It’s the greatest spectacle in racing and at the later time of 5:15pm, even more people should be able to watch. The race has changed considerably in recent years – the amendments to the fences for safety reasons has meant a general improvement in the quality of horses entering as well as appearing to reduce the number of fallers.
This year’s renewal looks like being one of the best, but ultimately we have to hope that the record of the last two years with no fatalities is continued. One more piece of advice – if you don’t bet regularly, and you intend to go into the bookies to place your National bets, TAKE THE PRICE. Do not accept starting price under any circumstances – miraculously, the bookies always find the time to shorten horses in the hours and minutes leading up to the off, but never seem to let them drift. We will update this blog with some brief thoughts on the other races on the card, including the appearance of the mighty Thistlecrack, but for now we’ll concentrate on the 40 declared runners for the big race itself. Here we go…
1. Many Clouds (Oliver Sherwood). Last year’s impressive winner is back to defend his crown, which has been the aim all season. Last year he had an incredibly tough season, winning the Hennessy and the BetBright Chase before a very respectable 6th in the Gold Cup. To then carry 11st 9lbs round Aintree and win in the fashion he did was testament to this horse’s tough constitution. This season has been much less taxing, with all his races carefully selected to get him in prime condition for the National. His best piece of form looks like being from Aintree in December, when he gave 5lbs to Don Poli and was beaten just 4 lengths. He is deservedly the favourite for this, as given the way the handicapping system works he only has to carry 1lb more than he did last year, and is officially 4lb well in at the weights. He also handles all ground conditions and has Leighton Aspell on board who is seeking his third consecutive National win, and he must be high on everyone’s shortlist. Whether you want to take a single digit price in a 40-runner race is another matter, however.
2. Silviniaco Conti (Paul Nicholls). A legend of a horse, whose record includes victories in two King Georges, two BetFred Bowls and a Betfair Chase. If only he could perform around the undulating track of Cheltenham, and if only he had a name that was easier to pronounce, he would be loved by the public. As it is, he’s merely respected, but he’s certainly got the class to prevail here. He loves Aintree, with 3 wins and a third in just 4 outings, and if he handles the extra distance – as well as the unique challenge the National fences still present in spite of the changes – he is sure to be a contender. This is a race Paul Nicholls is desperate to win as he attempts to fend off the Mullins threat to his trainers’ title, and Silvi is his best chance of doing so.
3. First Lieutenant (Mouse Morris). Another high class staying chaser in his pomp and former Betfred Bowl winner, First Lieutenant’s gallant second to Don Poli in the Lexus at Leopardstown hinted at a return to form, but the suspicion remains his best days are behind him. Indeed, he hasn’t actually won a race since that 2013 Bowl victory at Aintree, and Bryan Cooper has looked elsewhere for his ride. His position near the top of weights (because of the aforementioned gallant second in the Lexus) and his performance in the Irish Gold Cup last time out means this would be an astonishing performance were he to pull off victory here, especially as he was 16th at 1lb lower in the weights last year.
4. Wonderful Charm (Paul Nicholls). The chosen mount of Sam Twiston-Davies means he is likely to be the best of Nicholls’ rest (Noel Fehily always rides Silviniaco Conti regardless of Sam’s position as stable jockey), but he has only had one run since last April, and that was a very distance second to Aachen at Cheltenham’s International meeting in December. He does appear to handle all kinds of ground and jumps nicely, but there are more stamina doubts about Wonderful Charm than many others, particularly when you factor in the weight he has to carry.
5. Ballynagour (David Pipe). Ballynagour’s form figures this season do not make for inspiring reading – 35PP7, with the 7th coming at the Festival over 2m4f. Considered good enough by his connections for a tilt at the King George, he was available at 66/1 that day and was well beaten by the time he was pulled up. It was a similar story in the Denman Chase at Newbury in February, when he was sent off at 3/1 but weakened quickly before again being pulled up. The fact he completed the course at Cheltenham then is a positive, but he appears well in the grip of the handicapper and Tom Scudamore will have to conjure up a genius ride to get him in contention.
6. O’Faolains Boy (Rebecca Curtis). O’Faolains Boy is a decent horse in his own right, evidenced by his RSA win at the 2015 Festival, and he was jumping well in the Gold Cup when last seen before the class of the field told and he finished well beaten. He certainly wasn’t disgraced though, and he appears to handle all types of ground. Unless any horse is a previous National finisher, stamina is always a question, but you get the feeling O’Faolains Boy could well take the extra distance in his stride and Rebecca Curtis has aimed him at this race. Brian Hughes enjoyed himself at last year’s Aintree meeting, and his mount here certainly looks a fair price.
7. Gilgamboa (Enda Bolger). Gilgamboa is the first of four runners in the race for owner JP McManus, and he has a few decent bits of form to make him of some interest at a huge price. He ran well in the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown in December, finishing fourth when sent off favourite, before an average effort in the Irish Gold Cup. At the Festival, he was directed to the Ryanair, when the distance looked inadequate but he lost nothing in defeat in fifth with Vautour, Valseur Lido, Road To Riches and Al Ferof ahead of him. So if the extra distance suits him as some suspect it might, he could well cause an upset under Robbie Power.
8. On His Own (Willie Mullins). This game old boy is a horse I have backed many times before, including in the 2012 and 2013 Nationals when he fell both times. Since then he has competed in many of the top staying chases, including three Gold Cups (he was second in the 2014 running), as well as trying his hand at the cross country chase. He does like to have things his own way in his races, which is nigh-on impossible in a field the size of the National, and at the grand old age of 12 he will be hard-pressed to recapture his best form.
9. The Druids Nephew (Neil Mulholland). Last year’s hard-luck story, he was travelling powerfully in the lead when he appeared to slip 5 from home and came down. It’s impossible to say whether he would have gone on to win, but his trainer and his backers will always wonder what might have been. A repeat run in this has been the aim all season (last year he won well at Cheltenham and so connections decided to aim for the National, whereas this year the Festival was missed entirely) and he has slowly been brought to boil, with a fine second to The Last Samuri in the Grimthorpe last month representing a satisfying prep race. He was giving that contender 6lbs that day, and they run off the same weight difference in the National. I can certainly see The Druids Nephew overturning his rival at the prices, regardless of how much The Last Samuri looks thrown in.
10. Triolo D’Alene (Nicky Henderson). When he won the Hennessy in 2013 as a 6yo, he looked a horse with the staying world at his feet. He was then a disappointing 10th in a poor Gold Cup, before being pulled up following several blunders in the 2014 National. He then had some problems with injuries, evidenced by the fact he has had just four starts in the last two years, but encouragingly two of those starts have been since the turn of the year. He was no match for Silviniaco Conti at level weights in the Betfair Ascot Chase, finishing some 54 lengths behind the winner, and being given just 8lbs by Silvi in this means he would have his work cut out to finish ahead of that horse, never mind the remaining leading protagonists.
11. Rocky Creek (Paul Nicholls). He has completed the last two Nationals. In the 2014 edition, he faded at the elbow to finish a still respectable 5th when a 16/1 chance. Given another year to strengthen, he was gambled for the 2015 running, being sent off at 8/1 before fading once again, this time finishing 17th (one place behind First Lieutenant). These serious doubts over his stamina make him virtually impossible to recommend, and he is drifting in the market even as we speak.
12. Sir Des Champs (Willie Mullins). Another former top class staying chaser, who was at the peak of his powers in the winter and spring of 2013, when he won an Irish Hennessy and then finished second to Bobs Worth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup before beating Long Run and First Lieutenant in the Punchestown Gold Cup. He missed the whole of 2014 and the vast majority of 2015 through injury, but if he retains anything like his old ability having completed three races since coming back, he may run well. Interestingly, Ruby Walsh has switched his chosen mount to Sir Des, having been expected to ride Boston Bob.
13. Holywell (Jonjo O’Neill). Ah, Holywell. A cheeky monkey of a horse (though not in the league of Mad Moose), when Holywell is in the mood there are few National Hunt horses who can match his natural ability. Two years ago, he won the Mildmay Novices Chase at this meeting, beating Don Cossack (yes, Don Cossack) by 10 lengths, Wonderful Charm by 17 lengths, Many Clouds by over 20 lengths, O’Faolains Boy by 24 lengths and Just A Par by 52 lengths. It’s clear he hasn’t quite fulfilled the potential he demonstrated that day, but he finished a very good 4th in last year’s Gold Cup, and in the Ultima Handicap Chase at Cheltenham he showed he could be coming back into form as he so often does in the spring. He is a small horse, however, and there are question marks over his ability to handle these particular fences – but if he is in the mood and takes to the task he could well outrun his price.
14. Shutthefrontdoor (Jonjo O’Neill). The big gamble of last year’s race when he was AP McCoy’s final ride in the race, his stamina didn’t quite hold out under a relentless drive from AP and he finished 5th. He carried 11st 2lb that day, and so the dual bonus of having 5lb less this time around as well as being Barry Geraghty’s chosen ride for his boss JP McManus. He was awful last time out at Newbury, however, and you have to be prepared to draw a line through that (and probably his season reappearance too) if you want to be confident about his chances this year.
15. Soll (David Pipe). Another veteran, this 11yo who finished 9th last year appears to have found a new lease of life this season. Two of his three career best RPRs have come in the last six months – at Aintree in December, when he was fourth in the Becher Handicap, and then at Sandown in January when he won a veterans’ chase. His latest race, at Kelso in March, left a bit more to be desired and he now carries 9lb more than last year’s National, which will surely prove too much of a burden no matter how much enthusiasm he retains for the game.
16. Buywise (Evan Williams). It’s the hope that kills you. If you follow Buywise – and he does have legions of supporters – you know what you’re going to get. In the early part of his races, he is often held up out the back, seemingly with no interest in what the leaders are doing. He’ll then make a juddering error or two, leaving you ready to tear up your betting slip. Then he’ll find some rhythm, and start to stay on. You think you’ve got a chance, you get a little excited, but he never quite reaches the horses he’s given such a lead to. Buywise won 4 of his first 5 chase starts, and since then has been a model of consistency and consistently frustrating, with form figures of 5453243. There are certainly worse value 50/1 shots in the field, but he does need to jump well on the day. Evan Williams thinks he will stay and he knows how to get horses ready for this ultimate test.
17. Boston Bob (Willie Mullins). Now the mount of Paul Townend instead of Ruby Walsh, he has been backed in in recent days down to as short as 25/1, which doesn’t make a lot of appeal considering he was 66/1 earlier in the week. He is a fine chaser, and beat On His Own last time out at Fairyhouse, but a lot of the money which came for him was surely on the premise that Ruby was going to ride him. Given the way the Mullins battalions have performed on Thursday, you must take all of his horses seriously, but at the prices others are much more attractive.
18. Aachen (Venetia Williams). The winner of the race at Cheltenham in December when he hammered Wonderful Charm by 17 lengths in the mud, he appeared to cope with being similarly hammered by the handicapper when a neck second to Soll on heavy ground at Sandown in January, but has struggled with his even higher mark since then, finishing 11th in the Sky Bet Chase at Doncaster (42 lengths behind Buywise) before being a distant 9th at Newbury last month. He was behind Pineau De Re and Alvarado that day, neither of whom made the cut for this, and his price of 100/1 is an accurate reflection of his chances. Unless there is a 24 hour downpour which would give him the conditions he loves, he is best avoided.
19. Morning Assembly (Pat Fahy). This is definitely one for the shortlist. A very smart novice chaser, on a November Sunday afternoon back in 2013 he beat Don Cossack by half a length before being beaten by Carlingford Lough at Leopardstown. He then ran a superb race in the RSA Chase in the 2014 Festival , finishing third behind O’Faolains Boy and Smad Place, reversing the form with Carlingford Lough and by finishing he also did something neither Don Cossack nor Many Clouds managed. At Punchestown in April he was again beaten by Carlingford Lough, but again finished ahead of Don Cossack. He then missed the remainder of 2014 and the whole of 2015, but has since completed all 3 of his races, including a very promising fourth behind Un Temps Pour Tout, Holywell and The Young Master in the Ultima Handicap Chase at Cheltenham. He is perhaps less exposed than many others in the field and is certainly of interest at a decent price.
20. Double Ross (Nigel Twiston-Davies). Definitely not one for the shortlist. Over obstacles, he has 5 career victories to his name, and they have come in December, November, September, December and January respectively. His last win was on New Year’s Day 2014, and none of those victories have been over further than 2m5f. Put simply, he doesn’t appear to be a spring horse, he doesn’t appear to be a stamina horse, and given his 9th placed finish in the Ultima Handicap Chase saw him weaken rapidly towards the finish, I’d be surprised if he was there at the finish on Saturday evening.
21. Goonyella (Jim Dreaper). If Goonyella turns up to this in the same form as he was last spring, when he won the Midlands National (4m2f) at Uttoxeter followed by a fine second in the Scottish National (4m) at Ayr, he will definitely have a chance at the weights. Of more concern was his performance in the Becher Handicap Chase at Aintree in December 2015, when he didn’t appear to take to the fences, but if he has learned from that then his second in the Leinster National last month was a real confidence booster and should see him primed for the big one. He had the well fancied Gallant Oscar behind him that day, and now there is just 1lb difference in the weights, so if we take that form literally he should be competitive.
22. Ucello Conti (Gordon Elliott). This half-brother to Silviniaco Conti is a recent import from France for the Gordon Elliott yard, and he has acquitted himself well in his three starts in Ireland to date. He was second in the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown in December, followed by a third in the Thyestes Handicap at Gowran Park in January. Whilst he is unexposed from a British handicapping perspective, his lack of experience of this type of occasion could be unnerving, and this will be the first time Daryl Jacob has ridden him. Could well be under the radar of most, but in this case I’d rather watch and see how does rather than back him.
23. Unioniste (Paul Nicholls). Another French import by the same sire as Silviniaco Conti (but that doesn’t make him a half-brother…), Unioniste didn’t appear to enjoy his National experience last year, when he fell at the fifth, and he will obviously need to go much better this time around if he is to trouble the judge. He was a distant second to Many Clouds last time out at Kelso, and whilst he gets a nice big pull in the weights from that, it is hard to see him featuring at the business end of this.
24. Le Reve (Lucy Wadham). Le Reve received 6lb from Unioniste when he won at Sandown in February, beating that rival by just over 6 lengths, so at level weights this time around neither appears particularly well handicapped. Stamina shouldn’t be an issue, but of more concern is that the closest he has come to Aintree is Haydock Park. It is a big ask for a horse to experience the Aintree atmosphere for the first time in the National, particularly when he appears to be more comfortable going right-handed than left-handed.
25. Gallant Oscar (Tony Martin). Around this time last year, Gallant Oscar was a very creditable third behind The Druids Nephew at Cheltenham (although he was receiving an almighty 12lb from that horse) before an even more creditable victory at Punchestown, when he had the likes of First Lieutenant and Ballycasey trailing in his wake. Since then, though, the handicapper has had his way. Gallant Oscar unseated his rider in the Paddy Power at Leopardstown in December, he was a distant 7th when given a spin over hurdles at the same track in January, and 5th at Naas in March, 9 lengths behind Goonyella. Tony Martin is a canny trainer, however, and Mark Walsh is a decent jockey – but the best advice is to wait and see if JP McManus starts punting his own horse. If he does, wade in, but if he doesn’t, stay clear.
26. Onenightinvienna (Philip Hobbs). Despite Onenightinvienna’s undoubted ability and previously progressive profile, it’s a huge ask to try and win the National as a novice. Coneygree managed to defy history and expectations by winning the Gold Cup as a novice, but it would be genuinely surprising and astounding if Onenightinvienna can do the same in this race. Instead, it’s better to take a watching brief and if he does well stick him on the early shortlist for next year’s National.
27. The Last Samuri (Kim Bailey). The first of two horses in succession trained with this race in mind by Donald McCain (son of Ginger, the trainer of the mighty Red Rum) for a number of years before an acrimonious split from the owners, The Last Samuri has been the subject of a sustained gamble. He is now a general 10/1 shot (8s in places), courtesy of the fact that once the weights for the National are announced, they don’t change. So his victory over The Druids Nephew in the Grimthorpe last month has propelled him to the top of many shortlists, and justifiably so, but surely any juice in his price has long gone. He certainly looks like he can be a serious contender, but I’m reluctantly willing to pass him over at the prices, particularly as I believe The Druids Nephew is capable of reversing the form between them.
28. Kruzhlinin (Philip Hobbs). Kruzhlinin made an excellent return in January this year when he beat Le Reve at Kempton, before a perfectly respectable 5th in the Ultima Handicap Chase, when he was beaten by both Holywell and Morning Assembly. He has completed the National course before, coming 10th in the 2014 renewal when he was sent off at 100/1. He looks a much more solid horse now, however, and for the combination of Philip Hobbs and champion jockey Richard Johnson it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him improve enough again to go close.
29. Rule The World (Mouse Morris). There is plenty to like about Rule The World, not least his fine second to The New One in the 2013 Neptune at Cheltenham. Unfortunately, just like the Neptune, there is plenty to like about Rule The World over hurdles, but very little to recommend him to break his duck over fences here. He has yet to win in 13 attempts, although he does have six second-place finishes to his name, finishing behind some smart horses in that sequence. However, when a horse has a habit of finding one too good even in 5-runner fields, the chances of him finding several too good in a 40-runner field are that much greater.
30. Just A Par (Paul Nicholls). On the final day of the 2014/15 jumps season, when AP McCoy bowed out for good, Just A Par won the Bet365 Gold Cup under an inspired ride from young Sean Bowen and looked set for a big season this time around. It’s fair to say he hasn’t progressed from there, however, and his seasonal reappearance at Cheltenham in November was one to forget. He wasn’t much better at Sandown next time out, whilst his second place at Exeter a few weeks ago was fine given the weight he was carrying but he surely needs to find more to trouble the market leaders here. I for one doubt whether he will find it.
31. Katenko (Venetia Williams). Katenko hasn’t won since January 2013, when (as befits a Venetia Williams horse) he won on heavy ground at Cheltenham. Since then his form has been F4430PP0, and his 13th in the Ultima Handicap at Cheltenham does very little to inspire confidence seeing as he reopposes four of those who beat him that day. That was only his second race since November 2014, and you have to consider he’s not the same horse as he was before his injury problems. He certainly doesn’t tempt me at 50/1.
32. Vics Canvas (Dermot McLoughlin). Vics Canvas is another who finds wins hard to come by, having not got his nose in front since November 2014, and his form this season is 85P6. That sixth placed finish was out of 7 runners – the seventh horse fell, and both Boston Bob and On His Own were 25 lengths clear of him that day. He is now a teenager, and if Katenko makes little appeal at 50/1, then Vics Canvas makes even less.
33. Black Thunder (Paul Nicholls). It’s a similar story for Black Thunder as it is for Katenko and Vics Canvas, with his last win coming in December 2014 at Sandown and his form since then reading 570U6. That 5th placed finish was actually a good effort, being beaten just over 8 lengths by Many Clouds, and at the Festival that year he was 7th behind The Druids Nephew, Gallant Oscar and Pendra of those also reopposing in the National. He wasn’t really in contention when unseating Harry Cobden in the Welsh National in January, whilst at Sandown in February he was well behind Le Reve and Unioniste. Others are much preferred.
34. Ballycasey (Willie Mullins). This is an intriguing entry given the trainer, owner and jockey. A Willie Mullins horse, running in those famous Ricci colours, ridden by a Walsh. In this case it’s Katy Walsh, who has a decent record in the National, whereas last year it was Ruby in the saddle when Ballycasey was unluckily brought down when seemingly travelling well. Under Ruby at Cheltenham in March, he finished a staying on fifth having been hampered and if he comes on for that run, there are certainly worse horses to back at 80/1. Could be a lively outsider.
35. Hadrian’s Approach (Nicky Henderson). Another in the race who has kept a decent handicap mark, thus allowing him entry into the National, yet has struggled with injury and other problems since landing a big prize in April 2014. Since being pulled up in a handicap chase won by Le Reve in January 2015, we’ve only seen him once on a racecourse, when he finished seventh, a couple of lengths behind the very same Le Reve in fifth. Even though he has a safe pair of hands on top in the form of Nico de Boinville, it’s hard to make a compelling case for this one.
36. Vieux Lion Rouge (David Pipe). Vieux Lion Rouge looked to be a chaser going places earlier in the season, when he completed a hat-trick of wins between May and November, but he’s not pushed on from there. He unseated his rider against Aachen and Wonderful Charm at Cheltenham in December, before a second at Ascot in February. He then entered the 4 miler at the Festival, when he didn’t appear to see out the race in finishing sixth. Given the extra distance here, there are enough question marks to pass him over.
37. Pendra (Charlie Longsdon). Pendra is another interesting outsider for Charlie Longsdon, having some decent form in the bank. His 10th in the Irish National two years ago actually holds up pretty well in the form book, whilst he looked really threatening in the Ultima Handicap Chase at the 2015 Festival under AP McCoy before hammering a fence in the home straight and losing all momentum to finish 5th behind The Druids Nephew and Gallant Oscar. He won nicely at Ascot in October last year, before finishing 5th at the same track in December when a well backed favourite. He seems to have found some consistency, but whilst it’s doubtful that will be enough to win, he could give you a run for your money at a general 66/1 (100/1 in one place).
38. Saint Are (Tom George). Last year’s runner-up when carrying 10st 6lb, he has managed to get in carrying less weight this time around and that surely makes him of interest. He’s been steadily building up to a repeat National effort this season, finishing 6th at Cheltenham in November, 7th at Aintree in December before a good win at Doncaster in February. Those three races have yielded successive RPRs of 120, 128 and 155, suggesting he could be in peak condition here. Definitely one to look out for.
39. Home Farm (Henry De Bromhead). His form appears to have fallen off a cliff since he won at Thurles in November 2014. He fell next time out, then finished 7th, then was pulled up when taking on the big boys in Coneygree’s Gold Cup, and then finished 8th in the season finale at Sandown. This season he hasn’t even jumped a fence in anger, instead finishing midfield in two hurdle races over 2m and 2m2f respectively. It would be a major surprise to see him finish within a furlong of the winner.
40. The Romford Pele (Rebecca Curtis). Well done if you’ve made it this far, it’s been a bit of a marathon write up. Another horse with a very similar profile to many of the other middle-of-the-road contenders, his last victory came in October 2014. Since then he has run well over fences without troubling the leaders, and his prep for this has been a couple of spins over hurdles to get his confidence back after a fall at Cheltenham in December. Interestingly, that first hurdles run contains some excellent form, as he was a 50/1 third beaten just 14 lengths by the undoubted star of the staying hurdle division, Thistlecrack. At the Festival, he was 8th in the Coral Cup but only a few lengths behind the winner. Pineau De Re won the National after running over hurdles at the Festival and whilst it would be a big shock if The Romford Pele did the same, it can’t be completely ruled out.
So in summary, in spite of the changes, the race is still as hard as ever to solve, but I hope this helps you along your way. My shortlist of 5, which excludes Many Clouds although I wouldn’t put you off backing him, is:
HOLYWELL, MORNING ASSEMBLY, SILVINIACO CONTI, THE DRUIDS NEPHEW and SAINT ARE.
Be lucky! DP