What are the best bets for Saturday's Grand National at Aintree?
As last year, the top 40 in the weights have stood their ground at the final declaration stage and that means there is no room for 2014 winner Pineau De Re (46 on the list) and Becher Chase winner Highland Lodge, while connections of Betfred Grand National Trial winner Bishops Road will be hoping one horse drops out as he is first reserve.
That’s a shame as Kerry Lee’s charge was definitely on my radar as a potential bet and the temptation is to add in last year’s winner Many Clouds, who is bidding to become the first horse since Red Rum in 1974 to land back-to-back successes. He is conceding weight all round to a stronger field than 12 months ago and off a 5lb higher mark, but we know he stays, jumps well and a smooth victory in his prep run at Kelso tells us he’s in excellent nick.
He’s got to be worth a saver at the very least and the suggestion is to wait until the morning of the race (set your alarms) as bookmakers will be scrapping for your money first thing and I seem to remember one firm went 16/1 ‘the field’ a couple of years back – he’ll surely be bigger than the current 8/1. But as the morning progresses, the odds will only go one way and, whatever you decide to back, it’s imperative you take a price.
That’s the best piece of advice I can give you but I suppose you’ll be wanting the winner too (!) and, as it’s a race you simply have to fire more than one arrow at, here are four horses who should give us a good run for our money, granted all the usual provisos about races over the National fences – luck in running, good rhythm and a clean round of jumping.
SAINT ARE (Trainer Tom George / Jockey Paddy Brennan) @ 16/1 bet365 (BOG & five places)
I’m gong to start with last year’s brave runner-up who might have won had he not make a real howler at Becher’s the second time round – he finished ninth in the 2013 renewal as a seven-year-old and was third in the 2014 Becher Chase over these fences, so he’s clearly well suited to the unique demands of the race. Now a ten-year-old – the ideal age when you consider seven of the last 10 winners were aged either 10 or 11 – he has looked as good as ever this season and, following a wind operation just after Christmas, he showed the benefit when winning at Doncaster last time. I’m a big sucker for trainer form and he gets a big tick there as George is on fire with a near 44% strike rate in the last couple of weeks. Did I mention he also has a cracking weight of just 10st5lb?!
GALLANT OSCAR (Tony Martin / Mark Walsh) & 20/1 bet365 (BOG & five places)
Another ten-year-old with a low weight (10st 8lb), laid out for the race by an expert target trainer, who has really found some form of late. He would have had this race in mind since the gelding’s fast-finishing third behind The Druid’s Nephew at the 2015 Cheltenham Festival and subsequent victory in a big handicap at Punchestown (3m1f) – earning form comments of ‘soon clear and stayed on well, easily’. He’s had just three runs since and, having enjoyed a spin over hurdles at Leopardstown in January – his handler would have been keen to protect his chase mark – he really caught the eye when finishing fifth at Naas under top weight last time. Set to carry the lucky green and gold silks of JP McManus, who won the race with the heavily-backed Don’t Push It in 2010, he may well give Ireland their first National winner since Silver Birch in 2007.
MORNING ASSEMBLY (Pat Fahy / Davy Russell) @ 25/1 Paddy Power (five places)
Irish hopes are also resting on this nine-year-old gelding who looks to have been given a right chance by the handicapper after missing nearly two years through injury. A smart novice two seasons ago, when beating Don Cossack (this year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup hero) in a Grade 2 at Punchestown, before finishing third in the RSA Chase behind O’Faolains Boy and Smad Place, he showed he retained all his old ability when finishing a staying on fourth at the Cheltenham Festival last time. That race won by Un Temps Pour Tout was one of the strongest three mile chases run this season and he may have finished closer but for a mistake three out when travelling supremely well. Normally a safe jumper, he gives the impression he will relish a stamina test such as this and a big run is expected.
UNIONISTE (Paul Nicholls / Nick Scholfield) @ 33/1 bet365 (BOG & five places)
It was a toss-up for the final selection between this fellow and stablemate Wonderful Charm – I’d love to see Nicholls win the race as it would effectively see off the challenge of Willie Mullins to secure the trainers’ title. Of the pair, Unioniste is perhaps the stronger stayer and that earns him the vote. I can’t believe he’s only eight as he seems to have been around for a long while and has some very useful form in the book, winning seven of his 21 chase starts. The latest of those came at Kelso in January and while he was put in his place by Many Clouds when returning to that track on his next start, he’s considerably better off at the weights with the winner here and should do much better over this longer trip. He was an early casualty in last year’s National but his owner John Hale admitted recently he hadn’t schooled over a National-style fence beforehand, whereas this year he has been schooling well over them. The slight worry with him is that he might get behind early but if he can stay in touch, he’ll be finishing better than most.
Good luck all – we’ll need it – and whatever happens let’s hope that all all 40 horses and riders come back safe and sound. Then everyone’s a winner!