It's not just about the Grand National at Aintree on Saturday and it's the four supporting races that come under the scrutiny of our racing expert here.
2:25 2m4f Betway Mersey Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 1) (Class 1) (4yo+)
This is a great race for favourites – six of the last eight have obliged – and 16 of the last 20 winners have come from the first two in the market. That narrows it down to Black Op, whose second in the Ballymore behind Samcro is the strongest form line on offer, and ON THE BLIND SIDE, who had to miss Cheltenham after a small setback. Paddy Power go 7/4 and 9/4 respectively at the time of writing and while Black Op is hugely respected, I just worry that a few of his stablemates have run a little flat at the moment this meeting.
In contrast, On The Blind Side’s trainer Nicky Henderson is firing on all cylinders and I very much doubt his charge is going to lack for fitness, despite a 127-day absence. Indeed, you can argue he’s the fresher of the pair and he’s come on in leaps and bounds since winning over track and trip October. His most recent success over this trip at Sandown was particularly impressive and I fancy he can keep his unbeaten record (4-4, including a point) intact before going on to greater things.
Euxton Lane is perhaps the most interesting of those at bigger prices having won his last two starts in the style of an improving horse, and his connections had the choice of running in a handicap on Friday, for which he would have been well treated off a mark of 139. I can’t see him giving the selection too much trouble but he’s one for each-way backers at Hills’ 25/1.
3:00 2m (1m7f176y) (Mildmay) Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase (Grade 1) (Class 1) (5yo+)
Petit Mouchoir is clearly the one to beat after his third in the Arkle behind Footpad and Brain Power after an aggressive ride from the front. However, I’m still not convinced this former very smart hurdler is a natural over fences and a dodgy jumper is always going to be find out around here. I simply can’t have him at odds-on, whereas the 15/2 (Paddy Power) on Philip Kirby’s LADY BUTTONS has to be worth a small interest. She has been mixing hurdling and chasing this season and her jumping was excellent when scoring at Newcastle in February, to take her record to 2-2 in this sphere. Her revised rating still leaves her with plenty to find, but her sex allowance helps on that respect and she’s going to be in her element over this sharp 2m.
3:40 3m1f (3m210y) (Mildmay) Betway Handicap Chase (Grade 3) (Class 1) (5yo+)
This looks next to impossible at first glance and, with perhaps one exception, you can make a case for the entire field. That said, a couple of more likely types are Ibis Du Rheu, who looked on the way back in a Cheltenham handicap last time, and OLDGRANGEWOOD who was a good third in the Old Roan Chase run over 2m4f here in October. Both could have done with better ground but the latter horse has won on soft and I reckon he’s a potential improver now stepping up to 3m. He has to be backed at Hills’ 10/1, but there is even better value to be had elsewhere.
Much further down the weights, Suzy Smith’s CLONDAW CIAN has crept into the handicap off 10st 2lb and he looks very well treated on some of his old hurdles form. While he has yet to win in six tries over fences, he’s run some solid races in defeat, including when third over these fences on his chase debut in November. He’s twice finished runner-up since then in small fields, giving the impression that a return to a large field handicap in soft ground would be right up his street. His latest pulled up effort in the Cheltenham four-miler is easily forgiven – at least he avoided a hard race – and I reckon he’s a cracking each-way bet at Ladbrokes’ 33/1, with the stable form (2-6 in the last fortnight) another positive.
4:20 3m½f (3m149y) Ryanair Stayers Hurdle (Registered As The Liverpool Hurdle) (Grade 1) (Class 1) (4yo+)
The ground has come right for mud-lover SAM SPINNER and he looks a worthy favourite at bet365’s 6/4. Sent off favourite for the Cheltenham equivalent last month, he got his own way up front and really should have done better than fifth, given how easily he won the Grade 1 Long Walk on his previous outing at Ascot in December. However, his rider Joe Colliver was perhaps guilty of not going off even harder and, having failed to burn off his rivals, his mount was unable to respond when challenged in the home straight. He was still bang there at the last, though, and I reckon he can make amends here and establish himself as the leading British staying hurdler.
He beat L’Ami Serge the best part of three lengths at Ascot, with several of these even further behind, and it’s hard to see that horse turning the tables, although he showed his well-being by winning over 2m4f here on Thursday. A bigger danger may be Stayers’ Hurdle third Wholestone, although he doesn’t always find a lot off the bridle and is prone to mistakes.
Need some betting advice on the big race itself, we’ve got that covered here.
Aintree 2.25, On The Blind Side @ 9/4 Paddy Power
Aintree 3.00, Lady Buttons @ 15/2 Paddy Power
Aintree 3.40, Oldgrangewood @ 10/1 Hills / Clondaw Cian each-way @ 33/1 Ladbrokes (1/4 odds, 18.104.22.168)
Aintree 4.20, Sam Spinner @ 6/4 bet365
All odds were correct at time of posting.