Only one meeting worthy of consideration this weekend and that has to be Aintree – not quite Cheltenham, to be fair, but a class meeting with high prize money throughout and of course, we end up with the Grand National – but more of that later.
Before we get to the racing (quicker than normal this week), a brief word about jockey Richard Johnson, a class act in and out of the saddle and now retiring pretty much in one piece. Unlucky to have spent the majority of his career in the shadows of a certain A P McCoy, we should not forget just how many times he would have been Champion jockey in any other era, nor the fact that his win record sees him sit second in the all-time list, a true master of his craft who perhaps failed to get the recognition his efforts fully deserve.
Personally, I had hoped he would turn his hand to training but apparently that is not to be, and surely there are only so many ex jockeys they can have as pundits on the TV, though there is no doubt he will stay involved in the racing industry in some capacity, with breeding the odds on favourite in my eyes - for now at least.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong it would appear that a spot of volatility by Neil Callan has seen his riding career brought to a very abrupt halt. A disagreement during a Stewards enquiry that saw him suspended has been seriously upgraded to the extent that his licence has been suspended until the end of the current season (July 14th), which will be reciprocated worldwide meaning he is effectively out of work until mid-summer.
Whatever the rights or wrongs it does seem to effectively have ended his career as things stand with precious little chance of a renewal for next season, though whether the punishment fits the crime is open to question after a written apology and references from trainers and owners failed to sway the licensing committee even a fraction.
To me (us) it does seem to be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but they take respect a lot more seriously than we do, and it will be interesting to see if Neil tries to carry on riding elsewhere in the future, or hangs up his boots to focus his attentions to something new. Personally, I have chatted to Neil on numerous occasions on my jaunts to Hong Kong and always found him to be engaging, good company, and with no airs and graces and after such a successful career, it is a desperate shame to see it all end with a negative story, though if he can bounce back somehow, I am sure he will and I wish him all the very best.
As for the Grand National (see below for my 2021 preview), it is not a race I have too much time for, though naturally I get asked for the winner year after year – if only life was so easy. In my view the best horse can still lose thanks to the attentions of the handicapper with the weight carried seemingly even more important over the marathon trip, but I do remember backing Aldaniti, Grittar, West Tip, Mr Frisk, Party Politics, Royal Athlete, and Rough Quest – though the last named won in 1996 and I am pretty certain that was the last time I was on the winner! Aldaniti was my first legal bet back in 1981, and although I knew precious little about the story behind the victory at the time, he was trained locally to me at Findon by the legendary Josh Gifford and may well have had a bigger influence that I realise in my future career. Forty years later and the fairy-tale is now so well known that it needs no repeating here, but if I had to name one winner that will live me for ever, Aldaniti and Bob Champion is the one, for both the right reasons and the personal ones of backing a winner in the biggest race in the World.
Lastly, one piece of BHA news that I can file under “never give a sucker an even break” reared its ugly head this week. Owner Paul Gregory appealed the six month suspension of Gizza Job who has a mind of her own and seems to have her issues with the stalls. Much as I fully understand the need to ensure races go off on time and the potential knock on effect for other runners, surely there has to be a better and perhaps fairer way of dealing with things. What we have here is the owner of a single horse who pays his bills as and when requested, but whose horse is now effectively off the track for the majority of the turf flat season. I do not and cannot argue the logic behind a suspension, but a cast iron period does seem harsh (and may well see one owner or more leaving the sport), and I do have to wonder if there is a way for owners to pay for subsequent stalls tests run by the BHA and to allow them to race once one or more of these are passed to a satisfactory standard – I for one would rather find the few hundred pounds required in preference to missing a flat season, and I doubt I am the only one with that view.
On to the racing and although I have bypassed Thursday and Friday, we still have plenty to talk about on Saturday afternoon.
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A proper sized field which has to be good news for punters everywhere and those looking for each way terms have the rare luxury of one two three for a change. My Drogo arrives here inbeaten over hurdles for team Skelton and heads the early markets, but we all know how the Brits got on at Cheltenham and if may be naive to expect too much change out of the Irish runners at Aintree either. His last win was a comfortable one at Kelso where he had a long list of previous winners in behind him, but whether that adds up to enough to justify favouritism here is open to question.
Ballyadam is a horse I have followed all season and he ran his best race yet in defeat when runner up to Appreciate It in the Supreme Novice Hurdle that starts the Cheltenham meeting, and seems sure to go well, but the 7/1 freely available for Dreal Deal is just that bit too tempting as an each way alternative. Six consecutive wins on both the flat and over hurdles since September last year suggests he is in rude health, and with distances from two miles to two and three-quarters, and on heavy, soft, and good, he lacks neither speed nor stamina and appears to have no worries about the going either. Trained by the little known Ronan McNally, you have to ask yourself – would he be that price if he was housed in the Mullins of De Bromhead yards – I rather doubt it, suggesting he is a spot of value on what should be a cracker of a race with Adrimel my idea of an outsider who could run well at an even bigger price.
Shishkin first the rest nowhere (with a clear round). Even the Irish are not silly enough to take on Nicky Henderson’s Arkle winner leaving a disappointing field of five with Gumball the second highest rated, a full nineteen pounds behind the favourite. I am still yet to be totally convinced by his jumping, especially early in a race, and I won’t be backing him at odds on for that very reason, though I can’t bet against him either with a fault-free round, and surely that is all that is needed to see him come home ten lengths or more in front of his rivals Saturday afternoon.
With fifteen declared it seems rather fate tempting to suggest this is a two horse race, but it is increasingly tough to look past Paisley Park and Thyme Hill who are joint favourites as I write. Neither have run in this race before (perhaps surprisingly), but both are stayers at the very top of the tree at this stage of their careers. Both have won on both Good and Good to Soft (I suspect somewhere between the two come Saturday), which has to be seen as a positive, but what of the opposition.
Third favourite Roksana was beaten two lengths by the jollies at Ascot and has a bit to find on that form, while Lisnagar Oscar, next in the betting, has had his issues and fell last time out at Cheltenham, possibly leaving mental scars. If The Cap Fits took this last season (Roksana second) and cannot be dismissed, but that looked a far weaker renewal on paper at least, and for me, this looks a fraction beyond him, so what conclusions can we draw.
I do like Thyme Hill as the younger of the pair at the head of the betting, and can see him running a huge race here, but at 12/1 (and having backed him at Cheltenham), I will go back over the cliff each way with Lisnagar Oscar to pennies. Although his Stayers Hurdle success was on soft ground he has won on quicker surfaces as well and was traveling well enough before tipping up at the festival last month. His poor earlier form this season can hopefully be put behind him via the wind operation he had in December, and although no good thing, he is just that bit too tempting to ignore at a double figure price.
Ok so we have to cover one handicap in depth even if it wouldn’t normally be a race of choice for me. Just the two winning favourites in the last ten years tells its own story with 50/1 winner Maggio in 2016 lengthening the average price considerably, but we still have a heady mix of in form options plus a few that haven’t been seen on a track in a very long time. Happygolucky may well have won the Ultima Chase at Cheltenham barring a couple of jumping errors and an added two pounds from the handicapper does look pretty generous, though his better form has been with cut in the ground, and I am wary it may be riding nearer to good by the off time. He does look the one to beat to be fair, but 7/2 seems short enough and I have decided to delve a little deeper in to the stats in the hope of a helping hand. In the last 9 runnings (no racing last year if you remember), only two horses have carried over eleven stone to success and if that is continued, we can lose nine of the fifteen runners – if only life was so easy. Only two have been aged over nine (losing Kilfilun Cross), while only one had been off the track for more than 90 days which puts a line through Johnbb. Nothing has won who was pulled up last time out (one less to worry about), and that leaves me with just the three horses (Hold The Note, Snow Leopardess, and Calipso Collonges), and of those, I will pick Hold The Note for the placepot and play them all in forecasts for a bit of fun.
The big one. As mentioned earlier, not a race I do well in, and one that frankly scares the living daylights out of me with the risk of any high profile casualties and the harm that will do to racing’s image with so many tuning in to watch from around the world, and after the Gordon Elliott debacle, we are all in the media spotlight. That said, I am not oblivious to the once a year punters who take a great interest in the race, so I will have a look and see if I can work out a horse or four in with a chance of success.
Cloth Cap (9/2) is most certainly a very worth favourite and well handicapped to boot having hacked up in the Bet365 Premier Chase at Kelso in early March after the weights were framed for this contest, meaning he gets in here off the same mark of 148. Now officially rated 162 he is a full stone well in at the weights and mightily hard to oppose for that reason, though 9/2 is plenty skinny enough for my liking. With a clear round he is by far the likeliest winner and makes my short list of four, with Milan Native (33/1) next on my radar. Jockey Jamie Codd’s lightest riding weight in the last twelve months has been ten stone eleven, yet he is sweating and dieting down to ten stone six to ride the eight-year-old. Surely that is a clue of some sort to his chances on his second start after a wind operation, and although his stamina is open to question, you can’t unsee something one you have spotted it and he must have some kind of chance.
My last two are both trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies, though to be fair he is invariably confident about his horse’s chances, making his comments extremely difficult to assess. Bristol De Mai (28/1) is the best horse in the race, fact, hence having to try and shoulder top-weight, but he has been kept fresh for this contest and has the form in the book to back up his handicap mark. A win at Haydock in the Betfair Chase showed he still has it even at the age of ten, while a second to an in-form Native River on heavy ground at Sandown was no disgrace in February. Rested since and avoiding Cheltenham, he is reported to be in fine form at home, but would be the first horse to carry eleven stone ten to victory in the last 23 years, which is as far back as my record go.
That said, records are made to be broken and I know they expect a big run from him, a remark that also applies to stable companion Ballyoptic (100/1) who could surprise a few at a huge price. No spring chicken at the age of eleven, he fell four out when in with a chance of a place at least in 2019 and is said to be at his peak at home in recent weeks, and with Sam Twiston-Davies on board a horse who has only fallen twice over fences (admittedly they were both here), he could give us a good run for our each way money if the racing Gods see fit to be on our side.
I never know whether it is a good thing or a bad one to have an affiliation to one or more yards as we all know head should rule heart when it comes to having a bet – but where is the fun in that. Everyone knows I have been friends with Nigel Twiston-Davies for years in a working capacity, and I also find him to be an interesting trainer and the best of company. As mentioned earlier he can be overly optimistic about his horses, but surely he is correct when he says he feels Super Six could be his best chance at the meeting. The winner of his first two National Hunt flat races, he finished a thirteen length fifth in the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham despite a troubled passage and may well have finished top three with a clear run.
Nigel has always thought highly of the son of Montmartre who gets six pounds from all of his rivals as a four-year-old, and at 10/1 or better I see him as rock solid each way value today. Balco Coastal caught the eye when hacking up at Kempton on the all-weather and looks a serious player here, while the Irish are represented by The Gossiper who fell in both point to points before an easy bumper win at Wexford suggested he could well take a hand in the finish in far better company.
Aintree Placepot – 5, 4, 5, 6, 11, 28
Super Six each way 6.20pm Aintree
Ballyoptic each way to very small stakes 5.15pm Aintree