With all due respect to the cards at Chepstow, Newcastle and Lingfield, there really is only one course to pay attention to on Saturday. Aintree hosts a high-class card of racing which is headlined by the biggest jumps race in the world, the Grand National.
Cloth Cap heads into the race as one of the shortest-priced favourites in Grand National history. Can he take advantage of drying conditions and his very generous handicap mark or will one of the other 39 runners stop Cloth Cap and Tom Scudamore in their quest for glory? The ITV Racing cameras will be in attendance at Aintree on Saturday for the National and four more races (including three Grade 1s) so this is a day of racing you cannot take your eyes off.
2:25 Betway Mersey Novices’ Hurdle
Grade 1, 2m4f
Reserve Tank’s win in last year’s Mersey Novices’ Hurdle went against the grain of the race. Four of the previous five winners were the bookies’ favourites while the other was a 3/1 shot so nobody was expecting a 20/1 shot to get the job done. This year’s renewal should go more to plan with an intriguing battle between My Drogo and Ballyadam at the head of the market.
We’ve already seen some very big performances at Aintree from horses who were not sent to Cheltenham last month. Dan and Harry Skelton will be hoping that will give My Drogo the edge but Ballyadam is just about preferred at odds of 11/4. He was expected to close the gap on Appreciate It in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle but clattered the second last and that was that as regards his chances. Even if he’d jumped perfectly Ballyadam would not have caught Appreciate It but he does have scope for improvement and even better ground will help bring that improvement out.
3:00 Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase
Grade 1, 2m
Shishkin was one of a number of short-priced favourites at the Cheltenham Festival but he stands alone as perhaps the sole out and out banker of the three days of racing at Aintree. Nicky Henderson’s superstar did everything that was expected of him with a 12-length win in the Arkle.
The lack of a genuine rival to Shiskin was a big disappointment at Cheltenham following Energumene’s withdrawal and there isn’t anything in the Maghull Novices’ Chase that could seriously be described as a threat to the 1/6 favourite. He is clearly priced to stop punters having a bet though, which means looking elsewhere for either an each way angle or for a bet in ‘the without the favourite’ market could be a wise option. That option for us is Funambule Sivola. You’ll get a price of 14/1 on Venetia Williams’ charge each way or 9/4 in the betting without Shishkin which is fair about this improving six year old who arrives at Aintree chasing a hat-trick.
3:35 Ryanair Stayers Hurdle
Grade 1, 3m½f
Thyme Hill and Paisley Park were all set for another cracking head to head battle before the former’s late withdrawal from the Cheltenham Festival. Thyme Hill’s absence was supposed to open the door for Paisley Park in the Stayers’ Hurdle but Emma Lavelle’s nine year old could only finish third. The suggestion after that run was that Paisley Park has perhaps been to the well one too many times and it’s difficult to see him returning to winning ways even on better ground and a flatter track than he encountered at Cheltenham.
This is the completion of a trilogy between the two main protagonists. It was Thyme Hill who came out on top when the two met at Newbury which, like Aintree, is a flat track. That, plus the added freshness of Philip Hobbs’ seven year old, should give him the edge once more and 9/4 looks a fair price.
Roksana, who is in receipt of the seven-pound mares’ allowance is the main danger to the top two according to the bookies but if you’re looking for an each way play or a horse to add into a forecast, consider Lisnagar Oscar at 10/1. He failed to complete at Cheltenham when looking to defend his Stayers’ Hurdle crown but mistakes happen and he should be up to running a big race at Aintree.
4:15 Betway Handicap Chase
Grade 3, 3m1f
Tom Scudamore has his best chance of winning the Grand National and, as such, is taking it easy at Aintree with just a couple of rides before the big one. That could not be further from the truth for Harry Skelton who is maintaining an incredibly busy schedule in his quest to be crowned champion jockey. Fortunately, Harry’s brother Dan Skelton is in very good form at the moment and they could well pair up for yet another win as Spiritofthegames has a better chance of winning the Betway Handicap Chase than his odds of 8/1 suggest.
It’s been a decent season so far for Spiritofthegame even though he is winless and the Skeltons believe that he can bow out with a win. The nine year old has not run off a mark as low as 144 over fences for some time and he should enjoy the good to soft ground as he makes his return to chasing after two starts over hurdles.
5:15 Randox Grand National Handicap Chase
Grade 3, 4m2½f
The Grand National is famously one of the most unpredictable and difficult races to win in the sport. However, the nature of the National is changing over time as the fences become less challenging due to safety concerns and the quality of the field improves. For all of that, it is still quite a shock to see a Grand National favourite as short as 4/1.
There are many reasons why Cloth Cap is so short at the head of the betting. For a start, Jonjo O’Neill’s nine year old is a tremendous jumper of a fence as he showed when winning the Ladbrokes Trophy in November and the bet365 Premier Chase at Kelso. There are no real concerns about his stamina reserves either as he stayed four miles no problem when third in the 2019 Scottish Grand National. He will love the going at Aintree which is so good that the clerk of the course has had to water. Finally, he is about a stone better off in the weights than he would have been had the handicapper had a chance to reassess him after his Kelso win.
Cloth Cap is very much the right favourite for the 2021 Grand National and the most likely winner of the race. It’s just that price that will understandably put people off. Fortunately, there are a number of interesting options at much bigger prices.
Discorama is the sort of horse to have been aimed at the Grand National for some time. He has bags of stamina and jumps well so will enjoy his crack at the National fences and 16/1 is a fair price. Magic Of Light (20/1) is another gritty stayer who will fight until the bitter end providing she makes it over the fences but the best each way play could well be Anibale Fly at 25/1. The 11 year old has twice placed in the Grand National and the Gold Cup and retains plenty of ability and stamina so is sure to give punters a good run for their money at 25/1.