Thursday 6th April
Saphir’s are a Punters best friend
Grand National Preview 2017
I am having to look at the national a little further out than usual due to a poorly planned holiday which might even see me miss the race altogether! Nevertheless it has been a very strong race for us with Ballabriggs, Pineau de Re and Rule the World all winning at big prices in recent years so lets hope for more of the same. The concern is that any sort of going change could blow a selection out of the water but I am hopeful I have covered all bases.
Handicaps at Cheltenham recently followed a very distinctive pattern; generally the Irish won (7 out of 10) and more than ever horses are proving that it doesn’t matter what weight you give them they are still capable of winning;
Ultima Handicap - Un Temps or Tout - Top Weight (1 out of 24)
Coral Cup - Supasundae (6 out of 24)
Pertemps - Presenting Percy (2 out of 24)
Kim Muir - Pendra - should have won - got mugged on the line (1 out 24)
County - Arctic Fire - (1 out of 24)
Grand Annual - Rock the World (4 out of 24)
The conclusion to draw from the sample above is that in the most competitive and most sought after Handicaps in British Racing the winners this season have had to shoulder a fair amount of weight and their class has won the day. Arctic Fire put up an incredible performance in winning the County. He was giving 6 pounds to the horse that finished second and that horse (l’ami serge) was second top weight. He was giving the third horse nearly two stone!! My feeling is that the quality in handicaps is significantly rising. I suppose prize money plays a big factor; Brain Power scooped more money by winning the Ladbroke Hurdle at Ascot than he would have done if he had finished second in the Champion Hurdle. Arctic Fire, by winning the County, snaffled more than had he have finished third in the Champion Hurdle. Secondly some stables and owners have so many good horses that they have to try and split them up and as such horses who should be running in the top races are diverted to handicaps and L’ami Serge (a prime examine of this) illustrated what is possible by running a great race under a big weight when second to Arctic Fire.
Looking at the Grand National (a handicap) it is important to remember this rise in class. Last year 19 of the 39 runners were rated over 150. Compare that to 5 in 2006 and 8 in 2014. There is a momentum shift; the quality of horses running in the National are of the top class. Whereas in the past there were a lot of seasoned handicappers, now we have horses running good trials in the Gold cup! Many Clouds won carrying second top weight so we have to be careful discounting horses with big weights (this is frustrating as the National had shaped into a very stat driven race where only about 10 horses had a real chance - that is no longer the case).
I have a pretty strict criteria for whittling down candidates for the Grand National and Vicente continued to tick every box. Annoyingly (to some extent) he is subject to a lot of support this week having been about 40/1 last week he is now best priced 25/1. There is good reason for this support; He won the Scottish National last year over 4 miles and ran a good race behind Midnight Prayer in the 4 Miler at Cheltenham a few years ago so the trip will be no problem. The fact he beat serial National placer Alvarado is even more encouraging. He is trained by Paul Nicholls who is desperate to scoop this pot to beat Nicky Henderson to the trainers title and more interestingly he has just been bought but the one owner to follow at Aintree - Trevor Hemmings. This is very significant as he loves targeting the national and has won it three times since 2005. Given the loss of Many Clouds this year this would be a very popular winner. Vicente is a pretty lightly raced 8 year old and looks primed to go well off what looks a very low mark.
2. Saphir Du Rheu
Saphir Du Rheu would have been my handicap nap at the festival had he opted for that route. Instead he took his chance in a grade 1 and illustrated the promise he has long threatened to. The Cheltenham Gold Cup has proved a good prep race for horses in the Grand National with both Hedgehunter and Many Clouds running well before following up at Aintree with a corking effort. Sapphire Du Rheu ran an eye-catching race up with the pace travelling nicely alongside the best staying chasers around. That cruising speed and ability to jump and travel is exactly what is needed in the Grand National. His question mark is clearly stamina as he has never raced over further than the Gold Cup trip but that can be levelled at many winners at Aintree however I think he is a really forgotten horse. He has finished second in a World Hurdle and he won the Mildmay (grade 1) at this meeting two years ago. He again has been spotted in the market but the current 20/1 seems very fair and despite carrying a fair bit of weight as aforementioned class seems to be rising to the top in this race.
3. The Young Master
This horse could well be named after its trainer as Neil Mulholland is a very shrewd operator who must have been cursing when the Druids Nephew pitched on landing when going so well in the National a few years ago. That run came after his impressive victory in the Ultima Handicap at Cheltenham a few weeks earlier. Stablemate The Young Master couldn’t match that effort this year but ran a mightily impressive race back in 5th. The race was clearly a prep run for Aintree and his strong finish indicates he is well primed for a tilt at the big prize. His win in the Bet365 Gofd cup over 3mile 5f last season illustrates he has plenty of stamina for this marathon test. The only snag might be that he fell over these fences when getting tired in the Becher, however I feel it is fair to conclude that he wasn’t fully wound up on his seasonal appearance. I hope he races a little more prominently than usual and if he does he rates a good bet at 20/1
4. Rogue Angel
And now for the Irish selections…Rogue Angel has won a Kerry National and last years Irish National. This form in big field handicaps is strong (he beat Rule the World in the Kerry National). In the Irish National he front ran and was not for the catching. If he is able to be up with the pace rather than sit midfield as he did in the Becher he represents definite EW value at 33/1 for the same connections as last years winner. He will be carrying virtually bottom weight too (needs one to come out to get in) and is also worth a more serious investment if the ground did come up on the soft side.
5. Ucello Conti
Ucello Conti is probably the safest bet of all. He was 6th in this race last year and but for two very serious mistakes he would certainly have been closer. He has since been back to Aintree running a cracker when 4th in the Becher over the National fences. It is debatable whether he can come back and get the job done this time but he has experience on his side now and given the season that Gordon Elliot has had you just wouldn’t be surprised if he scooped this big prize to go along with his Cheltenham heroics. Despite Ucello Conti’s decent record here he is running off only 3 pound higher than last year and whilst it could be argued he will definitely need to have improved, his second in the Thyestes indicates he probably has and I would fully expect him to be there or thereabouts.
There are 3 British Handicappers who I really like too. They don’t really fit my criteria and as such I haven’t put them up as selections. However I may well have a little flutter at big prices on the exchanges. That sentence doesn't apply to Definitely Red who is only about 14/1 now but he has really impressed me all season. I have constantly talked about the form that ties him / Bristol de Mai and Otago Trail as worth following but he took that to a new level with his recent win. I like him but will pass given he has no proven form over longer trips. The same applies to Double Shuffle and Ziga Boy but they are both 50/1 and have shown pieces of form in handicaps which make them worth keeping an eye on. Ziga Boy is presumed to be a Doncaster specialist and that may well be true given 3 of his 5 wins have come there. However if the ground is on the good side he looks very talented jumping out up front and given that being up with the pace is crucial I would say he could be a good back to lay in running. Double Shuffle I still feel is underestimated by the handicapper and whilst this is probably not the race to steam into him 50/1 seems a very generous price about a horse who looks like a big prize is just round the corner for him.