Counting down the days. In 18 days, Many Clouds will try to become the first back-to-back winner of the Crabbie’s Grand National since Red Rum in 1974.
A maximum of 40 runners can line up for the 169th running of the world’s most famous jump race Saturday, April 9.
Veteran jockey Leighton Aspell guided Many Clouds last year and also partnered Pineau De Re to win in 2014.
“The first year was a complete shock and I didn’t know how to react,” Aspell said. “Last year, I was in front from three out and though you are screaming for the line, by the time you get there, it is just a release of emotion. I’m blessed to have won two Crabbie’s Grand Nationals. Oliver (Sherwood) has done a great job of training Many Clouds this year.”
In his most recent start, Many Clouds won the Premier Chase at Kelso March 13, drawing off to score by 10 lengths from Grand National hopeful Unioniste.
“A lovely run around Kelso nine days ago was perfect,” Aspell said. “Many Clouds has always been a very good jumper but it was great to feel the enthusiasm and energy he had at Kelso. You don’t have to school him very often – he is very, very good – you just give him a pop a few days before he runs. I am sure Oliver is just freshening him up right now. The next week and the following week, we will do something more serious and get him spot on. I am not a bit worried about the weight or Many Clouds’ condition, he is really tip-top, but at the moment it looks a very strong race. I would not want to swap him.”
Aspell retired in 2007, only to come back and win two Grand Nationals.
“Winning twice has not changed me but it has changed my life,” Aspell said. “It has raised my profile and is a big icebreaker – helping me with some better rides on Saturdays.”
One trainer who knows about Saturdays is Paul Nicholls. He won the Grand National with Neptune Collonges and has a full hand this year. They range from outsider Unioniste to Grade 1 winner Silviniaco Conti.
“Unioniste is by the same sire as Neptune Collonges and Silviniaco Conti and is a real good stayer. He ran very well at Kelso the last day behind Many Clouds and at Aintree is a lot better off at the weights and the trip was a bit sharp for him – he will stay forever. If he has a good run and gets jumping, then he would be a lively outsider,” Nicholls said. “I have always thought that Silviniaco Conti would be a National prospect and he is very much in the mold of Neptune Collonges, maybe a little more classy. He won very well the last time at Ascot and is a laid-back and relaxed horse.”
Nicholls is also aiming Wonderful Charm and Just A Par.
“Wonderful Charm loves good ground and there was no point wasting our time running him during the winter. We haven’t been able to give him a prep but he goes well fresh. He is a horse who could run very well,” Nicholls said. “Just A Par who won the bet365 race at Sandown last season, stays well and, as long as the ground is not too bad and he gets jumping, he is not without a chance. He ran well (second) over too short a trip at Exeter (Tuesday).”
Phil Smith, Head of Handicapping at the British Horseracing Authority, revealed that The Last Samurai is 12 pounds well in, while Silviniaco Conti has six pounds in hand, Holywell is four pounds well in, last year’s second Saint Are is also four pounds to the good but the biggest advantage is held by recent Cheltenham Festival winner Cause Of Causes, who is 57th in the weights and unlikely to get a run.
Holywell and Morning Assembly both ran encouraging trials when second and fourth respectively in the Ultima Handicap Chase at Cheltenham. Holywell’s trainer Jonjo O’Neill could also be represented by Shutthefrontdoor, who finished fifth last year under Sir A P McCoy.
“Holywell is in great form and he ran a lovely race at Cheltenham last week. He is a little monkey though and you need to keep that in the back of your mind,” O’Neill said. “He ran as bad and as good in two different races. This time of year, he seems to be better in himself and good ground is very important to him. But I wouldn’t back him until he has jumped the third fence – he will love it or hate it.”
McCoy guided Shutthefrontdoor to be fifth last year, McCoy’s final ride in the big race.
“Shutthefrontdoor ran a blinder really last year to finish fifth and if I had had a young jockey on him he might have run better, the one we had was getting a bit old!” O’Neill joked Tuesday. “His disappointing run last time was explained by abcesses in both front feet which was very strange but he is fine now. He nearly got the trip last year and he prefers good ground too.”
There are 28 Irish-trained contenders going forward. Goonyella won the Midlands National at Uttoxeter last season and shaped promisingly when runner-up in the Leinster National at Naas March 6 while Gallant Oscar won a valuable handicap chase at last year’s Punchestown Festival.
Saint Are only found Many Clouds too good last year and won at Doncaster last month while other horses with proven Aintree form still engaged include Pineau De Re, this season’s Betfred Becher Chase scorer Highland Lodge, Alvarado, who has finished fourth in the last two renewals of the Crabbie’s Grand National and Triolo D’Alene, winner of the 2013 Crabbie’s Topham Chase.
Jimmy Moffat, who trains in the Lake District, was also at Aintree today and spoke about Highland Lodge.
“You have got to have a go and the chances for a smaller yard don’t come along too often,” Moffat said. “The Becher was the plan for Highland Lodge and he accomplished that and now hopefully onto the National. We are 50/50 to get in the race (52nd). He had a six-week break – easy work and steady away cantering – but has been hard at it since. The more (work) you give him, the better he gets. He is in great form and he dropped me this morning. He is flying and we are really looking forward to it.”