Flame too hot for Aintree rivals
Channel 4 commentator Simon Holt previews day one of the John Smith's Grand National meeing at Aintree.
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The John Smith's Aintree Hurdle, so often a supporting race to the Grand National when run on a Saturday in the past, takes centre stage on the opening day of the meeting this year and provides an intriguing clash between established Champion Hurdle-class horses and one of the season's top novices.
The key difference between this race and the Champion is the fact it is run over half a mile further, and the last two runnings have gone to Oscar Whisky (beating Thousand Stars a neck on both occasions) who seems best at two-and-a-half-miles.
However, any hopes of a three-timer must certainly have been dampened by a poor run in the World Hurdle at Cheltenham last time (though, reportedly, he pulled up lame) and, significantly, Nicky Henderson's stable jockey Barry Geraghty has opted to ride Grandouet.
The latter was travelling strongly in the Champion last time before falling four out and would surely have played a hand in the finish, but he has a big question to answer here on the score of stamina having always looked a horse with bags of pace. If he gets the trip, Grandouet seems bound to go close.
Of the Aintree Hurdle runners at Cheltenham, Countrywide Flame did best in finishing third behind Hurricane Fly with Zarkandar (now blinkered for the first time in this country) in fourth - and both should have little trouble performing to their best at this distance.
It's possible the blinkers will improve Zarkandar's tactical pace and he was being pushed along when falling in this race last year, but I fancy Countrywide Flame, a long-distance winner on the Flat and second in a Cesarewitch, to confirm the placings.
John Quinn's gutsy performer could be tailor-made for this test, he acted well on the course when second (to Grumeti) at this meeting 12 months ago and his stable appears to be in excellent form.
The unknown quantity in the race is The New One who takes on seasoned hurdlers for the first time after his impressive victory in the Neptune Novices' at the Cheltenham Festival.
Nigel Twiston Davies' star prospect certainly has the pace to cope with this flat course yet, unlike one or two others, his stamina is guaranteed. However, on the official handicapper's ratings, he has nearly a stone to find with Countrywide Flame and Zarkandar.
The New One could well develop into a Champion Hurdle candidate next season but this is certainly his toughest task to date.
Earlier, the Betfred Bowl ought to provide a good opportunity for Silviniaco Conti to gain consolation for his fall at the third last when going well in last month's Cheltenham Gold Cup in which he would probably have finished in front of the eventual fourth The Giant Bolster as well as Cape Tribulation (fifth) and Wayward Prince (seventh).
Paul Nicholls' chaser, a winner here as a novice, had hitherto appeared to be an exemplary jumper of fences so it was a real surprise to see him hit the deck.
So, the biggest question here is whether the first fall of his career might have damaged his confidence and, therefore, I am inclined to oppose him with First Lieutenant whose third in the Hennessy (behind Bobs Worth) and close second to Tidal Bay in the Lexus Chase over this distance gives him equally strong claims.
No match for Cue Card in the Ryanair at Cheltenham last time, Mouse Morris' tough chaser may prove more at home over this distance, on this flat course.