With just three weeks between the Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals this year, we haven’t been starved of top class National Hunt racing for long – but I’m excited to delve back into Graded action over the jumps. Day 1 of the Aintree Festival provides us with four Grade 1 events, and the Foxhunters’ Open Hunters’ Chase over the famous Grand National fences. Be sure to follow me on Twitter @JakePriceTips for live updates throughout the day, and best of luck with your bets over this fantastic three-day meeting.
13:45 – Manifesto Novices’ Chase (Grade 1) – 2m4f
We open Day 1 of the Aintree Festival with the Manifesto Novices’ Chase, where the market was drastically altered on Tuesday morning. First came the news from Phillip Hobbs that Ante-Post favourite and JLT winner Defi Du Seuil was out of the race, and that was shortly followed by Warren Greatrex declaring that his stable-star La Bague Au Roi would head here rather than the Mildmay on Friday. A Grade 2 winner over Hurdles, this daughter of Doctor Dino made her Chase debut in a very hot looking contest at Newbury in November, taking on one of my favourite horses in Lostintranslation. Under a brilliant Richard Johnson ride, La Bague Au Roi stayed on strongly over 2m6½f to beat that rival by one-and-a-half lengths. Back at the same track for the Winter Carnival later that month, this fantastic looking Mare took on the same rivals and came out with the same result, this time coming in the Grade 2 Berkshire Novices’ Chase. Not only did she win well that day (although Lostintranslation made a horrible error three out), she proved that she is top class over fences and was ready for a step up into Grade 1 company against the boys.
Connections decided to step La Bague Au Roi up to three-miles for the first time over fences in the Grade 1 Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, where she was sent off an 8/1 shot against top-class rivals in the form of Topofthegame and Santini. Despite being headed three-out, Richard Johnson rallied his Mare to battle back into the lead and jump the last well – staying on up the straight to beat Topofthegame by one-and-a-half lengths. Not only was this an unbelievable performance on the day, but the form has been franked no end, with the second and third finishing first and second in the Grade 1 RSA Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham in March. Between those two contests however, Warren Greatrex has picked up another Grade 1 with his Mare when sending her over to Leopardstown for the Dublin Racing Festival in February. Despite the ground drying up significantly meaning Delta Work was declared a Non-Runner, La Bague Au Roi was given a run for her money by subsequent winner Kaiser Black – but connections were rewarded for their trip to Ireland with a one-and-a-quarter length victory. A significant positive for this eight-year-old is that she skipped Cheltenham (a track she seems to dislike) to be in top condition for the Aintree Festival, and the fact that she has had a break before coming into this is a huge advantage over her rivals. As a Mare she will of course get the 7lbs allowance, and that should be more than enough to see her gain another Grade 1 victory under Champion Jockey Richard Johnson.
La Bague Au Roi Tipped @ 4/1 (Now 2/1)
14:20 – 4-Y-O Juvenile Hurdle (Grade 1) – 2m1f
Joseph O’Brien gained his first official Cheltenham Festival winner in March when saddling Band Of Outlaws in the Grade 3 Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle, much to the delight of my Ante-Post portfolio and followers on Twitter. Our favourite Juvenile is back on the track at Aintree, but this time he will step up into Grade 1 company for this first time.
Third on Hurdles debut behind Maze Runner at Cork in December when staying on extremely strongly at the finish, this 93 rated Flat Horse got off the mark at Limerick on Boxing Day when leading close to home under an extremely cool ride from J J Slevin. Band Of Outlaws’ running style of being buried in the field and pouncing late on was extremely successful at Naas in February, when turning around the form with Maze Runner to score by four-and-three-quarter lengths – powering past his rivals on the run in. This running style proved to be most effective at Prestbury Park however, with J J Slevin able to bury his four-year-old in the big field of 21 runners, before expertly producing this son of Fast Company through the traffic to become a Cheltenham Festival winner. The way that J J used Praceps as cover when getting to the leaders rounding the home bend was an absolute joy to watch, and there was never really any doubt that this Joseph O’Brien Gelding was going to quicken up the hill like he did to score comfortably. Unfortunately due to terrible circumstances the Grade 1 Triumph Hurdle form has huge question marks for me, and although Pentland Hills did ultimately win the race well, I would much rather side with Band Of Outlaws here. The Flat Aintree track will be right up this ex-Sprinter’s street – and he really did look like the ‘Graded Horse in a Handicap’ when running at Cheltenham.
Band Of Outlaws @ 15/8
14:50 – Betway Bowl Chase (Grade 1) – 3m1f
It’s a small but select field in this year’s renewal of the Aintree Bowl, as six high-class rivals head to post. Clan Des Obeaux ran well for a long way in the Gold Cup, but ultimately didn’t stay the extra two-furlongs. Kemboy was unlucky when unseating at the first that day, and this Flatter track should suit his running style – but I question the form of his Grade 1 victory at Leopardstown over Christmas. Road To Respect was no match for Frodon at Cheltenham over two-and-a-half miles, and steps back up to three here with lots to prove. Elegant Escape probably ran his race when sixth in the Gold Cup, but Balko Des Flos is hard to fancy after running poorly at both Cheltenham and Leopardstown this season. That leaves Nigel Twiston-Davies’ Bristol De Mai as the selection for this fairly-hot looking contest.
Second in this race last season when beaten seven-lengths by 2018 Gold Cup second Might Bite, Bristol De Mai did his usual thing when making seasonal debut at Haydock in November, easily winning the Grade 1 Betfair Chase by four-lengths back to Native River. Interestingly on both of those starts this fantastic looking grey beat Clan Des Obeaux, with Paul Nicholls’ charge three-and-a-quarter lengths behind at Aintree, and a further eight-and-three-quarter lengths behind at Haydock. The pair faced off again at Kempton in December for the Grade 1 King George where Bristol De Mai jumped markedly left into Thistlecrack at the first, before falling at the ninth. Daryl Jacob never really seemed happy that day, and connections wisely gave him a lot of time off the track before a crack at the Gold Cup. Held-up by Daryl Jacob towards the rear of the field, this son of Saddler Maker travelled and jumped beautifully through the race to take second at the penultimate flight. Although he was outstayed by Anibale Fly up the hill, Bristol De Mai ran a cracker to finish third – again beating Clan Des Obeaux by four-and-a-quarter lengths. Although he’s never won at Aintree, this Nigel Twiston-Davies horse has finished second and fifth in his last two attempts at this race and can make it third time lucky for owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede.
Bristol De Mai @ 3/1
15:25 – Aintree Hurdle (Grade 1) – 2m4f
I couldn’t believe it at the time when Buveur D’Air took a tumble in the Champion Hurdle last month at Cheltenham, denying himself a chance at becoming a three-time winner of the coveted Grade 1 prize. In hindsight it wasn’t impossible to see it coming due to the mixture of his low jumping technique and the fact that he had been starting to make some errors – notably at Kempton in December – but that still doesn’t heal the fact we didn’t get to see how he compared to the likes of Apple’s Jade and Laurina (albeit they were both tamely beaten). This Nicky Henderson charge has a great chance of redeeming himself here in the Aintree Hurdle, with the Champion Hurdle second (Melon) and third (Silver Streak) also lining up to give us some indication of form. One of the most interesting rivals in this field is Faugheen, stepped back to two-and-a-half miles from his fine effort when third to Paisley Park in the Stayers Hurdle. Although 2017 winner Buveur D’Air should regain his crown here, I won’t be backing him at even money on the back of a fall.
Buveur D’Air (No Bet)
16:05 – Foxhunters’ Open Hunters’ Chase (Class 2) – 2m5f
One of the most interesting races of the day is the Foxhunters’ Open Hunters’ Chase for Amateur riders, where runners and riders face two-miles-five-furlongs over the Grand National fences. An angle I am taking into the race this year is previous experience over the unique National fences, and one horse who I strongly fancied for the 2017 Grand National was Ucello Conti. Sixth in the 2016 renewal behind Rule The World, this twice Grade A Thyestes and Grade B Paddy Power Chase placed Horse never got his head in front for Gordon Elliot despite running well, including when fourth in the 2016 Grade 3 Becher Chase over these fences. Although Ucello Conti has unseated Daryl Jacob in the last two Grand Nationals, he generally jumps the fences well, looking tired when falling four-out last season. His best effort to date over these famous birch fences came in the 3m2f Becher Chase however, and although he hasn’t run over a trip as short as this since November 2016, he will definitely give Jamie Codd a good spin. Since his last run at Aintree he has actually clocked up a hat-trick of wins, starting off in a point-to-point before two Hunters events at Thurles and Navan. His last run came in the Foxhunters’ Chase at Cheltenham, where he was held-up and never really got to the leaders, despite staying on well. I’d hope he is given a much more positive ride back over the fences he has a lot of experience over, and he could definitely go close over a trip he will easily be able to see out. It’s also worth noting that eleven-year-olds have won the last two renewals of this race.
My second fancy is Road To Riches, who has also ran over the Grand National fences before – finishing sixth behind Tiger Roll in last year’s show-piece steeplechase. Although beaten a massive fourty-five lengths, the fact that this horse got around is a huge positive to his chances here. Switched to David Christie having been purchased by owner/jockey David Maxwell, this twelve-year-old made his debut for new connections when finishing second in a Hunters’ Chase at Carlisle in March. Road To Riches probably would’ve needed the run that day and proved that to be the case when winning just ten days later at the same track by fourteen-lengths. This former dual Grade 1 Chase winner in Ireland is clearly a classy horse and returning to the fences he seemingly got on with so well last season should be a positive over this shorter trip. Jockey David Maxwell is on twelve winners for the season in his quest to become Champion Amateur, but this would clearly be his biggest win of the campaign if he can get the job done.
Ucello Conti Each/Way @ 7/1
Road To Riches Each/Way @ 20/1
16:40 – Red Rum Handicap Chase (Grade 3) – 2m
The Red Rum Handicap Chase is traditionally a very tough race, with the shortest priced winner going off 8/1 in the last six renewals. One horse that interests me here at a decent price is Forest Bihan, trained by Brian Ellison. The eight-year-old nearly became a Grade 1 winner here at Aintree in 2017 when going down a head to San Benedeto, and I’m hopeful he can gain compensation here. This son of Forestier has enjoyed a mixed season so far – finishing third on seasonal reappearance at Cheltenham when beaten fourteen-lengths by Sceau Royal in November. Dropped 2lbs to a mark of 150 for this effort, Forest Bihan fell right in front of me at Newbury’s water jump two-weeks later – which was actually his first and only career fall. It didn’t seem to knock his confidence however, with two fine efforts from top-weight at Wetherby and Doncaster subsequently – finishing third and second to Cracking Find respectively. Although our selection re-opposes with that rival here, we are 3lbs better off at the weights for just a half-length defeat on their last run at Donny. Brian Ellison’s classy Chaser was last seen running in the Grade 3 Grand Annual Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival last month, where he ran another stormer off top-weight to finish fourth, despite being sent off a 33/1 shot. He only finished one-length behind Brelan D’As that day, but again Forest Bihan is better off at the weights by 2lbs with that rival. The flat track at Aintree should play to his strengths, and the fact that he is better off at the weights with some of his main rivals is a clear positive. This race has gone to a Northern trainer in two of the last three renewals, and in a race which looks very hard to call, he would be a confident Each/Way play at the prices.
Forest Bihan Each/Way @ 14/1
17:15 – Mares’ Standard Open National Hunt Flat Race (Grade 2) – 2m1f
As I have of course already started planning for my ‘National Hunt Horses to Follow 2019-20’, one horse that is prominent on my list is Minella Melody. Trained by Henry de Bromhead, Minella Melody already looks like a superstar in the making. Winner of a four-year-old Mares Maiden point-to-point at Boulta in December by ten-lengths, this Flemensfirth daughter made a really striking debut for owner Kenneth Alexander when landing a Gowran Park Bumper by twelve-lengths. Travelling in mid-division under Patrick Mullins, this five-year-old travelled fairly keenly in the early stages but made good headway around the outside of the field to lead three-furlongs from home, easing clear of her rivals and scoring with the jockey motionless. With connections already responsible for smart Mares such as Honeysuckle and Sinoria, this is a horse I am really excited about for the future. Minella Melody is a name worth remembering, and I would expect her to put in a good performance here before going onto better things over Hurdles next season.
Minella Melody @ 9/2
Good luck! – Jake Price