Graham Cunningham returns to the Sporting Life fold and starts with an easy one as he attempts to solve the Randox Grand National puzzle by way of ten key questions.
Timeform’s view that Cloth Cap has “got the lot so far as Aintree is concerned” is hard to argue with after Jonjo O’Neill’s gelding followed his runaway Newbury success with an equally dominant front-running defeat of a smart field in the Premier Chase at Kelso.
BHA assessor Martin Greenwood aligns with his former employer in pinning a rating of 162 on that Kelso win and, given that Cloth Cap can run from his old mark of 148 here, it comes as no surprise to see him clear at the top of the market at around 4/1.
Tiger Roll raised the Aintree roof at similar odds with his second National win two years ago and, with owner Michael O’Leary opting to cut off his nose to spite his face over Greenwood’s homework, Cloth Cap has to be the obvious starting point.
But has the Trevor Hemmings-owned gelding really got the lot for a marathon test against 39 rivals in which your money leaves the ground 30 times during the most breathless nine minutes in sport?
The handicap mark is clearly lenient and Cloth Cap is already within hailing distance of the best three milers with the potential of more to come. And yet his voracious style of running and jumping could also be the flaw in his make-up.
It takes a lot to get laconic veteran caller Ian Bartlett out of his seat but his startled “what a leap!” line as Cloth Cap devoured Newbury’s fourth last in the Ladbrokes Trophy made for one of the season’s more memorable soundbites. But therein lies a concern. The way Cloth Cap pricks his ears and goes hunting for every fence is a treat to watch but that boldness needs to be tempered with a degree of caution in the National.
Make no mistake, this is a horse who could blow the race apart if he finds the right rhythm in the first half of the race. But if the controlled aggression of Newbury and Kelso edges towards bombs away recklessness that could make for a different story altogether.
A swift canter through a good-sized sample shows that some blot their copybook and others get their lines almost or exactly right.
Let’s start with the ‘What Might Have Been’ category.
Simon was well treated back in 2007 having bolted up in Kempton’s Racing Post Chase after the weights were published and was still tanking when he departed six out, while The Druids Nephew was an unpenalised Festival winner who was just ahead of eventual winner Many Clouds and loving life when he fell five from home in 2015.
Now to the ‘Close But No Aintree Cigar’ bracket, headed by Sunnyhillboy and The Last Samurai.
The latter was 12lb well in after a runaway Grimthorpe win at Doncaster win in 2016 only to find Rule The World had finally learned how to win at the 14th attempt over fences, while Sunnyhillboy was unpenalised for a Kim Muir win in 2012 and went down by an agonising nose to Neptune Collonges in the closest National finish in history.
The list of National blots who failed to fire is long and perhaps headed by another Hemmings chaser in Cloudy Lane, who was no less than 20lb well in back in 2008 after an easy Grimthorpe win but managed only a remote sixth behind Comply Or Die.
That said, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Comply Or Die was 11lb well in that year having won the Eider Chase by eight lengths after the Aintree weights came out.
Neptune Collonges wasn’t quite so well treated for his 33/1 success in 2012 but he was ahead of his official mark despite a big weight (11-6) having been pipped in Haydock’s National Trial after the National weights were framed.
Older readers will recall Rough Quest being thrown in for his Aintree win back in 1996 after chasing home Imperial Call in the Gold Cup, while all the nonsense spouted about Tiger Roll’s treatment by Greenwood shouldn’t mask the fact that the ghost at this year’s National feast was 8lb ahead of the game for his second Aintree win in 2019 having bolted up in the Festival cross country race.
For the record, Cloth Cap is far from the only horse who has shown improved form since this year’s National weights were published. Farclas is 6lb well in after a fine Cheltenham effort, while Lord Du Mesnil, Acapella Bourgeois, Minella Times and Any Second Now are 5lb, 4lb, 4lb and 3lb ahead of their official marks, respectively.
Suffice to say the race has undergone significant surgery since I was politely asked to move on by an Aintree official while filming an RUK feature next to the formidable wooden stakes that formed the core of one of Aintree's most formidable fences a decade ago.
The loss of Gold Cup hero Synchronised and According To Pete in 2012 left the National at a crucial fork in the road but the welfare route chosen - with a phased move towards fences with far more forgiving synthetic cores – has resulted in several notable trends developing.
The doubters can never be silenced and there will still be a few traditionalists this weekend suggesting that the National just isn’t the race it used to be.
They’re right, of course. It’s possible that at least two recent National winners wouldn’t have survived the blunders they made in the old days – yes, I’m looking at you Pineau De Re and Rule The World – but the changes that have made Aintree less severe on horses have arguably made the National even more demanding for punters.
Pineau De Re, Many Clouds, Rule The World and Auroras Encore have obliged at between 25/1 and 66/1 over the revamped fences - something to keep high in mind in a race where all 40 runners are in the handicap again.
The collective hand wringing session conducted by British trainers since that 23-5 Festival drubbing has been fascinating to witness.
All sorts of reasons, some might say excuses, have been thrown into the hopper. A bizarre suggestion that Britain needs more Graded races stood out among Dan Skelton’s numerous assessments, while Scottish handler Nick Alexander showed a rare talent for stating the obvious by conceding that “trainers in Ireland are as good, if not better” than their UK counterparts.
Those Irish trainers have proved streets ahead of the Brits in recent Nationals, saddling five of the first six and four of the first five in the last two renewals, and their ability to prepare a horse to produce a peak performance on the day that matters most promises to play strongly again this time.
Burrows Saint travelled like a dream when winning the Irish National two years ago and has to be high on the short list for Willie Mullins, while Any Second Now would have been a strong fancy had the race taken place last year and remains so this time after a gentle season designed to protect his handicap mark.
Discorama is another who will be fresh from a light campaign but Magic Of Light is 5lb higher than when chasing home Tiger Roll two years ago and her latest run at Cheltenham was off putting.
What about them indeed. Blackmore took the Cheltenham Festival by storm and will head to Aintree with high hopes of carving out an even greater piece of racing history aboard a horse who has a great deal in his favour.
Minella Times was nothing flash over hurdles or in his early days over fences but he has thrived in three runs this season, winning at Listowel last autumn before finishing an excellent second in two hot handicaps at Leopardstown in December and February.
Every time you watch the replays of those Leopardstown races the eye is drawn to how Minella Times jumped. Flawless might be going a bit far, but his accuracy and nimbleness were extremely hard to fault and, for all that Aintree’s fences aren’t the walls of old, that sort of technique never goes out of National fashion.
And so we have the hottest rider around aboard a highly progressive horse who is 4lb well in and would probably have even more to carry if the handicapper could do his sums again.
Add in the fact that Minella Times’s latest run is working out a treat – with the third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh all franking the form – and the result that racing’s marketeers have been dreaming about starts to look less like a dream and more like a very plausible scenario.
Kimberlite Candy and Welsh National hero Secret Reprieve are the leading UK hopes in the market but I’m not sure the former is well treated off 153 and the latter is a mudlark whose tendency to skew slightly right at his fences is a concern.
Lord Du Mesnil is a thorough stayer but whether his grinding style is ideal for the modern National remains to be seen, while Potters Corner comes into the mix on his 2019 Welsh National success but is a harder sell – even in Microshares – on this season’s evidence.
Logic suggests that Bristol De Mai shouldn’t be well handicapped enough to win a National off a mark of 167 but he’s looked the sort to show up boldly here for a good while now and he’s another who has had a very light season.
The short list is potentially quite long but Takingrisks deserves a place. Yes, he’s 12 now and Amberleigh House is the only horse of that vintage to land the National since the mid 1990s.
But his profile reflects that Takingrisks has an impressive record of winning big staying chases at long prices. His Scottish National win came at 20/1 with Cloth Cap third. His Rehearsal Chase came at 25/1 and his 40/1 win in the Sky Bet Chase at Donny in January showed that there’s ample life in the old dog yet.
No National is falsely run but the 2021 heat map suggests this will be fiery right from the off.
Cloth Cap has been destructive from the front and the sight of these fences could light him up even more. However, Lord Du Mesnil is another proven front runner and, with Yala Enki, Bristol De Mai, Magic Of Light, Acapella Bourgois and Ami Desbois in opposition, the jolly ought to have plenty of company on the pointy end.
Leading fancies like Burrows Saint, Kimberlite Candy and Any Second Now will be rated in the second wave along with Takingrisks and Aintree veteran Vieux Lion Rouge, while Anibale Fly is likely to be dropped out for the first circuit along with The Storyteller and Class Conti.
Minella Times has the speed to race handy if Blackmore wants to but where he lines up at the start will also be worth watching. Henry de Bromhead’s gelding has impressed in riding the inside rail for the most part this season. Similar tactics can be risky in the National but the landing side drops at Becher’s aren’t what they used to be and valuable ground can be saved if the paint scraping ploy pays off.
Now this is a tricky one as the market can take on a life of its own come raceday – a life which favours bookmakers way more than punters - and public money can play a significant role if a certain story fires the collective imagination.
The one thing that looks assured is a Cloth Cap drift. Bookies don’t have significant ante post liabilities and the vast majority of tipsters will be put off by the midweek price so something around 6/1 looks a more likely SP than the current 4/1.
By contrast, several Irish raiders could shorten in the coming days. Farclas could be a suspect stayer but it’s hard to see the 33/1 lasting through to the weekend, while The Storyteller’s G1 form is earning him positive mentions from various angles.
However, the combination of a horse with very solid form claims and a magnetic news angle will always play well in any big race market. Minella Times hasn’t been missed in the betting of late. But there is every chance he will shorten further and jump at single figure odds by 5.15 on Saturday.
Cloth Cap is the most obvious contender, especially with Tiger Roll absent, and a case can be made for any number of horses for any number of reasons if you look hard enough.
But, if you’ve managed to read this far, you won’t be surprised to hear that MINELLA TIMES is my main choice. His stamina for marathon distances can’t be guaranteed but he jumps extremely well and is probably the second-best handicapped horse in the race.
The idea that a female rider could triumph in the Aintree showpiece seemed outlandish when most of us were growing up but the National has evolved and so have attitudes to women in racing.
Cheltenham showed that Rachael Blackmore is a huge asset to any horse she gets on nowadays. And, in a week that started with Freewheelin Dylan winning the Irish Grand National, Aintree on Saturday might just be the perfect moment for Minella to show that the Times really are a-Changin’.