Jonjo O’Neill’s Holywell, a respectable fourth behind Coneygree in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, has been installed as the 7-4 favourite for the Aintree Bowl on Thursday.
The eight-year-old will be having only his fourth race of the season and usually thrives at this time of year. All seven of his career victories have come between January and April including a very impressive win in last season’s Grade 1 Mildmay Novices’ Chase.
He earned some single-figure quotes for the Gold Cup after trouncing Don Cossack by ten lengths under Tony McCoy. The runner-up won his first four starts this season before finishing third in the Ryanair Gold Cup while Hennessy winner Many Clouds was well beaten. The form was reversed by Oliver Sherwood’s gelding at Carlisle in November and Holywell unseated Richie McLernon here the following month.
O’Neill gave him a break after that and he reappeared to win unchallenged in a minor race at Kelso before running at the festival. He was still in contention three from home but could not quicken, possibly the soft ground having just gone against him. He should enjoy perfect conditions at Aintree on Thursday where he renews rivalry with disappointing Gold Cup favourite Silviniaco Conti.
The Paul Nicholls-trained gelding was strongly fancied after winning the King George VI Chase at Kempton for a second time in December. The Ditcheat trainer had no real explanation for his poor run at the festival where he faded to finish seventh. He was fourth in the Gold Cup last year before bouncing back with a victory in this race.
Don Cossack could also take on Holywell again on Thursday while Nicky Henderson may run Ma Filleule, a fine second in the Ryanair behind Uxizandre. The grey mare won over the big Aintree fences in last year’s Topham Chase and was third over the Mildmay course in December.
Menorah was runner-up to First Lieutenant in this race in 2013 but only fifth last year behind Silviniaco Conti. He has not raced since being well beaten at Kempton on Boxing Day but usually runs well fresh. Smad Place is also on a retrieval mission after finishing only eighth in the Gold Cup for Alan King.
Willie Mullins has entered Champagne Fever, a late withdrawal from Cheltenham after being bitten by a stable companion during the journey from Ireland. He has an alternative engagement in Friday’s Melling Chase, the likely target of Al Ferof and Cue Card.
17-year-old conditional jockey Sean Bowen has been confirmed as the rider of 33-1 outsider Mon Parrain for Paul Nicholls in the Aintree Grand National.
Bowen went into Saturday’s Haydock card needing one more chase winner before Monday’s deadline to qualify to ride in the race. After timing his run to perfection to win on Southfield Vic in the handicap hurdle, he was full of confidence riding the favourite Virak in the three-mile handicap chase. He led with two to jump and kept his mount up to his work to win by six lengths. The youngster was still not finished for the day as he completed a treble aboard Red Six for his father, Peter, in the closing bumper.
The victory enabled Nicholls to finalise his Grand National plans with Sam Twiston-Davies riding Rocky Creek, Noel Fehily partnering Unioniste and Ryan Mahon aboard Rebel Rebellion. Sam Winner and Benvolio will miss Aintree but may contest the Scottish National if conditions are deemed suitable. Bowen will be attempting to equal the record of being the youngest ever winning rider in the Grand National, set by Bruce Hobbs on Battleship in 1938.
Mon Parrain is a French-bred son of Arc winner Trempolino and went on many short-lists for the National after a fine display of jumping in the Topham Chase in 2011. He looked set to land a gamble under Ruby Walsh until being pegged back on the run-in by Always Waining. Ironically the winner was trained by Peter Bowen and would go on to create history by winning the race for the third successive year in 2012.
Mon Parrain’s only two victories since have both come at Cheltenham, most recently on New Year’s Day when ridden by Bowen. The gelding wore blinkers for the first time when holding off Our Father to win by a length. He reappeared in the Grimthorpe Chase at Doncaster in February but weakened in the closing stages behind Wayward Prince, eventually finishing fifth. Connections are hopeful that the big fences may bring about some improvement.
2009 Grand National winning jockey Liam Treadwell has been booked to ride Monbeg Dude for Michael Scudamore. Treadwell stunned punters when storming home on 100-1 shot Mon Mome but he will have plenty of supporters on Saturday. Monbeg Dude finished seventh last year after receiving some special schooling from Zara Phillips. The gelding is part-owned by her husband, Mike Tindall, the former England Rugby World Cup-winning captain.
Katie Walsh rode 20-1 outsider Thunder And Roses to victory in the Irish Grand National on Monday but is not certain to have a ride at Aintree on Saturday. She came very close to winning the Grand National on Seabass finishing third in 2012.
Walsh has been provisionally booked to partner Broadway Buffalo for David Pipe but the gelding needs five to drop out above him if he is to sneak in. Pipe was relieved to see Soll make it safely into the top forty but must wait to see whether Broadway Buffalo or The Package are able to join him.
The Irish National proved to be a minefield for punters with the first four home returned at 20-1, 20-1, 40-1 and 50-1. Hopes that Tony McCoy could win the race on his final ride were dashed when Cantlow weakened in the home straight to finish sixth.
Thunder And Roses is trained by Sandra Hughes who took over the yard following the death of her father, Dessie, in November last year. She also has an entry on the fringes of the National field with Raz De Maree, runner-up in the Midlands Grand National last time out. Raz De Maree has not won since 2012 when his three victories included the Munster National. The ten-year-old needs three more to come out if Hughes is to have a chance at a remarkable National double.
Thunder And Roses carries the colours of Gigginstown House Stud who also own the runner-up and the fourth at Fairyhouse. Their hopes of adding the Aintree National to the Irish equivalent rest with First Lieutenant, trained by Mouse Morris.
Morris believes that First Lieutenant is his best chance so far of winning the race having once been considered a live Gold Cup contender. He will be ridden by Nina Carberry and the stable must have been delighted with the performances of Rule The World and Band Of Blood, second and fourth at Fairyhouse.
Carberry has come in for the ride owing to Bryan Cooper’s whip suspension incurred at the Cheltenham festival last month. She has ridden in four times previously in the big race, her best being seventh place on Character Building in 2010.
Perhaps the most significant withdrawal at the latest declaration stage was Nicky Henderson’s Hadrian’s Approach. His absence means that the Lambourn trainer must wait at least another year to end his long wait for a National winner. He was second with Zongalero in 1979 but the National remains one of the few top races to elude him.
Leading Irish trainer Willie Mullins dominated the Cheltenham festival last month with a record eight winners. He is sending another strong team across the Irish Sea this week, although only Un De Sceaux is attempting to complete the Cheltenham/Aintree double.
The impressive Arkle Chase winner is expected to line up for the Grade 1 Maghull Novices’ Chase on Saturday. Un De Sceaux was such an easy winner at Cheltenham that he is already as short as 5-4 favourite for next year’s Champion Chase.
Mullins will be represented in Thursday’s Aintree Hurdle by Champion Hurdle runner-up Arctic Fire. The six-year-old ran on strongly from the last flight but could not catch stablemate Faugheen, eventually going down by a length and a half. That was certainly the best run of his career to date but this will be his first attempt at two and a half miles.
He will face two previous Champion Hurdle winners in Rock On Ruby and Jezki. Rock On Ruby missed the festival after scoping badly prior to his intended run in the World Hurdle. He has finished runner-up in the Aintree Hurdle for the past two seasons, failing by only a head to catch The New One last year. Jezki finished behind Arctic Fire in fourth when attempting to defend his Champion Hurdle crown last month.
Champagne Fever is favourite for the Grade 1 Melling Chase on Friday. The grey was forced to miss Cheltenham in bizarre circumstances after being bitten by a stable companion during his journey over from Ireland. His festival target had been the Queen Mother Champion Chase following a fine display of jumping at Gowran Park in February.
Although he has appeared at three Cheltenham festivals, this will be his first run at Liverpool. Mullins has tried the gelding over various distances including the three-mile King George VI Chase at Kempton but two and a half miles could prove to be his best trip.
In 2005 Mullins saddled Hedgehunter to win the Grand National and that horse went on to finish second in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the National the following season. Mullins hopes of recording a second Grand National victory rest with 25-1 outsider Ballycasey.
The eight-year-old was second in the Grade 1 Champion Novice Chase to Carlingford Lough last season and won next time out at Gowran Park. His form has not been so encouraging since and he was pulled up before three out in the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham festival. Mullins believes that the better ground will suit Ballycasey and Ruby Walsh will be seeking a third National victory after Papillon (2000) and Hedgehunter.
One of the key moments of last year’s Grand National was after the 16th fence when clear leader Across The Bay was carried across the course by a loose horse. Jockey Henry Brooke was powerless to prevent the incident and the pair eventually completed the race in 14th place.
Up until the incident, Donald McCain’s gelding had jumped superbly in front and Brooke was delighted to have him settled into a nice rhythm. It was too early in the race to say what might have been but Across The Bay and Brooke are to be re-united again this year.
The son of Bob’s Return has always had a touch of class and won the Grade 2 Rendlesham Hurdle at Haydock in 2013 prior to his first tilt at the National fences. Remarkably, he suffered very similar interference at the same stage of the race that year, except Brooke was able to drive him back to the front again soon after.
He did not surrender the lead until four from home before weakening back through the field. He completed a circuit of the National course again in the Becher Chase in December that year and won The Last Fling Chase at Haydock.
He has not troubled the judge in four starts since last year’s Aintree mishap but appeared to be travelling well when brought down at the Cheltenham festival last month. Brooke has not ridden the horse since last year’s National but will be hoping for an overdue change of luck on April 11th.
Donald McCain’s retained rider Jason Maguire has not recovered from injury in time so stable companion Corrin Wood will be ridden by Wilson Renwick. The grey was a high class novice, winning at Market Rasen, Catterick and Warwick in 2013. He was officially rated 156 after beating Black Thunder with a brave front-running performance in heavy ground.
He ran disappointingly in the RSA Chase and is yet to recapture his best form. He pulled muscles when a beaten favourite at Haydock in January but has been pleasing McCain in his recent work. His handicap mark has now slipped back to 144 and he could bely his current odds of 66-1.
The Cheshire-based trainer emulated his famous father when saddling Ballabriggs to win the National in 2011. His stable will forever be associated with the legendary three-time National winner Red Rum who won the race in 1973, 1974 and 1977. Ginger McCain added a fourth National winner with Amberleigh House in 2004.
David Pipe trained Comply Or Die to win the Grand National in 2008 and the same horse finished runner-up the following year behind Mon Mome. The Nicholashayne Trainer looks as though he could have another leading contender on his hands this year with Soll.
The ten-year-old is one of four entries from the stable but looks to have the best chance of making the cut. He is currently at 49 in the handicap and needs just nine to come out above him. Stable companions The Package (52), Broadway Buffalo (53) and Standing Ovation (69) are all fit and ready to run, should they sneak in at the foot of the weights.
Soll has been with three other trainers before arriving at Pipe’s Devon yard last summer. He began his career with John Quinn in Ireland before joining the powerful Willie Mullins stable. He ran in the four-mile National Hunt Chase at the Cheltenham festival in 2012 but was brought down.
He did not really come into his own until joining Jo Hughes where a victory at Sandown in 2013 earned him a place in the Grand National field. He made a mistake at Valentines second time around before weakening into seventh place behind Auroras Encore. He was back at Aintree last year for the Topham Chase but was hampered at the Canal Turn before staying on to finish eleventh.
Soll has won both of his races since joining Pipe. He beat Grand National rival Rebel Rebellion by four lengths at Exeter in February and then survived a blunder to win at Newbury. Both races were restricted to horses of ten years or older and Pineau De Re had won the Exeter race before winning the National last season. Soll wore blinkers for the first time at Newbury, a ploy used successfully with Comply Or Die in his National preparation.
The Package and Broadway Buffalo both ran well at the Cheltenham festival and connections will be anxiously awaiting news of the final declarations. The Package is no stranger to Aintree having completed the course in twelfth place last year. He unseated his rider at the 19th fence in 2010 when still in contention and showed his best form for some time when winning the Kim Muir. He also wore blinkers for the first time that day while the headgear is also fitted to Broadway Buffalo.
He made a couple of crucial mistakes under Katie Walsh but ran on well to finish second in the National Hunt Chase. Soll has been one of the best backed horses in recent weeks and is 16-1 while The Package is 33-1 and Broadway Buffalo 50-1.
Jockey Paul Moloney is one of the unsung heroes of the Grand National with a remarkable record of having been placed in the race for the last six seasons. It is a record that he shares with the owners, Angela and William Rucker.
Their unique Aintree story started in 2009 when State Of Play finished fourth behind 100-1 winner Mon Mome. State Of Play had shown his class when winning the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury in 2006 and the Grade 2 Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby in 2008.
Trainer Evan Williams set about training the son of Hernando for the Grand National every season after that run. In fact, three of his four subsequent races were in the National. In 2010 he finished third to Don’t Push It and the following year he was fourth to Ballabriggs.
When he made his final appearance at Aintree in 2012, Moloney reluctantly passed him over in favour of his better-fancied stable companion Cappa Bleu. Noel Fehily took over on State Of Play but was unseated at the fifth fence while Cappa Bleu was hampered at the seventh but recovered to finish fourth.
The sequence was extended to five the following season when Cappa Bleu ran on well to finish runner-up to Auroras Encore. Unfortunately the horse was injured in the build-up to last year’s race and the responsibility was passed on to Alvarado, trained by Fergal O’Brien. The chestnut had won at Cheltenham in 2013 but had managed just one race in preparation for Aintree, pulling up behind Mendip Express on New Year’s Day. Starting at odds of 33-1, he ran on into fourth place behind Pineau de Re.
While Moloney seems to be able to routinely jump around the National course, he did confess to a change of plan last year after a false start. Alvarado had gone off at a rate of knots and it was all Moloney could do to prevent him from jumping the first. He hastily changed tactics to drop him in and believes that is why he was able to snatch fourth place last year.
O’Brien has followed a similar path to Aintree this year with Alvarado finishing fifth at Doncaster in February. He has been kept ticking over at his Gloucestershire stable and is a well-backed 20-1 shot for this year’s race.
Despite his fine record, Moloney has never really looked like winning the National. With the exception of State Of Play who was still in contention at the last in 2009, all of his rides have been running on for a place. If Alvarado does the same this year, he will be greeted as if he has just won the race.
Champion jockey Tony McCoy has virtually committed himself to riding Shutthefrontdoor in his last ever Grand National.
The horse has been the subject of a nationwide gamble ever since McCoy announced that he would be retiring at the end of this season. McCoy also raised the prospect of hanging up his riding boots immediately if Shutthefrontdoor passes the post in front on April 11th.
There had been speculation that Cheltenham festival scorer Cause Of Causes, also owned by JP McManus, could be a surprise switch for McCoy but that now seems highly unlikely. McCoy would only ride that horse if something happened to the favourite between now and Aintree.
Shutthefrontdoor is generally available at 8-1, although some firms are now quoting as low as 6-1 about the eight-year-old. The son of Accordion has not run since winning by eight lengths at Carlisle in November but he has been trained specifically for the National by Jonjo O’Neill.
He ended his first season over fences by winning the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse in the hands of Barry Geraghty. He was racing off an official rating of 142 that day, receiving 4lbs from Cause Of Causes who finished back in twelfth place. He is set to concede 7lbs to Gordon Elliott’s runner in the National and is now 11lbs higher in the ratings.
Although Shutthefrontdoor won three times over hurdles and was fourth at the Cheltenham festival, his future always looked to be over fences. He made a winning debut over the Mildmay fences at Aintree in October 2013 but was beaten twice in the run up to Cheltenham. O’Neill trained him for the four-mile National Hunt Chase but he made some crucial mistakes late in the race and had to settle for sixth place behind Midnight Prayer.
Geraghty kept him closer to the pace at Fairyhouse and his jumping was much better, responding gamely to pressure to beat Golden Wonder by three-quarters of a length in a driving finish. Despite his lengthy absence from the track, Shutthefrontdoor impressed McCoy over eight fences at Southwell last week when schooled with stable companion Merry King.
McCoy has ruled out riding at the Punchestown Festival and has indicated that Sandown’s closing fixture of the National Hunt season is likely to be his swansong. They have named the valuable Celebration Chase in his honour this year so it seems an appropriate way to finish his remarkable career. Only a fairy-tale winning ride in the Grand National would persuade McCoy to retire during Aintree.
Hennessy Gold Cup winner Many Clouds is set to take his chance in the Grand National on April 11th.
The gelding’s participation had been in doubt since he finished a disappointing sixth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup but Trainer Oliver Sherwood has confirmed that he will start at Aintree. The son of Cloudings will attempt to give owner Trevor Hemmings a third Grand National victory following Hedgehunter (2005) and Ballabriggs (2011).
Last year’s winning rider Leighton Aspell will partner Many Clouds with Daryl Jacob taking over on Pineau De Re for Dr Richard Newland. Jacob rode Pineau De Re in a hurdle race earlier this season and won the National aboard Neptune Collonges for Paul Nicholls in 2012.
Many Clouds was regarded by many as a live Gold Cup contender after his victory over Smad Place in a Grade 2 Chase at Cheltenham in January. He was conceding 8lbs to the runner-up that day and had Dynaste and The Giant Bolster in third and fourth place. The softened ground at Prestbury Park ought to have suited Many Clouds in the Gold Cup but he lost his position with three to jump before staying on into a moderate sixth behind Coneygree.
He is set to race off a mark of 160 at Aintree, 9lbs higher than when successful at Newbury in November. His Hennessy victims included Monbeg Dude (4th), Unioniste (6th) and Rocky Creek (pulled up). Hemmings has always believed that it is possible to run in both the Gold Cup and the National in the same season and the recent work of Many Clouds has persuaded connections to let him take his chance. Hennessy winners have a poor record in the Grand National, although Suny Bay (1997), Whats Up Boys (2001) and State Of Play (2006) all went on to be placed at Aintree.
Newland moved quickly to secure the services of Jacob, once it became clear that Aspell would not be available. Pineau De Re was having his first start of the season when Jacob rode him at Cheltenham in November. He beat only one home that day and was pulled up next time at Carlisle. There were signs of encouragement at Exeter next time and his most recent run at the Cheltenham festival delighted connections. He held a good position until fading to finish eleventh of 23 in the Pertemps Hurdle Final.
When he returns to Aintree, it will be the first time that he has jumped a fence in public since his moment of glory a year ago. It is an increasingly popular method for preparing a horse for the National, successfully employed by Jonjo O’Neill with Don’t Push It. He was pulled up in the Pertemps Final at Cheltenham in 2010 before winning the National. The following season he finished tenth in the same race at the festival and third at Aintree.
Thirteen horses were taken out at the latest declaration stage for the 2015 Grand National at Aintree on April 11th.
There were no major surprises with Carlingford Lough, Alderwood, Shotgun Paddy, Boston Bob and Prince De Beauchene the most high profile absentees. 2014 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Lord Windermere still tops the weights for Jim Culloty but the trainer will be looking for a new jockey, should the gelding take his chance.
Davy Russell revealed last week that Culloty had informed him that he would no longer be asked to ride Lord Windermere after his disappointing run in this year’s Cheltenham showpiece. The gelding trailed the field before being pulled up before the second last. Connections initially blamed the softer ground for his poor showing. Russell would not have been able to partner Lord Windermere in any case, having broken his arm in a terrible fall at Gowran Park last weekend. He is likely to be out for several weeks.
Another jockey set to miss the National through injury is Barry Geraghty who suffered a hairline fracture to his left tibia in a fall at Downpatrick. He had been in line to partner either Hadrian’s Approach for Nicky Henderson or the strongly-fancied The Druids Nephew for Neil Mulholland. Gigginstown House Stud’s retained jockey Bryan Cooper also misses Aintree due to a suspension incurred at Cheltenham.
Rolling Aces was the only one of seven Paul Nicholls-trained horses to be withdrawn with the Ditcheat trainer in the process of finalising riding arrangements. Sam Twiston-Davies will ride Rocky Creek, Noel Fehily will be aboard Unioniste and Nick Scholfield will partner Sam Winner. Ryan Mahon has been booked for the ride on recent Newbury winner Rebel Rebellion with Sean Bowen needing one more chase winner before he can partner Mon Parrain. Benvolio completes the Nicholls sextet and no jockey has yet been confirmed for the Welsh National runner-up.
With a maximum field of 40, those requiring further withdrawals include Fergal O’Brien’s Alvarado who was fourth last year for Mr and Mrs William Rucker. His gallant run extended a remarkable sequence of placed horses in the race for his owners. State Of Play and Cappa Bleu had kept the colours in the frame for the previous five years. The chestnut has only raced once this season when finishing fifth at Doncaster in February but O’Brien is happy with his progress. His last run prior to last year’s National was when pulling up at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day.
Irish trainer Mouse Morris saddled Lastofthebrownies to finish fourth behind Little Polveir in the Grand National way back in 1989. The following year he finished fifth behind Mr Frisk and the trainer has never really had a leading contender since.
Morris will forever be associated with the likes of Buck House, Cahervillahow, Trapper John and 2006 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner War Of Attrition. The latter was owned by Gigginstown House Stud and missed the National through injury but the trainer is hopeful of a bold run from the classy First Lieutenant in the same colours next month.
The ten-year-old has won seven of his 31 races but Morris is convinced that he is saving a bit for himself as he gets older. He ran him over hurdles at Thurles earlier this month where he jumped big in the lead before fading into third place. He raced without his usual cheek pieces that day but they will be restored at Aintree. Jockey plans are yet to be finalised but three of his regular pilots are already ruled out of the meeting. Davy Russell and Barry Geraghty are injured while Bryan Cooper is suspended.
First Lieutenant was a top class novice hurdler and won the Neptune at the Cheltenham Festival in 2011 by a short-head from Rock On Ruby. While the runner-up went on to win a Champion Hurdle, First Lieutenant’s future lay over fences. The following year he was back at the festival to chase home Bobs Worth in the RSA Chase.
He finished third behind the same horse in the Hennessy Gold Cup the following season but missed the Gold Cup in favour of the shorter Ryanair Chase. He again had to settle for second place, this time finding Cue Card much too good. He won the Grade 1 Aintree Bowl in 2013 but that was his last victory.
He ran in the same race last year but finished only fourth behind Silviniaco Conti. Morris tried him in blinkers at Punchestown where he was beaten by Boston Bob but the headgear was abandoned after a lack-lustre display at Down Royal in November.
First Lieutenant was rated as high as 170 at the peak of his powers but races off 154 in the National. He has won on all types of ground but would probably want good ground if he is to stay the marathon trip. Paddy Power are currently offering a top price of 50-1 about the son of Presenting winning on April 11th.
When Neptune Collonges won the photo-finish for the 2012 Grand National, the grey fulfilled a life-long ambition for trainer Paul Nicholls. He was the 53rd horse from the Ditcheat stable to run in the race and the winning margin of a nose was the shortest in National history.
Nicholls is optimistic that it won’t be his only Grand National triumph and he could have several live chances this season, led by Rocky Creek. The nine-year-old had an interrupted preparation last year but gained valuable experience in finishing fifth behind Pineau De Re.
Rocky Creek began this season by chasing home subsequent Cheltenham Gold Cup third Road To Riches at Down Royal in a Grade 1 contest. He was fancied to improve on last season’s second in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury in November but ran disappointingly and was pulled up. He was given a break and brought back for the Grade 3 BetBright Chase at Kempton in February where he readily beat Le Reve by six lengths.
There has been plenty of interest in Unioniste in the ante-post market since the grey won impressively at Sandown in January. He landed a big gamble when beating Bertie Boru by ten lengths and Nicholls has aimed him at Aintree ever since. He performed with credit when third to Gold Cup winner Coneygree at Newbury last month, staying on well in the closing stages. He races in the same colours as Neptune Collonges but may need soft ground to show his best form.
Sam Winner is another high-class chaser but he needs to bounce back from a disappointing run in the Gold Cup. He was entitled to run well there after finishing third in the Grade 1 Lexus Chase over Christmas but was eventually pulled up by Sam Twiston-Davies.
Ten-year-old Rebel Rebellion earned a quote of 33-1 for the National with a game success at Newbury last weekend. Nicholls had originally intended running the gelding in the Topham Chase but is now leaning towards a National bid after he beat Pepite Rose by a length. Jack Sherwood was in the saddle at Newbury but Ryan Mahon is likely to take the ride at Aintree.
Nicholls also has Rolling Aces, Mon Parrain and Benvolio still entered in the Grand National. Rolling Aces was placed three times at Aintree last year including finishing fourth over the National fences in the Grand Sefton in December.