“Lucky boxers or no boxers?”
“Which brand of fake tan will best bring out my fake eyelashes?”
“Is it ok to be off my head on cider before the race starts?”
These are some of the questions that will occupy the minds of the crowd heading to Grand National Day at Aintree, but before the big race, the meeting starts on Thursday with some brilliant racing. Questions need to be answered, but they’ve got more to do with choice of horse rather than choice of underwear.
The first major question revolves around Big Buck’s and his historic domination of the staying hurdling ranks. The race kicks off a great three days of racing in real style. In each of his previous three World Hurdle wins he has followed up with a win in the Liverpool Hurdle and he’s red hot favourite to make it four in a row this time around. There will be some point in the future when his grip slips, but on the most recent evidence, it won’t happen at Aintree. Smad Place is considered the biggest danger to winning his 17th race in a row, but Nicholls’ champ had nearly nine lengths in hand over him in the World hurdle, so it’s going to take something special to deny him and these horses probably aren’t special enough.
The Juvenile Hurdle follows soon after and Countrywide Flame will be looking to build on his win in the Triumph Hurdle at the Festival. Grumeti disappointed many by not delivering when well-backed favourite for that race, but since that race is to favourites what winning the X Factor is to anyone hoping to have a prolonged career in the music industry, he deserves another chance. Pearl Swan may not have won the race, but his last hurdle tumble denied us the chance of seeing how close he was going to get. With the main players resuming rivalries, it looks like being a cracking race.
Plenty of people will be willing Hunt Ball on in the Betfred Bowl Chase, mainly in the hope of seeing another fantastically mental post-race interview with his owner Anthony Knott. As recently as last November the horse was battling it out in a Class 5 contest for less than £2,000, but after making stunning progress, he takes his chance in Grade 1 company against horses with more than one eye on next year’s Gold Cup. He’ll have his work cut out to beat proven chasing talent such as Ryanair Chase winner Riverside Theatre, Hennessy second Burton Port and the ultra-consistent What A Friend for Sir Alex Ferguson. He may not immediately strike you as being the most classy, but he’s gutsy and he’s improving. As Sir Alex well knows, they’re good qualities to have around this time of year.
Even at the point of the day when thoughts may turns to beating the traffic, Day 1 at Aintree oozes quality. The Hunter Chase is sprinkled with a fair share of high class performers, with Arkle and World Hurdle winner, My Way De Solzen arguably the most decorated runner in the field. Cloudy Lane and Gwanako are amongst the other runners to have tasted some high level racecourse success, but against a raft of high class runners from the hunter chasing scene, they may not get things all their own way.
Al Ferof had been spoken of as the main danger to Sprinter Sacre before the Arkle, but he was disappointingly distant in defeat. A nose-bag of amphetamine wouldn’t have got him ahead of Nicky Henderson’s star that day, but the manner and margin of the loss means he has some repair work to do on his reputation. The work begins with the Manifesto Novices’ Chase where Menorah and Cristal Bonus are the most high profile of his opposition.
Friday is another big day and not just because the fake tan needs to go on at some point. The newly crowned Champion Chaser, Finian’s Rainbow gets his first outing since the chaos of the last couple of Cheltenham furlongs. He goes for and will be expected to take the honours in the Melling Chase. On Saturday it’s not all about the National. Fresh after sucker punching Hurricane Fly in the Champion Hurdle, Rock On Ruby goes for the Aintree Hurdle a couple of hours before the National and with not much to separate a high quality field, it could every bit of a lottery as the main event.
As ever, the Grand National will hog centre stage, but the supporting cast is well worth keeping an eye on.