The John Smith’s Grand National has improved markedly in terms of the quality of horse it attracts in recent years, and this season’s renewal is certainly indicative of that trend.
Indeed, the weights for Saturday’s big race at Aintree are headed by a former Cheltenham Gold Cup hero, Imperial Commander, while there are a number of winners of graded races in the line-up, including What A Friend, Weird Al, Joncol, Quel Esprit and more besides.
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It’s without doubt one of the strongest renewals that I can remember, and I don’t believe that the Grand National is the lottery it once was. The fact that 12 of the last 17 winners returned at odds of 16/1 or shorter adds credibility to this theory.
I’m anticipating a huge amount of punters’ money on Saturday to be split between Colbert Station and On His Own, the mounts of Tony McCoy and Ruby Walsh respectively. For AP, winning the National aboard a horse trained by his greatest rival’s father (Ted Walsh trains Colbert Station) would be a real treat.
However, the best handicapped horse in the race in my opinion is CHICAGO GREY. He was brought down at the fifth fence in the 2012 National but, if Paul Carberry is able to remain the saddle for the duration this time round, I’m convinced that the 10-year-old will go mighty close.
The grey is trained by Gordon Elliott, who became the youngest trainer to send out the winner of the world’s most popular race when Silver Birch lifted the prize in 2007. Elliott was 29 at the time.
The County Meath-based handler couldn’t be in better form; he is firing in winners left, right and centre at present and could probably win a race with the stable cat in current form. He triumphed in the Grade 1 Powers Gold Cup at Fairyhouse recently with Realt Mor, which was a significant feather in his burgeoning cap.
Chicago Grey is a thorough stayer – he prevailed in the four-miler at the 2011 Cheltenham Festival – yet had enough pace to land the two-and-a-half mile Red Mills Chase at Navan last month, form which has already been boosted by the subsequent victory of the runner-up there, Foildubh.
That Grade 2 success represented a career-best performance from Chicago Grey, particularly when you take into account that it was an inadequate test of stamina for this National hopeful. It would appear that the mid-season breathing operation he underwent has had a positive effect.
As the National weights are published in mid-February, the handicapper is unable to reassess Chicago Grey in the context of Saturday’s race, and he is actually 9lb lower in the weights compared to this time last year. I estimate that the selection is at least a stone well-in based on his allocated mark for the big race, probably more.
The only real concern is that he is generally held up well off the pace in his races, which enhances the possibility of being involved in a fracas, like 12 months ago. But if Carberry can steer his mount clear of trouble, he will be pretty hard to beat, so the 14/1 widely available should be duly snapped up.
McCoy reportedly agonised over whether to partner Colbert Station or Sunnyhillboy, and understandably so, as the former has looked highly progressive this term, while Sunnyhillboy became the closest runner-up in the history of the race when short-headed by Neptune Collonges last year.
That duo both enter calculations for sure, as does Walsh’s mount On His Own who was travelling ominously well when coming to grief at Bechers on the second circuit in the 2012 running of this race. On His Own landed a Grade 2 over hurdles on sole start this term and remains relatively unexposed.
Cappa Bleu is another strong contender, but the one I fear most is Rebecca Curtis’ Teaforthree who looks tailor-made for this marathon, having gone close in the Welsh National in January. In contrast to some of the other supposed chief protagonists, we know that he stays longer than the mother-in-law and jumps like an old hand.
The trip is a worry where Colbert Station is concerned, while Seabass will need to have strengthened stamina-wise in the last 12 months if he’s to better his third-place finish in this event last year. Still, the latter is bound to be popular, partnered by Katie Walsh who is having a second crack at becoming the first female rider to win the Grand National.
For those looking for a couple of big-price each-way shots, you could do much worse than consider Quel Esprit and Treacle. The former, one of the Willie Mullins-trained raiders, is generally a sound jumper and, though he has a bit to prove at present, he possesses a touch of class and could easily finish in the frame at rewarding odds.
John Smith’s Grand National (Aintree, 4.15)
Rest of the Aintree card
1.45 Up And Go
5.10 Prince of Fire
5.45 Quickpick Vic