One of the great attractions of racing is that it takes place 12 months a year, so there is always something to look forward to, and today's cards at Kempton and Haydock offer a reminder that even on that awful Friday morning in March when you realise that there are 362 days to go to the next Cheltenham Festival, the compensation is that the Grand National meeting at Aintree is much closer to hand.
Since it is barely a fortnight until the festivities begin in the Cotswolds, today's meetings are the last stopping-off point for prospective champions. For those whose ambitions lie in Liverpool, however, this is the ideal moment to bring a runner that much closer to peak fitness, and since horses which go to Aintree as an afterthought to Cheltenham tend to disappoint, today's action is worth committing to long-term memory.
Six runners quoted at 25-1 or less for the Grand National by the bookmakers will be on the track today, including the 12-1 joint second-favourites, Encore Un Peu and Lo Stregone, though sadly for ante-post punters, they are not in opposition. Encore Un Peu, the runner-up to Rough Quest at Aintree last season, makes his seasonal debut in the Post Chase at Kempton, while Lo Stregone, a last-minute absentee when strongly fancied for last year's National, attempts to repeat last year's victory in the Greenalls Grand National Trial at Haydock.
It is the latter contest, with pounds 80,000 in added prize-money, which must be viewed as the event of the day, and since Lo Stregone is running off the same handicap mark as he did when beating Tartan Tyrant by five lengths 12 months ago, it is little surprise to find him favourite this morning at a top-priced 9-4 with the Tote. The ground too is almost as soft as it was last year, but one difference which may find Lo Stregone out is the overall quality of his opponents.
Though last year's field was big, it was hardly vintage. Today, though, there is a mixture of potential and proven high-class performers, such as Couldnt Be Better, Belmont King and Suny Bay, in opposition, and one of them should be able to exploit the favourite's famous lack of a turn of foot.
After his brave win under top weight in a very competitive Thyestes Chase in Ireland last time, Couldnt Be Better must be respected, but it is Belmont King (2.45) who appeals as the value. Paul Nicholls's chaser was outclassed behind Danoli and Jodami at Leopardstown three weeks ago, but his earlier win in the Rehearsal Chase at Chepstow indicated that today's trip and going should bring out the best in him.
The previous race at Haydock sees the latest outing for Juyush, who has done little wrong in three runs over hurdles, but is far from the serious Champion Hurdle contender which ante-post odds imply. Backers should exploit the hype which surrounds him and take the chance to back MISTINGUETT (nap 2.15). Though only fourth to Make A Stand in the Tote Gold Trophy, Nigel Twiston-Davies's mare was unable to dominate there, and should benefit from a return to front-running today.
Only a cynic would suggest that David Nicholson's decision to run three in the Post Chase owes anything to his employment as a columnist with the sponsors, but his jottings will merit attention today since his trio occupy three of the first four slots in the betting. Call It A Day, the chosen mount of Adrian Maguire, is the obvious pick, but it is another of Nicholls's runners, See More Business (4.10) that they have to beat.
Though still a novice, See More Business has shown enough in defeats by Dorans Pride this year to imply that, even off second-top weight, this is within his reach. Land Afar (3.00) and the rather ominously-named Grief (3.35) must also go well, while Arctic Kinsman (2.25), despite a recent mishap, still merits a penny or two of support against the former champion two-miler, Viking Flagship.