Smooth Stepper dances to Trial win but Midlands National is target of choice

Forget a cold Tuesday night in Stoke. A wild Saturday afternoon at Haydock proved to be a great sporting leveller as Smooth Stepper struck a blow for the underdog in the Unibet Grand National Trial.

Sent off the 33-1 outsider of the field, the Alex Hales-trained 11-year-old dented the Grand National aspirations of a host of better-fancied rivals with a stout staying display. 

In overhauling course-specialist Lord Du Mesnil after the last to win by a length and a half, Smooth Stepper handed Hales his biggest success.

"We've had a great season and this is the icing on the cake," said Hales. "We felt he wanted a step up in trip and off a low weight [10st], we thought we'd take our chance. He ran well in the veterans' chase at Sandown last time and will certainly have an entry in the Midlands National."

Hales, who learned the ropes with Charlie Mann and Kim Bailey before branching out on his own in 2000, was already enjoying his best season with his 25-strong team prior to winning the £100,000 contest.

"We've now had 20 winners this season, but you just need a big win," he said. "We haven't done anything different, the horses have just been healthy."

The victory was also a sweet one for Harry Bannister, although some of the shine was taken off after he received a four-day ban for his use of the whip.

Lord Du Mesnil, who looked set for the four-timer for a long way in the home straight, ran another fine race as he attempted to follow up recent course victories in the Tommy Whittle and The Last Fling.

Although the Richard Hobson-trained seven-year-old has an entry in the Randox Health Grand National, he is not certain to go to Aintree this year.

"He had a setback after his win here last time and with his enthusiastic style of running and his jumping in that ground, it just showed at the end that he'd missed a bit of work," said Hobson. 

"We've got a dream horse and I reckon the National might just be a year too early. I'd say we won't run in the National – unless it was monsoon-like conditions, I think we'd give it a miss. If we get the ground at Cheltenham, the National Hunt Chase would be his ideal race."

Yala Enki, sent off the 11-4 favourite, was a further 19 lengths back in third.

"It was very hard work and he had quite a lot of weight," said jockey Bryony Frost. "He's still run a really good race, he's just got tired in the latter stages. It might sound bizarre, but he felt like he didn't want it that soft as he preferred it better at Taunton."

One For Arthur, the 2017 Grand National hero, was near travelling in the rear before being pulled up before the 15th fence.

The 11-year-old was found to have an irregular heartbeat after the race, with trainer Lucinda Russell reporting her stable star would be checked over in the coming days.