best performance since his win in the Becher Chase some four years ago. In that respect I give him an each way chance for a minor placing in the event.
Two more that are aged to appreciate the test of the National are Always Right and According To Pete. These two seem to have entered the race under the radar with Always Right running a huge race last time out before his breathing went amiss in the latter part of his trial race. As a result punters seem to have ignored his chance but if his recent breathing operation has been a success he can perform heroically here at a very decent price for trainer John Wade.
Always Right was third in the Scottish Grand National last year when still on a sharp upward curve. Conditions that day were too quick and the horse had to be held up as he could not compete at the pace the race was run. In the end, despite conditions being against him he was able to close up on the leaders close home and was only ONE LENGTH off victory at the finish. A commendable effort which highlighted him as a future Grand National prospect and given that he is only 5lb higher in the weights now his chances cannot be dismissed if his health is in a good condition once again.
Finally, According To Pete is another who has never been in better form than he has been this season when winning two graded handicap chases at Haydock and Wetherby. The horse is another who simply relishes soft ground and going left handed, just like Always Right. He has clearly not been trained with the Grand National in mind however as his rating has dramatically increased this season. Having started the season off a mark of 129 he now finds himself amongst the elite staying chasers of his era with a current mark of 149 to contend with. This huge increase in the weights leaves some doubt in the mind as to whether he can win, but at the same time his price is huge for those playing the race each way for a first five finish.
Synchronised is the most likely winner but with doubts about his wellbeing after his recent run there is no encouragement offered by me to back him at the current 9-1 odds on BETFAIR.
Treacle was my original bet for the race and he remains the Tom Taaffe's big hope for National glory. The horse has not endured too much racing for an 11yo and comes into the race in career best form which is always a plus. There are a few stamina questions that remain unanswered however and should he be held up in the race I would not be too keen on collecting with my early small stakes win only bet.
Neptune Collonges remains decent value to pull off a shock result. There is no doubt in my mind he can prove very useful over this distance having previously shown his class in a Gold Cup. If he can improve slightly on his recent 2nd to Giles Cross he has a huge each way chance and that is quite likely with conditions likely to be marginally less testing than they were most recently at Haydock.
Black Apalachi seems to have been dismissed on account of his age but despite this likely being his final race he can collect some decent prize money and finish quite well if not suffering from the "bounce factor".
Rare Bob has previously placed in an Irish Grand National and cannot be ignored but on very soft ground over a 4m 4f trip I would have my doubts about him now finishing in first place. A big outsider with place claims should he enjoy the Aintree experience. Hated the Becher Chase on heavy ground last November it is worth pointing out.
Always Right remains great value to pull off a possible shock win. Nicely weighted and his chance will come down on whether his recent breathing operation has been fully successful. Looked to have Neptune Collonges and Giles Cross beaten on his most recent Haydock run before he suffered his breathing problem and if he is back to full health he could well be the horse that runs best of the outsiders.
According To Pete is undoubtedly best on a left handed track so Aintree should appeal to him. He has never experienced the Aintree fences though which take some getting, but this horse seems to be a safe jumper and may take to them and give his backers a decent run for their money with a prominent ride.
The horse I have failed to mention throughout this write up is West End Rocker who features prominently in the market. His absence plain and simple irritates me as it is important that a horse is race fit to show his best form in this event. Keeping him off the track since his Becher Chase win last November could prove a colossal mistake by his trainer Alan King. At short odds I cannot give him a value mention but I do feel he will be in the mix at the business end of the race, if he can stay on his feet.
TOP FIVE PREDICTION:
1ST - Synchronised
2ND - Always Right
3RD - Giles Cross
4TH - West End Rocker
5TH - Neptune Collonges
According To Pete, Black Apalachi, Treacle, Rare Bob and Kilyglen will be in the mix also for the places I am quite sure. It all depends on which horses can stay on their feet and not get inconvenienced by other fallers throughout the course of the race. Plenty of luck will be required that is for sure.
The advised bets at the current prices have to be EACH WAY selections on ALWAYS RIGHT (49-1 TO WIN on Betfair) and NEPTUNE COLLONGES (41-1 TO WIN on Betfair)
Nearly all other runners in my view represent no value whatsoever given the current prices.
Enjoy the race!