Blaklion has been my headline tip for the Grand National for some time so the front cover story in Wednesday’s Racing Post was good and bad news. The horse’s jockey says “he wouldn’t swap Blaklion for anything” which is a positive but the price may well shorten and I haven’t backed the horse yet in the ante post market. Saphir De Rheu ran a great trial in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and is also part of my National betting portfolio and at a much bigger price Vicente is also on the short list.
In recent years the National has evolved into a high-class long distance limited handicap chase. Safety modifications have favoured the better horses and the weights have contracted to increase the overall quality of the most famous race in the world. Nobody likes to see horses in distress and fatalities. The race now has the right balance between safety and fairness and maintaining its intrinsic demands.
The fences used to be more unforgiving but now have a softer core. Mistakes are still costly but horses have a better chance of staying on their feet. The number of fallers has dropped significantly since the jumps were modified. Moving the start 100 yards down the course is only a minor cosmetic step but it takes the horses further away from the frenzied atmosphere at Aintree on National day which can upset some horses. The race is still the longest in the National Hunt calendar.
The weight allocated to each horse is often a bone of contention but the handicapper aims to get horses running off their true weight by giving the better horses a slight weight advantage. This move has attracted the best chasers and the top 10 in the weights would not look out of place in the Gold Cup. You can’t please all the people all the time and Michael O’Leary withdrew his better Gigginstown horses because he perceived bias against Irish trained horses. That seemed a strange decision because Rule The World won him the National last year when trained in Ireland.
The National course and fences are still unique but more akin to a regular chase. In the past Aintree form was a bigger factor and the weights are now framed more on the basis of overall form including in traditional steeplechases. The authorities have worked hard to provide a safer test that brings together graded horses and handicappers while ensuring the National is something different. Viewing figures and betting turnover suggest they have done a good job. Even so picking the winner has not got any easier. The average price of the last 10 winners is 26/1!
The National course at Aintree was described as good to soft on Tuesday. A dry week is forecast which means there won’t be the extremes of going that can cause havoc. The race should be run on no better than good ground which makes for a safer contest and gives more horses a chance of completing the course and being competitive. Conditions should favour many leading contenders including Blaklion.
The winner of the RSA Chase at Cheltenham last year ran a great prep race for the National in a major trial at Haydock. The horse was outstayed by Vieux Lion Rouge giving weight and jumped well and wasn’t stopping at the end of the three miles four furlongs contest. At the top of the straight in the Hennessey Blaklion looked like beating Native River and that horse was second in the Gold Cup. The horse is trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies who won the National with Earth Summit (1998) and Bindaree (2002) and Blaklion could be his third winner of the historic race.
The jockey Noel Fehily has never won the Grand National and sees Blaklion as his best chance. He told the Racing Post this week:
“I wouldn’t swap Blaklion for anything. He’s got a nice bit of form and a bit of class about him, and I’m hoping for a big run. He was very accurate around Haydock last time too, and he’s been around Cheltenham a few times and jumps fine. Nigel Twiston-Davies has a great record in the race and I hope t rubs off”.
Blaklion is closely matched at the weights with Vieux Lion Rouge but is fairly handicapped. The trainer has been protecting his weight by not running often and that plan can be justified when Blaklion wins the Grand National on Saturday.
Saphir Du Rheu and More Of That ran pleasing trials for the National in the Gold Cup. The former was more than three lengths closer to the winner at the end of the race. Saphir De Rheu caries one pound less than More Of That in the National so has a few pounds in hand. That horse won the stayer’s hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in 2014, beating Annie Power who has not failed to win any other race when competing. Saphir Du Rheu won a grade 1 novice chase at Aintree in 2015 so is a classy animal who could be a blot on the handicap.
Vicente won the Scottish National for Paul Nicholls last season. The race is different in nature to the English version but at over four miles in distance still requires stamina, good jumping ability and the speed to take charge after most of the jumping. Vicente has those attributes so can make the frame at least and give Nicholls a great chance of winning another trainer’s championship. He won the National in 2012 with Neptune Collonges and although Vicente is not as good the horse can get in the mix at the business end of the race at Aintree on Saturday.
Vicente carries 10-10 in the National while Blaklion and Saphir Du Rheu have been allocated more than 11 stone. In the last 10 years half the winners had that burden and Blaklion and Saphir Du Rheu have the class to carry the weight and are potential winners while Vicente can make the payout places.