Welsh National Preview: Who will be crowned Chepstow King?

Can Jonjo register further big-race handicap success?
Can Jonjo register further big-race success?

Tony McFadden previews the Welsh Grand National and selects a horse at a double-figure price...

Merry King ran creditably in the Hennessy Gold Cup last time in spite of an uncharacteristically less-than-fluent round of jumping, sticking to his task well to finish fifth...

A combination of Christmas dinner, boxes of Roses from unimaginative friends and quantities of drink that would have Shane MacGowan in trouble can have a devastating impact on the waistline over the Festive period. However some of us - who have long given up on things in moderation - are more interested in stones and pounds for a different reason this year: the weights for the Welsh Grand National.

A difficult puzzle to solve at the best of times, this year's Welsh Grand National looks like an especially trappy affair due to the potential participation of Tidal Bay. With a BHA rating at least 10 lb superior to any other horse in the race, Tidal Bay's presence in the field would ensure that a number of interesting rivals have to race from out of the handicap. Conversely, should Paul Nicholls's veteran miss the race - he also holds an entry in the Lexus Chase, a race he famously won last year - the weights would rise significantly and there would be some well-treated stayers able to race off their correct marks.

At the time of writing, Tidal Bay, who has been solid in the Betfair market of late, trading at 23.022/1, looks more likely than not to run in the Welsh National. Runner-up in a strong renewal of the Hennessy Gold Cup last season off a mark of 166, Paul Nicholls has obviously been encouraged by the handicapper's decision to drop Tidal Bay to a rating of 163, and it is anticipated that the extreme test of stamina at Chepstow ought to see his veteran campaigner in a favourable light. He does, however, have to bounce back from a disappointing effort in the Betfair Chase last time, and, while he is well treated on the best of his form, it would be surprising were something less exposed not capable of finding the requisite improvement to get the better of him.

Richard Lee trained Le Beau Bai to land the Welsh Grand National two seasons ago and he looks to have another ideal type on his hands with Mountainous. Having got off the mark over fences at this specialist venue last season, Mountainous wasn't disgraced on his first two outings in handicap company, but it was on his final start of the campaign, in a heavy-ground three-mile race at Ffos Las, where he produced a performance that makes him of interest for this marathon test. Heavy ground at Ffos Las is just about as testing as it gets but Mountainous, despite idling in the closing stages, kept on to prevail, relishing the conditions and looking as if he will be suited by a trip in excess of three miles.
In just his second season over fences, Mountainous remains relatively lightly raced and he shaped well on his most recent start, despite circumstances being against him, when finishing third to De la Bech. The steadying of the pace mid-race almost certainly didn't play to the strengths of Mountainous, while the unseasonably good ground was another factor against a horse so effective in testing conditions. The dry winter and the prospect of the Welsh National taking place on a sound surface - a scarcely believable scenario most years - is a slight concern, but a greater issue is the presence of Tidal Bay which would force Mountainous to run from 5 lb out of the weights. It is for these reasons that Mountainous may be a better day-of-race proposition, when all factors are known, rather than an ante-post bet.

Similar sentiments apply to the likes of De La Bech, Saffran de Cotte and Relax. All three horses are strong-staying, heavy-ground lovers that would usually be of interest in a race such as the Welsh National. However, they would all be significantly wrong at the weights should Tidal Bay turn up and, with that in mind, others are preferred.

One horse that does make appeal at this ante-post stage, and whose prospects won't be altered much by Tidal Bay's participation, is Merry King. Merry King ran creditably in the Hennessy Gold Cup last time in spite of an uncharacteristically less-than-fluent round of jumping, sticking to his task well to finish fifth. Jonjo O'Neill's second-season chaser has run well in a number of competitive handicap chases, often coming up just short, but as an uncomplicated, tactically-versatile type who looks likely to stay he boasts solid credentials here.

You may hear that horses running in the Welsh National on the back of an effort in the Hennessy have a poor record - presumably due to the quick turnaround - but Teaforthree went extremely close to breaking that hoodoo last year, foiled only by the well-handicapped and superbly-ridden Monbeg Dude, and there is no reason why the tough Merry King won't be able to run right up to his best on the back of a four-week break. 

Last season's runner-up Teaforthree is a consistent and likeable type and is sure to have his supporters, but he looks faced with a stiff task here on his seasonal return, racing from a 9 lb higher mark, and a horse with greater claims could be Highland Lodge.

Highland Lodge's form tailed off badly last season, sometimes shaping as if he had a physical problem, but, with the Emma Lavelle yard firing on all cylinders again, he has been in much better heart this time around. There was no disgrace in narrowly failing to give the thriving Standing Ovation the best part of two stone at Wincanton, the pair pulling 28 lengths clear, and he launched a bold bid from the front in the Hennessy last time when he finished a highly-creditable fourth. He remains with potential from his current mark and is difficult to rule out, though his aggressive front-running style could leave him slightly vulnerable in the closing stages if he is taken on for the lead.

There is nothing flashy about Merry King but that is no bad thing when trying to identify a Welsh National winner, and he looks like decent value at 14.013/1. Unlike many of his rivals, Merry King's prospects aren't dependent on the participation of Tidal Bay and he is simply a gradually-progressive young stayer that looks likely to give his running. Mountainous also appeals as an obvious type for a race of this nature and is well worth considering on the day should the ground come up testing, especially if Tidal Bay doesn't run.

Back Merry King @ 14.013/1 to win the Welsh Grand National

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