Grand National Festival 2021: Time for the Brits to shine

Grand National fence
The Aintree Grand National Festival starts next week

It's less than two weeks until the Grand National but there's plenty more to look forward to over three days at Aintree than just the big race, as Mike Norman explains...

"He did hint however after his win at Cheltenham that a step up in trip is a possibility, increasing the chances that this unbeaten chaser may even step out of novice company to take in the 2m4f Melling Chase."

It probably didn't escape your notice that Irish-trained horses wiped the floor with their British counterparts at the recent Cheltenham Festival, winning 23 of the 28 races during the week and denying the home runners a single victory in a hurdles race.

Next week's Grand National Festival, starting Thursday April 8, doesn't exactly offer the Brits a chance of revenge - for reasons I'll explain shortly - but more an opportunity to keep Grade 1 prizes on these shores at least.

Of course, the highlight of the week is the Grand National itself, where the home team have a very strong favourite in Cloth Cap, Jonjo O'Neill's runner currently being priced at just 5.59/2 on the Betfair Exchange.

Race scheduling means Irish likely to stay at home

The Irish will undoubtedly have a strong hand in the National itself, but before then it's very unlikely that we'll see many of their Cheltenham winners trying to double up at Aintree in some of the week's key races, and the simple reason for that is race scheduling.

The Grand National Festival commences less than three weeks after Gold Cup day at Cheltenham, and while it's not too much of an ask for some of Ireland's star performers to come over and strut their stuff once again, the Punchestown Festival - the pinnacle of the Irish National Hunt Season - starting just over two weeks after Aintree is likely to prevent them from doing so.

And add into the mix this weekend's Fairyhouse Easter Festival, featuring no less than seven Grade 1 or 2 races, and some lucrative handicap contests including the feature race, the Irish Grand National, then it looks like British-trained runners will almost have a free run at winning the top prizes at Aintree next week.

Thursday - Liverpool's NHS Day

Day one commences with four Grade 1 races - Manifesto Novices' Chase, Doom Bar Anniversary 4yo Juvenile Hurdle, the Bowl, and the Aintree Hurdle - and also features the Foxhunters Hunter Chase, raced over the Grand National fences.

The Bowl is a race contested between horses of Cheltenham Gold Cup quality, and has been won in previous years by the likes of Silviniano Conti, Cue Card and Might Bite. The Willie Mullins-trained Kemboy won the last renewal in 2019 (the 2020 Grand National Fetival was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic) though after his tailed-off effort in the Gold Cup recently it's not yet known whether he'll be back to retain his crown.

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Native River, fourth in this year's Gold Cup, and Frodon, fifth and trained by Betfair Ambassador Paul Nicholls, are potential runners and would have leading chances if going to post.

Despite being four furlongs longer than the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, the Aintree Hurdle is very much a race for the best and speediest hurdlers in the country because of Aintree's flat and less demanding track.

In recent years Champion Hurdle winners Jezki, Annie Power and Buveur d'Air have all taken this prize, though this year's impressive Champion Hurdle winner, the unbeaten super mare Honeysuckle, is likely to miss the contest with connections keen to next run her in the Paddy Power Champion Hurdle at Punchestown.

Friday - Ladies Day

Another four Grade 1 races - Top Novices' Hurdle, Mildmay Novices' Chase, the Melling Chase, and the Sefton Novices' Hurdle - will be contested on day two of the Grand National Festival, while the National fences will once again be in action for the Topham Handicap Chase.

The Melling Chase is arguably the feature race of the meeting in terms of quality, and has been won in recent years by some of chasing's superstars including Moscow Flyer, Master Minded and Sprinter Sacre.

But it's not just a race that has been dominated by Champion Chase winners, its recent roll of honour includes Gold Cup winner Don Cossack and Ryanair winner Min, proving that it's a race that brings together the best chasers around from the two mile, intermediate (around 2m4f) and three mile plus divisions.

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Brilliant Arkle Chase winner Shishkin has been confirmed by trainer Nicky Henderson as a runner at Aintree but he stopped short of saying what his target will be. He did hint however after his win at Cheltenham that a step up in trip is a possibility, increasing the chances that this unbeaten chaser may even step out of novice company to take in the 2m4f Melling Chase.

The Sefton Novices' Hurdle will also be a race to saviour, with future Stayers' Hurdle and Gold Cup contenders likely to be in action. Henderson has won three of the last six renewals of this contest but this could be a race that will be won by Paul Nicholls should he elect to step his excellent novice Bravemansgame up in trip.

Saturday - Grand National Day

The Grand National is undoubtedly the feature race on Saturday, and we'll have plenty of previews and tips on that race over the coming days, but we also have three Grade 1 contests on the final day of the meeting, the Mersey Novices' Hurdle, the Novices' Steeple Chase, and the Liverpool Hurdle, known currently as the Ryanair Stayers' Hurdle for sponsorship reasons.

As the name suggests that latter contest is likely to feature some of the beaten horses from this year's Cheltenham Stayers' Hurdle, with the winner of that race, Flooring Porter, another Irish-trained horse already to have Punchestown confirmed as his next target.

That will open the door for Paisley Park to win another Grade 1, though keep an eye out for another Nicholls runner, McFabulous, who has always had Aintree as his end-of-season target with the Liverpool Hurdle likely to be his next destination.

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