The Grand National meeting at Aintree will open on Thursday with four consecutive Grade One races and several of the sport’s best chasers and hurdlers in action, but it is the fifth event on the card – a hunter chase – that may be studied most closely by the punters ahead of the biggest betting race of the year on Saturday.
The word ‘heavy’ no longer appears in the going description for the Grand National course after a dry night on Tuesday and the track was “quietly drying out” on Wednesday according to Andrew Tulloch, Aintree’s clerk of the course. How quietly should become apparent when 22 runners are due to go to post for the Foxhunters’ Chase a few hours after the final declarations are made for the National itself.
A slow-motion finish will be taken as final confirmation that the National on Saturday will be the most demanding test since the famous fences were modified with plastic cores before the 2013 renewal.
“It’s still a bit soggy down at the Canal Turn,” Tulloch said on Wednesday. “That’s always the wettest bit on the course. It should be mainly dry on Thursday, just overcast and cloudy all the way through with some drizzle in the morning.
“The forecast [is] drizzle overnight tonight and Thursday into Friday with possible showers on Friday and Saturday, but being showers, we may miss one or we might get one.”
Thursday’s field for the Foxhunters’ is well short of the race’s safety limit of 30, which should take a little of the edge off the race’s potential for drama and mayhem. But it still seems sure to be a fierce examination both for the horses and their amateur riders, and one in which the huge experience of Derek O’Connor could prove vital aboard Balnaslow (4.05).
O’Connor is an amateur jockey in name only, as his winning ride on Edwulf in this season’s Irish Gold Cup demonstrated. He has completed the course on all three of his previous starts in this race, finishing runner‑up twice including a one‑and‑three‑quarter length defeat on his mount 12 months ago, and has an obvious chance to finally add the “amateurs’ National” on his record.
The only disappointment after the Cheltenham Gold Cup last month was that the extended duel between Native River and Might Bite had to have a loser. The two horses staged a magnificent spectacle as they fought out a private battle from the off, and with Native River in summer quarters Might Bite (2.50) should have a straightforward path to victory in the opening day’s feature chase, the Grade One Betway Bowl.
Nicky Henderson, Might Bite’s trainer, is all but certain to retain his title as champion trainer, a feat he last achieved 31 years ago, and he has several more runners with clear chances in the day’s remaining Grade One events.
His perennial rival Paul Nicholls has several live runners on the card too, however, and both Cyrname (1.45), in the Manifesto Novice Chase and Malaya (2.20) in the Anniversary Juvenile Hurdle have realistic opportunities to give their trainer his first Grade One success of 2018.
The gamble on Katie Walsh’s mount Baie Des Iles for the Grand National continued on Wednesday, and the grey is now top-priced at 16-1 (from 20-1) having been available at 66-1 last week.