David Cleary offers three against hot favourite Cloth Cap, after the latest entry stage for the Grand National at Aintree...
"Number One pick against the favourite has to be Burrows Saint. He's trained by Willie Mullins, he won an Irish Grand National as a novice on his only previous start in a handicap chase and he has had a quiet time of things this winter, with a preparation that has clearly been geared towards one race."
Although British racing has settled in for a spot of soul searching after the rout it suffered at the hands of Ireland at last week's Cheltenham Festival, there's really no time to pause for breath. In little over two weeks, Aintree's Grand National meeting will be upon us, including the biggest prize of all, the National itself. Although the Irish challenge at Aintree tends not to be so strong as at Cheltenham, with the current balance of power there's every chance the home team will again be fighting for scraps, Tiger Roll's absence notwithstanding.
Irish stables were strong in every department at Cheltenham, but some of the most dominant performances came in handicaps. Two of the four handicap chases at the Festival went to Irish stables, with The Shunter clearly well ahead of his mark in winning the Plate and Mount Ida producing an extraordinary performance in landing the Kim Muir Fulke Walwyn. Entoucas was just touched off in the Grand Annual, and it was only in the Ultima that the Irish-trained runners, albeit just two of them, failed to make an impact.
The obvious conclusion from the results last week is that the top Irish stables just have much more strength in depth than their British counterparts at the moment. Willie Mullins's and the former Gordon Elliott yard contain horses that can be aimed at handicaps that stables in Britain would be thinking of running in Grade 1 events.
It's not surprising, then, that the top Irish stables have plenty of entries in the Grand National. In the last four runnings, of the 16 horses to make the frame, 10 were trained in Ireland. In 2018 they had the first four; in 2019 they provided four of the first five. In considering having a bet in the Grand National, it is clear that paying close attention to the Irish contenders ought to be fruitful, even though such dominance is hardly a secret.
Cloth Cap too short, despite being thrown in after Kelso romp
What makes such a strategy still more appealing is that the ante-post favourite, at as short as 4/1, is the British-trained Cloth Cap. It's true he has looked a much-improved performer this season, having finished third in the 2019 Scottish National. He was an impressive winner of the Ladbroke Trophy at Newbury on his second run of this campaign, for which the BHA Handicapper raised him 12 lb. He would have been raised at least as much again had the assessor been able to take into account his run at Kelso earlier this month.
On that occasion, Cloth Cap, defeated some rivals that he would have faced on much worse terms in a handicap; whether the performance is quite so good as it looked can be questioned. Even so, there is little doubt that Cloth Cap is very well in on British terms. He has form at four miles, so stamina shouldn't be an issue. He will probably need riding a little more conservatively than has been the case and the fences are an unknown, but the price is the most off-putting thing.
Saint's season geared to National target
Number One pick against the favourite has to be Burrows Saint. He's trained by Willie Mullins, he won an Irish Grand National as a novice on his only previous start in a handicap chase and he has had a quiet time of things this winter, with a preparation that has clearly been geared towards one race. It is possible that is an Irish National repeat, despite his position in the Aintree market, but at 15.014/1 on the Betfair Sportsbook, non runner money back, he looks a good price.
Burrows Saint has had three outings this season. The first two came over hurdles, shaping as if unfit first time up and then still wanting the run in the Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran two months later. Following the publication of the weights for the Grand National, he had the required run this season over fences in the Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse, in which he finished second to his front-running stable-companion Acapella Bourgeois.
Burrows Saint wasn't at his very best that day, but he left the impression he would be next time out and that is set to be at Aintree. It is interesting that the Bobbyjo has often been used by Burrows Saint's trainer as a Grand National prep. That includes for Hedgehunter prior to his National victory, and Rathvinden in 2019, who won it before going on to finish third at Aintree. Burrows Saint is a strong traveller and sound jumper with plenty of stamina, and as such fits the bill so far as Aintree goes.
Storyteller has class to make an impact
The Storyteller is another who's been mixing hurdling and chasing very successfully. He has won a Grade 1 chase this season and finished second in one over hurdles and another over fences, the Irish Gold Cup, in which he was better than ever in chasing home Kemboy. He shaped well when fifth in the Stayers' Hurdle at Cheltenham last week, doing good work at the finish.
The Storyteller was reported to have struck into himself, but he was left in the National at the subsequent forfeit stage, which suggests nothing too much was the matter. He can be backed at 21.020/1 on the Betfair Sportsbook, non runner money back.
There is a slight doubt about whether The Storyteller will have sufficient stamina for the four-and-a-quarter miles of the National, though he stays three miles well and leaves the impression he will get a fair bit further. He hasn't had many goes in handicaps, but he won a Plate at the Cheltenham Festival in his younger days and was runner-up in the Pertemps Final over hurdles in 2020.
Discorama has plenty in his favour despite absence
Discorama is the most speculative of this trio against the favourite. That he hasn't run since the turn of the year is a negative, but in other respects he looks an ideal type for the Aintree marathon. Like The Storyteller, he has twice been placed in big-field handicaps at the Cheltenham Festival, the 2018 Martin Pipe and the 2020 Ultima. At the Festival in between, where he was runner-up, Discorama showed abundant stamina in the last four-mile running of the National Hunt Chase, a race that has been a significant pointer to success in major Nationals in the last 15 years or so.
Discorama's last appearance came at Cheltenham in November, when he failed to give his running on very testing ground, Cloth Cap ironically a withdrawal that day, prior to his run at Newbury. A small field there didn't suit Discorama and he was well held after failing to settle. His record suggests he'll be much better served by the big field at Aintree. He can be backed at 34.033/1 with the Betfair Sportsbook, non runner money back.