Grand National 2017: Six of the best?
Our Will Hayler reports on the horses being most hotly touted by their trainers after the release of the Randox Health Grand National weights.
Blaklion: Will he be WT-D's Grand National mount this year?
More Of That
Given a particularly good mention by Jonjo O'Neill and AP McCoy and looks an interesting contender despite hit-and-miss profile since his success in the World/Stayers' Hurdle. Quite where he would have finished in the Irish Gold Cup on Sunday divided opinion (Katie Walsh said he "might have won" – Phil Smith said he thought he'd have been fifth – Jonjo himself split the difference), but the trainer was nevertheless delighted.
"There's no secret that he's had a lot of problems with his wind and he's had two operations now, but he's a good horse on his day," he said. "I wouldn't have trained a better one and that's the truth. I've always thought a lot of him but that run at Leopardstown was the first time I really felt happy for a long time. He hasn't been back for long but he seems okay and we might go for the Gold Cup first before Aintree although we haven't really talked about it.
"He's got class and I can just see him going well around Aintree, if we can get him there."
Having stated recently that Vicente was his main contender for this year's race, it was interesting to hear Paul Nicholls give a good mention too to Le Mercurey and the trainer said after he had chased home Native River in the Denman Chase at Newbury last Saturday, the horse's owners were left keen on an Aintree tilt, despite his rather haphazard record in big fields.
"He ran very well behind Native River and I hope he's learning with experience," said Nicholls. "He's improving and we might just find out that he was second to the Gold Cup winner on Saturday so we're going to let him take his chance."
Below-par when last seen on soft ground in the Welsh National at Chepstow, his previous effort when narrowly foiled by Native River (from whom he was getting 7lb) in the Hennessy looks better and better, even if the disappointment of getting pipped in that race still clearly weighs heavily on Neil Mulholland.
"You're always disappointed when you get beaten. We're competitive people," he said, when asked about the performance. "He jumps, he stays, and he's in very good form. He ticks a lot of the boxes that you need."
Poor Willy Twiston-Davies can't go anywhere without being asked if he is switching full-time to ride over jumps, and his comment on the matter was "I'm concentrating on the jumps for now and then in the summer I'll think about Flat racing again" but he was able to have a joke at his own expense after seeing Blaklion had been allotted 10-10 for the National. "At least I can do the weight," he dead-panned.
WT-D will first be aboard last season's RSA Chase winner in the Betfred National Trial at Haydock this Saturday and his dad, Nigel, admitted that expectations are high going into the weekend. "He's very much on course for Aintree and hopefully he'll be the hot favourite after Saturday," he said.
Vieux Lion Rouge
Whether Vieux Lion Rouge will be joining Blaklion in the Haydock line-up this weekend remains to be seen, with David Pipe painstakingly weighing up the pros and cons "It's a tough decision what to do," he said. "Obviously the handicapper has put him another 3lb to 149 and that means he's definitely in the National, so on this one occasion the trainer was happy with that, but he's in at Haydock off 146 and that's an option as I do want him to run somewhere. The other options are the usual races at Doncaster and Kelso. Where I don't know, but he'll run somewhere.
"He finished seventh last year in the race, but he was only seven last year and I think it's reasonable to think he might be a stronger horse now. Look – he hasn't always been the strongest finisher as a racehorse and yet in the Becher he really ground it out so hopefully that's a good sign. I think he'd have a serious chance."
Gordon Elliott rather pooped Aintree's party by ruling top-weight Outlander out of the race no sooner had he been confimed as top-weight, but I do wonder whether that might have been a mild fit of pique at seeing him being allotted 166, 2lb higher than his Irish mark, rather than being compressed down, as has been the case in this race in the past.
Another Elliott revelation came when he later said that "if I have my way, Empire Of Dirt will run in the Gold Cup next", rather flying in the face of post-race quotes after Sunday's Irish Gold Cup, in which a tilt at the Ryanair was suggested as being more likely.
Extracting information about Elliott's 14 National entries proved a rather tricky task, the trainer no doubt wanting to keep things reasonably guarded given that Gigginstown will no doubt have the final say, but we did manage to ascertain that he was particularly keen on the prospects of Don Poli and Ucello Conti and that he'd already all but ruled out the race for Outlander, Lord Scoundrel, Tiger Roll and A Toi Phil, while in one of the worst video interviews I've ever done, I did at least manage to extract the information that Cause Of Causes is likely to head back to the race via another spin around Cheltenham's cross-country fences.
But it was Ucello Conti, placed behind Vieux Lion Rouge in the Becher, who kept getting favourable mentions despite the media interviews starting to grate on the trainer's patience. "You'd have to say he's got a decent-looking weight there and he'd jump round all day," was Elliott's take. It's worth pointing out though that Elliott is also looking at the Irish Grand National – nine days after Aintree this year – as an alternative option for a number of his team. Lord Scoundrel is one definitely earmarked for that race. At the moment, anyway. Given that he was last seen heading into a hotel bar over the road with Nigel and Willy Twiston-Davies, anything may have happened by now to the poor lad.