It’s the day when millions of us are tempted into having a flutter. A bet down at the bookies or online, or a go on the sweepstake at work. Even Grandma has been known to splash out with her 50p each/way.
Yes, it’s Grand National Day again on Saturday as Aintree hosts the 171st renewal of the historic race that engrosses a nation.
It is estimated that a staggering total of up to £300 million will be punted on the event. One in four of us will pick our fancies and place a bet, while 600 million people from 140 countries around the world will be watching on TV or online.
Sponsored by Randox Health, the race is now worth £1 million in prize money. And it is the highlight of a three-day meeting on Merseyside that is second only to the Cheltenham Festival in terms of prestige in the Jumps racing calendar.
Boasting a total of £3.2 million in prize money, the extravaganza kicks off with four Grade Ones on Thursday and maintains its rich quality throughout.
Few courses in the country are run better than Aintree, and few boast the kind of heady atmosphere that Aintree generates, thanks largely to the unbridled enthusiasm of the Liverpool locals.
This year’s meeting has been hit badly by the withdrawal of star names from Cheltenham, such as champion chaser ALTIOR, champion hurdler BUVEUR D’AIR and top novice FOOTPAD, while most of the Irish battalions, trained by Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins, who reigned at the Festival, are staying at home for their duel for the trainers’ championship.
But the National, over the unique Aintree fences, remains as fascinating and competitive a race as ever. And not even the Irish have been able to resist a crack at it.
Elliott saddles at least three contenders, including Festival winner TIGER ROLL, while Mullins will be triple-handed too, led by impressive Ladbrokes Trophy winner TOTAL RECALL. Within the owners’ ranks, Gigginstown House Stud, spearheaded by Michael O’Leary, of Ryanair fame, could have up to seven candidates, while JP McManus could have five, including two horses placed in a Gold Cup, MINELLA ROCCO and ANIBALE FLY.
Unfortunately, last season’s winner, ONE FOR ARTHUR, is sidelined by injury, while the runner-up, CAUSE OF CAUSES, was this week retired. But back for another go are all eight of those who finished directly behind the front two, most notably BLAKLION, who was fourth in 2017, GAS LINE BOY, who was fifth, and Mullins’s PLEASANT COMPANY, who was an eyecatching ninth despite a monumental blunder at Valentine’s Brook. Veteran SAINT ARE is here for the fifth time, and Elliott’s UCELLO CONTI for a third time.
Scottish trainers hoping to emulate Lucinda Russell last year are Sandy Thomson, who saddles SEEYOUATMIDNIGHT, and Stuart Coltherd, whose teenage son, Sam, rides CAPTAIN REDBEARD for him. While two-time Scottish National winner, VICENTE, goes for glory in the big one this time.
Maintaining the family links, another father-and-son duo team up as Sam Twiston-Davies takes the mount on Blaklion for dad Nigel, and husband and wife Ross O’Sullivan and Katie Walsh hope to guide BAIE DES ILES to success.
Walsh is one of three pilots hoping to become the first woman to ride an Aintree National winner. The others are Bryony Frost, one of the season’s finds, who is on MILANSBAR and Rachael Blackmore, who partners ALPHA DES OBEAUX.
All the ingredients are there for a story, come 5.30 on Saturday evening, that maintains the National’s uncanny knack of unearthing sporting romance.
True to form, the 2018 Grand National is also a fiendishly difficult puzzle to solve. Last year, we struck lucky by finding the winner, One For Arthur.
So enthusiastic was I about his chances that I advised him at 40/1 after he had landed his prep race at Warwick in January. Sadly, I have no such vibes, no such confidence ahead of Saturday’s race
Much depends on the ground and, by saying that I’m not trying to shirk my tipping responsibilities. Like the rest of the country, Aintree has had lots of rain and, at the time of writing, the course is Soft, with more showers forecast.
The extent of those showers will be crucial. Clerk of the course Andrew Tulloch says the course is “like blotting paper” and can dry out very quickly. If it comes up Good To Soft, I can see the likes of Minella Rocco, Vicente and Nicky Henderson’s GOLD PRESENT having a big say in the outcome.
My inner Michael Fish tells me the likelihood is that the race will be run on easy ground that is quite testing. With that in mind, I have come up with these six against the field. All fulfil the requisite criteria of stamina, jumping ability and a touch of class, and all look reasonably handicapped.
1 PLEASANT COMPANY
2 SHANTOU FLYER
3 ANIBALE FLY
4 FINAL NUDGE
6 UCELLO CONTI
IF GOOD OR GOOD TO SOFT: Vicente