Alex Hammond: Grand claims

Sky Sports News HQ's Alex Hammond fancies a Grand National contender to emerge at Haydock Park this weekend.

Blaklion is Alex's fancy for Haydock's Grand National Trial

Two well-handicapped horses dominated the Betfair Hurdle. Can you see either making their mark at a higher level at the Cheltenham Festival or would you stick to handicaps?

They may both have been well handicapped, but I've no doubt they are also very classy too and I'll eat my Cheltenham Festival hat if they don't turn out to be better than handicappers. You don't see Betfair Hurdle's being won by middle of the road horses and these two smart novices should go on and make their mark in graded company at one or more of the spring festivals.

Movewiththetimes was my selection on Saturday, so obviously I was disappointed to see him beaten by Ballyandy, but he didn't lose much in defeat and he's a work in progress. The Paul Nicholls trained horse almost emulated Zarkandar who won this Newbury contest in 2012 for the stable and went on to great things and this horse is also held in very high regard. Saturday's start was only his fifth in his life and it will be interesting to see where he ends up at Cheltenham. This scrap will have stood him in good stead though and he will be more streetwise for the experience.

Ballyandy looks most likely to run in Tuesday's opener at the festival and he is now 8/1 with sponsors Sky Bet for the race. He has twice as much experience as the runner-up and already has a Cheltenham Champion Bumper to his name. As Nigel Twiston-Davies said after his win; the world is his oyster. Movewiththetimes is 12/1 for the Supreme and the same price for the Neptune. He is shorter for the County Hurdle if Nicholls decides he looks fairly handicapped; he's currently 8/1 for that. Sky Bet are non runner no bet for all Festival races, so nothing to lose.

It was a thrilling Irish Gold Cup but perhaps one which threw up more questions than answers. Ryanair for Sizing John or should connections dream big and go for gold?

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Well there has to be a doubt about Sizing John staying the extra couple of furlongs at Cheltenham, but there is only one Gold Cup. He has much stronger claims of winning a Ryanair though and that is reflected in his current odds; 12/1 for the Gold Cup and 5/1 for the shorter race (with Sky Bet). Sunday's battling win was his first try at 3 miles and he has some very classy form over 2 to 2 ½ miles. He has been unlucky to come up against Douvan over both hurdles and fences on many occasions and the Ryanair could be his chance to shine. Although the Gold Cup is a huge draw, it may be sensible to stay over a trip that we know he enjoys.

"He is in great hands to progress as a staying chaser, in fact there are few better trainers to have a National horse with and when 'Nige' has an unmistakable twinkle in his eye about a National horse you'd be a fool to dismiss it."

Did anything else catch your eye either at Leopardstown or Newbury last weekend?

Where to start? Well, the obvious one for me was Native River. Granted he wasn't doing anything out of turn by winning a three runner Denman Chase in which Bristol De Mai disappointed, but this is a horse that has barely put a foot wrong this season and the more I look at what he's achieved the more I see him as a major threat to his more illustrious stablemate Thistlecrack. He stays, jumps and is still only seven years old with six wins from 10 chasing starts. He's 4/1 to Thistlecrack's 7/4 and I know which I'd rather given his progression this term.

Now to a horse that didn't win, but I was pleased with what I saw from Bunk Off Early who finished runner up to his stablemate Bacardys in the Deloitte Novices Hurdle at Leopardstown on Sunday. Willie Mullins has a great record in the Supreme Novices' at Cheltenham and this horse may be a touch overlooked at 7/1 behind another Mullins trained horse Melon who is 7/2 favourite. The race on Sunday was over 2m 2f and he raced a bit too freely and was only reeled in by his patiently ridden stable companion. A strongly run race over 2 miles at Cheltenham should suit and he can run a big race.

Cue Card is due to line up in the Ascot Chase, a race he won in 2013, this weekend. What does he have to do to prove that he remains a live Gold Cup player?

Well even if he wins doing handsprings in Saturday's Grade One I'm afraid he's not for me in the Gold Cup. I fear his best chance of winning the Cheltenham blue riband was lost at the third last fence 11 months ago. May he call me a liar next month, but I couldn't have him on my mind at 7/1 for this year's race as an 11-year-old and with some exciting young horses in opposition. Saturday's race looks his for the taking though and it will be lovely to see Colin Tizzard's horse strut round without incident to add to his impressive CV, a race he also won four years ago on his only other start at the Berkshire track.

Finally, some grand old sticks are entered for the Grand National Trial. Where's your money going?

There are some grand old sticks, but it's a slightly younger stick that will carry my money in this extended 3 ½ mile handicap chase. Blaklion is only an eight-year-old, but he has achieved plenty so far in his career. Twenty starts have yielded eight wins and six places and he already has an RSA Chase to his name. The furthest trip he has run over is the 3m 2f he tackled when fifth in the Hennessy and I'm looking forward to seeing him run over this trip and beyond.

He heads the market for Saturday's race, but in such a competitive race I think he's backable and you might want to check out the 33/1 available with Sky Bet for the Grand National because he won't be that price at 3.30 on Saturday if all goes well at Haydock. He is in great hands to progress as a staying chaser, in fact there are few better trainers to have a National horse with than Nigel Twiston-Davies and when 'Nige' (as his boys call him) has an unmistakable twinkle in his eye about a National horse you'd be a fool to dismiss it.

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