Alan Dudman's latest ante-post instalment focuses on the Grand National Festival at Aintree, and he previews a couple of races for the second day in Liverpool.....
"He really does look well-treated on his hurdling form, and with only four runs over fences, he is a fascinating handicap contender."
The excellent commentator Simon Holt let out an "oohhhh he stood right off that" during Un De Sceaux's breathtaking round of jumping in this season's Ryanair triumph - a race that showcased his mixture of clean and efficient jumping with the odd absolute crackler (a term used by the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson I believe).
Sometimes he is too bold for his own good, and one of those leaps prompted the response from Holt. He was seriously good in a mixture of controlled aggression and downright talent though, and could be electric whizzing around Liverpool.
It's the same, predictable story for a Festival winner installed as the short-priced favourite to score again at Aintree however, and Willie Mullins' crack horse is available to back at 7/4. The favourites can't all win at this meeting can they? And surely there will be some blowouts. I wonder what the layers will be looking at in terms of a chink in his armour?
Will he be too brave for his own good?
While Un De Sceaux was a joy to watch in March, the race presented one of the most fascinating tactical aspects from the meeting.
Ruby Walsh settled UDS (easier to type) off from the early Uxizandre pace, but the horse was keen to get on with things. Whether Ruby let him go or pushed him to do so I don't know, but it seemed both had had enough by fence five when he was tanking over the far side, and he shot clear by six lengths. All was happier in the world of Un De Sceaux at that point, and I suspect it was his decision. He was unleashed.
After that move, Sub Lieutenant (who sat second in the early exchanges) was taken back to sit off the pace, and that proved a smart call by David Mullins given the way Uxizandre faded badly up the run-in. Granted, Alan King's runner might have bounced, but Sub Lieutenant was coming back again up the hill and finished strongly.
I particularly enjoyed Sub's jump at the final fence, he absolutely winged it to get within one-and-a-half lengths of his Cheltenham conqueror. His price of 8/1 on the Sportsbook again looks to be big for me. I was with him for the Ryanair, and he didn't let me down. He has been a vastly-improved model this term - especially with his jumping.
His trainer Henry De Bromhead surely deserves to crack a Grade 1 with this horse, whose record in top-level races doesn't quite match up to Un De Sceaux's glittering CV. It's zero against seven in favour of the Mullins' star, whose overall record now stands at 18 wins from 23 starts.
The other aspect of Sub Lieutentant's Cheltenham performance was him boiling over pre-race. He was edgy beforehand and did a lot wrong. To run like he did, and go past some decent horses means he can gain a much-deserved Grade 1 victory. After all, his run in the Kinloch Brae this term behind subsequent Gold Cup winner Sizing John gives him a big shout.
Of the others, God's Own is back in his playground. The 3/1 second favourite loves Aintree and fortuitously won the Melling in 2016 when 1/5F Vautour departed. Whether connections got the wrong race in going for the Queen Mother at the Festival is one for a social media debate, but he was going well in that before a bad error two from home. It's hard to describe him as below top-drawer, as that's a bit of insult to a Grade 1 winner at Aintree and Punchestown - it's just the price does little for me.
God's Own is very consistent at a top-level and has mixed it with the best. He relishes better going and should have his favoured surface. He is shorter than Fox Norton at 9/2, and Uxizandre at 13/2. Quite why those two are skinnier than Sub Lieutenant I don't know.
The Venetia Williams-trained Aso ran an absolute stormer in the Ryanair, which was by some way a personal best. He was well beaten in last term's Manifesto at the track, and his profile wouldn't have me rushing to take the price of 16/1.
This is one of the long established handicaps on the calendar at Aintree, run over the National fences, and you'll see plenty of 145-plus rated horses in the line-up. Betting from an ante-post view is not the easiest through sheer volumes of potential runners - but in these handicaps I do like to look for something with graded form off a decent mark.
That just about rules out the unpredictable Eastlake - who can be backed at 16/1 to follow up last term's win in this. He might suffer from the odd heart problem, but he showed winning last year that he had a big handicap in him. He scored from a mark of 142 then, and was also third in the 2014 renewal. The usual prep of running in the Grand Annual at Cheltenham should have him spot on.
At a slightly bigger price I was drawn to the claims of 20/1 chance O O Seven - who is around [26.0] on the Exchange.
His trainer Nicky Henderson has won the race five times with Rajdhani Express, Ma Filleule, Triolo D'Alene, Liberthine and Won't Be Gone Long, and is clearly not afraid of running a young horse in this, as both Ma Filleule and Triolo D'Alene were just six-year-olds.
O O Seven has always looked the part, and his big, imposing physique will always have him marked down as a looker. Mind you, named after James Bond, he couldn't be anything other than dashing in the looks department.
Currently rated 152, that isn't a bad figure judged on his hurdling days as a 145-performer. In fact, he finished second in a Tolworth Hurdle behind Yorkhill (the new Tidal Bay) - and that fella landed the JLT this year at the Festival. He really does look well-treated on his hurdling form, and with only four runs over fences, he is a fascinating handicap contender.
He obviously needs to jump better than the round he served up in the RSA, as he struggled to cope with the class of opponent. Henderson had been talking about Cheltenham handicaps with him prior to that race, so he must have shown them something to take his chance in that Grade 1, and in hindsight it was the wrong decision.
He jumped quite tidily at Huntingdon in January though, and also scored in a novice race at Cheltenham earlier in the season. From those two runs, I would have a bit more faith in the leaping rather than his efforts in the RSA. Henderson's mare Ma Filleule was a lovely jumper (and bold) when winning this, whilst Triolo made a few errors in his round four years ago.
The other rather obvious one is market leader A Toi Phil at 12/1, and I cannot wait to see what sort of handicap mark he will receive.
He was a 147-hurdler and was part of the Gigginstown exodus from Willie Mullins last term. Now in the hands of Gordon Elliott, A Toi Phil put down a couple of markers early in the season with easy victories at Down Royal and Punchestown. The latter came in the Grade 2 Florida Pearl novice and had Disko back in third. Unfortunately the visibility was wretched so we don't know about the jumping, but it was pretty good prior on his debut.
Subsequent efforts in top-level races in the Drinmore and then the Grade 1 at Leopardstown over Christmas proved that he wasn't quite up to that standard. But as we saw at Cheltenham, these Graded horses going handicapping are the biggest dangers to everyone. He dotted up recently in a Grade 2 at Navan by eight-lengths and his jumping was a lot better.
All eyes now on the handicap mark. It's a shame the market hasn't missed him though, but the seven-year-old has a good profile for this race.
Aintree Day 2 Recommended Ante-Post Bets