Antepost Angle: Oh Vienna!
The Coral Welsh National features at Chepstow over Christmas and our antepost racing expert Matt Brocklebank has a 25/1 cracker.
Onenightinvienna (centre): Novice form from last season makes his chance in the Welsh National look obvious
The annual post-Christmas treat that is the Coral Welsh National remains as popular as ever and having attracted an 89-strong entry for 2016, it seems a bit of pity that the field size limit is just 20.
There's something about the Chepstow marathon that seems to continually capture the imagination of the National Hunt purist and whether it's the very nature of the gruelling test for man and beast, the tendency for popular old warriors to return for repeat attempts, or simply just its favourable slot in the racing calendar on a day otherwise reserved for family walks and sage and onion stuffing sandwiches (with the turkey all gone by the 27th), the names of past winners tend to remain etched in the memory.
Jenny Pitman bossed the race during the early '80s – think Corbiere and Burrough Hill Lad – and Martin Pipe remarkably sent out five winners in just six years between 1988 and 1993, including dual hero Bonanza Boy.
Paul Nicholls, Jonjo O'Neill and Nigel Twiston-Davies have all tasted Welsh National success on a couple of occasions before the more recent Lee-family domination took hold.
Richard Lee won with Le Beau Bai and Mountainous in 2011 and 2013 respectively, while Kerry Lee was responsible for the second success for Mountainous 12 months ago after she took over from her father at Bell House.
The popular Mountainous features among seven possibles from the yard this time around, though there's a chance only he and Bishops Road, one of Lee's other major flagbearers from last season, will be high enough in the handicap to make the final cut.
Much like the Grand National itself and various other top staying handicap chases throughout the season, the quality of the race looks to have gone up to another level in recent years and to put things into perspective there are no fewer than 11 horses entered up with a rating in excess of that of last year's top-weight Black Thunder (152).
The most obvious of which is the now 163-rated Native River, who, if given the go-ahead by trainer Colin Tizzard, will compete from a favourable mark of 159 having beaten Carole's Destrier by a comfortable half-length in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury since the Chepstow weights were first revealed.
Team Tizzard seemed cool on the idea of a deep winter slog over three miles, five furlongs and 110 yards in the immediate aftermath of the Hennessy, but the horse has obviously come out of the race bouncing and the opportunity to go again under a 4lb penalty could prove too hard to resist given the prize money on offer (£85,425 to the victor).
Native River would become only the third six-year-old winner in the race's history were he to triumph but the two previous examples came back-to-back quite recently in 2005 and 2006, while there has been a definite shift towards the younger stayers of late, with half of the past dozen heroes aged either six or seven.
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So with stamina assured – he was a staying-on second to Minella Rocco in the four-miler at Cheltenham last term, don't forget – along with a favourable mark and an ambitious handler who has taken his form to new levels this season, there aren't too many snags when addressing Native River as the 8/1 market leader.
One potential stumbling block, however, is enough to put me off and that's the strong possibility that he won't even turn up if the going becomes too testing.
Tizzard has stressed on several occasions now that bottomless ground is not ideal for his horse, whose only previous public outing on ground described as heavy resulted in his finishing a well-held third behind Blaklion at Wetherby in February.
It's been ridiculously dry for the time of year but things can change rapidly in south Wales and the last five renewals have all been contested in heavy conditions.
Until we know the ground Native River has got almost everything else in his favour, but another important factor to take into consideration is that he was evidently trained to the minute for Newbury and if connections are dreaming of Cheltenham Gold Cup and/or Grand National attempts later in the campaign then it's a very tall order to get him to peak again over Christmas.
One horse who may just have the Welsh Grand National labelled as 'his Gold Cup' this year is ONENIGHTINVIENNA and he looks dangerously well treated from a mark of 146 on several pieces of form, including that which ties in with Native River's Wetherby run.
Philip Hobbs' gelding – like so many from the yard – came through the point-to-point ranks but he was classy enough to win a bumper and he also recorded a couple of wins over hurdles, albeit at a relatively low level.
But he was always going to make a much better chaser and so it proved when he won at the first time of asking at Exeter last year. He went on to post a career-best second when giving 5lb to Blaklion over the extended three miles, one furlong at Cheltenham and that race has thrown up some classy performers.
The winner obviously went on to take the RSA Chase at the Festival, while the third Fletchers Flyer won a big staying handicap at Punchestown and the fourth Vicente landed the Scottish Grand National at Ayr. Subsequent National Hunt Chase hero Minella Rocco was pulled up, having been sent off the 5/2 favourite.
Onenightinvienna was then beaten a couple more times in warm company before a rather audacious tilt at the National, where he looked held before unseating Tom O'Brien at Becher's on the second circuit.
However, that Cheltenham novice form stands out in this sort of company and the seven-year-old showed the Aintree experience had left no lasting scars when winning a two-runner affair at Carlisle on his seasonal return last month.
He didn't win by far but was conceding 8lb to his sole rival, who had race-sharpness on his side having won at Kelso by 21 lengths in October, and this is basically a very uncomplicated stayer who jumps wonderfully well and is never going to look too flashy at the best of times.
It's the very fact that he's so straightforward that has contributed to the handicapper not getting too carried away with him and, at 25/1 with a couple of firms, looks potentially over-priced for a race Hobbs identified as the "obvious" target for the improving Onenightinvienna right at the start of the season.
Back towards the head of the betting Firebird Flyer makes a degree of appeal after his Haydock form was franked by Three Faces West at Newbury this week, while O'Faolains Boy and Unioniste are on good marks if they can be rekindled back their best by Rebecca Curtis and Nicholls respectively.
There's a strong Irish presence among those just below the top of the weights, including 2014 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Lord Windermere, Noel Meade's giant Wounded Warrior and Gordon Elliott-trained duo Empire Of Dirt and Ucello Conti.
They all have alternative engagements at Leopardstown over the Festive period so running plans are a little unclear but one potential Irish runner who must have a chance of being aimed towards Chepstow is Baie Des Iles.
Ross O'Sullivan's mare is only five but was chasing in France as a three-year-old and posted some excellent efforts last term, most notably when sixth to Rogue Angel in the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse.
She therefore has a bit of previous on the National circuit and could be of interest if lining up on the day if the ground is especially testing, but for now it's Onenightinvienna who looks the obvious one to get behind and rather than go double handed the temptation is to back him each-way.
Posted at 0915 on 15/12/2016
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