Aintree can be the best and one of the worst racecourses in the world depending on the meeting and the time of the year. The Grand National meeting in April is now a world class sporting event with an infrastructure to match. Racing at Aintree on the first Saturday in November takes place in front of empty stands and a handful of real racing fans. At least Liverpool or Everton are not playing at home.
Anyone who turns up though will be in for a treat with the scheduled reappearance of Simonsig in the Betfred Hurdle. The shiny suits, pointy shoes and moustaches worn by the girls will witness the first run for over two years of one of the best horses in training when fit and at his best. Irving and Top Notch were amongst the leading hurdlers last season so Simonsig will not have his own way when running in a hurdle race for the first time since April 2012.
The horse trained by Nicky Henderson last raced at the 2013 Cheltenham Festival. In fact Simonsig has only run nine times under rules and is one of a small group of horses to have won championship hurdle races and chases races at Cheltenham. He was beaten by Fingal Bay in 2011 and that horse has since franked the form. Thirty months is a massive absence from the track after many niggling injuries. His first race for over two years will not be a formality against more track fit horses.
Henderson is hoping Simonsig, Sprinter Sacre and Bobs Worth are back in form as he tries to get his chase record back on track after a poor return last season. The trainer was quoted by the Racing Post at his annual open day. Henderson said: “Last year didn’t really work out for these three and the dream would be to get them all back to their best. They are three of the best horses in the country and they have done wonders for us, but we’ve got to try to get one, two or three back.”
Simonsig possibly has the most to prove as he has not raced since winning the Arkle in 2013. There has not been one major injury that has kept him off the track but a series of minor complaints. At the time plans for the horse were fluid and Henderson has decided to go down the hurdles route. The trainer enthused; “He’s quite racy and fresh at the moment, but when he’s working well it really is exciting stuff.”
Bobs Worth has not won since the Lexus Chase last year. He has won three different races at the Cheltenham Festival but has lost all his sparkle and form. He could also run in the Betfred Hurdle on Saturday as a prep for the Hennessey Gold Cup later this month. Sprinter Sacre ran with credit last season but about a stone below his best. Only if the trainer gets positive vibes will he run Sprinter Sacre again in chases over two miles. He has shown himself to be one of the best horses since Arkle in his prime.
Simonsig is the favourite for the Betfred Hurdle ahead or Irving in the betting. The latter ran a poor race at Cheltenham last year, finishing ninth behind Vantour in the first race of the festival, beaten over 11 lengths. On reflection that is not the worst piece of form but things did not pan out too well during the most recent campaign. Irving is looking to get his career back on track but Simonsig will need to be just about at his best to beat him.
Top Notch was second to Peace And Co in last season’s Triumph Hurdle on the last day of the festival. He had won his only other three races in his juvenile and first season. The form is solid but horses at the end of their year as a four year old tend to disappoint when they are raced against older and more experienced horses. Winners of the Triumph Hurdle have a poor record in the Champion Hurdle twelve months later. Top Notch may find this assignment at a higher level too tough.
Henderson won the trainer’s championship in 2012-13 for the first time since 1987. He has finished second behind Paul Nicholls in the last two seasons and needs his big three to be winning prestigious chases to contend this time. Simonsig gets the ball rolling at Aintree on Saturday but not many thousands will be in attendance to see how he performs.