It's the first day of the Grand National meeting, this card in isolation almost as strong as anything Cheltenham can offer, so Timeform are chomping at the bit to give you their three best bets.
"The New One... is currently favourite, which is in part testament to his mighty potential, but it’s also symptomatic of several of his rivals today having underperformed at Cheltenham."
As if to emphasise the point on quality, we kick off with three Grade 1s, the last two of which contain our first two SmartPlays. The Bowl (14:30) is a fascinating clash, almost (but not quite) a duel between Betfair Chase winner Silviniaco Conti and First Lieutenant, who's been placed in just about every other big staying chase this season. Silviniaco Conti is unquestionably the likelier winner, still going sweetly when he came down three out in the Gold Cup last time, but there looks to be more mileage in backing First Lieutenant win and place. Since reportedly bursting a blood vessel in the Drinmore in December 2011, First Lieutenant has never been out of the frame, and once he gets up to speed it evidently takes a good horse to beat him: on his last three starts, only Tidal Bay, Bobs Worth and Cue Card have finished ahead of him. Silviniaco Conti is only a half-beat behind those types in terms of ability, but more importantly First Lieutenant is only a handful of pounds lower than him on Timeform ratings, enough to give him a sporting chance of success and certainly making him the more appealing with the fallback of a place bet.
As promised, SmartPlay number two runs in the following Aintree Hurdle, which is as competitive a renewal as you're ever likely to see. The New One, winner of the Neptune Novices' Hurdle at the Festival, is currently favourite, which is in part testament to his mighty potential, but it's also symptomatic of several of his rivals today having underperformed at Cheltenham. That's not, however, a comment that applies to Countrywide Flame, who ran the race of his life to finish third in the Champion Hurdle behind Hurricane Fly, proving that he can indeed cut it with the very best. Although essentially a stayer on the Flat (finished second in the Cesarewitch back in the autumn), this will be the first time Countrywide Flame has raced beyond an extended 17 furlongs over hurdles and all the indicators so far point to him being well suited by today's test. He mightn't be the most talented in the stellar field, but with so much in his favour Countrywide Flame is the solid selection in the Aintree Hurdle.
Finally, we're targeting the Red Rum Handicap Chase at 16:15. Admittedly, it's not a race to stake your life on, a helter-skelter two-mile affair over the fences of the Mildmay course, which are among the stiffest in the country (yet at the same time, of course, aren't even the stiffest at Aintree). It features the second (Kid Cassidy) and third (Oiseau de Nuit) from the Grand Annual, and there are several examples down the years of horses performing well in both that race and this, but there is a more interesting sort lurking a bit further down the weights. This season, his first for fellow up-and-comer Fergal O'Brien, has been one of constant improvement for Silver Roque, with wins at Bangor and Newbury either side of good placed efforts here and at Cheltenham in the autumn. Admittedly, that Newbury success wouldn't be anything like as strong form as the Grand Annual, but sound travelling, bold jumping and a genuine response to pressure have been the hallmarks of Silver Roque's performances for O'Brien so far, and those are attributes are especially important in a race like the Red Rum.
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All at Aintree