Anomalous as it may seem, plenty of real aficionados will view the one race that engages everyone else at Aintree this week as barely incidental to much they will witness in the meantime. Sprinter Sacre himself will dignify proceedings tomorrow, while the opening day of the meeting has been reinforced by a race previously overshadowed, on the Saturday card, by the Grand National.
Remarkably, Oscar Whisky and Thousand Stars not only finished first and second in the last two runnings of the John Smith's Aintree Hurdle, but were divided by exactly the same margin – a neck – on both occasions. This time, however, Oscar Whisky must put behind him an uncharacteristically poor run at Cheltenham last month, in order to make Barry Geraghty repent of his decision to switch to Grandouet.
He also faces an emerging star in The New One, so impressive against fellow novices at the Festival. The presence of the Champion Hurdle third and fourth, Countrywide Flame and Zarkandar, should in theory go a long way to establishing The New One's eligibility for that race next year.
But this race asks that pair a fresh set of questions, being over another half-mile and barely three weeks after they soaked up a demanding race at the Festival.
The extra distance is itself something of a rogue element, given that the sharp track and drying conditions both restore the emphasis on speed. Zarkandar has often looked in need of farther, but could just be lazy. He is tried in blinkers today, in fact, an admission that he needs to sharpen up.
There are no such doubts about Countrywide Flame, a thorough stayer who could enjoy considerable improvement for this longer trip. He handled the track well at last year's meeting and reached a new peak in the Champion, travelling strongly before hanging in there with familiar courage.
The only cause for hesitation is that such a searching race would entitle even this superbly tough animal to recoil, so soon afterwards.
Grandouet was spared the obligation of digging deep at Cheltenham, still on the bridle when falling, but while the track will suit him, he does have to prove his stamina. The New One should meanwhile enjoy the demands of the race, not only because he won over a similar distance at Cheltenham but also because he did so by dint of his speed at the end of a slowly run race. It would be terrific to see him seal his breakthrough, but the odds make a few presumptions in favour of a horse who must raise his game afresh just when he might be ready for a rest.
With freshness on his side, having sat out the Festival, Thousand Stars (3.05) could yet make it third time lucky. He has spent most of his career being persecuted by Hurricane Fly, but there is no disgrace in that, while he seldom gets the chance to run on this type of going and has next to nothing to find on official ratings – whatever the odds might suggest.
The other big race of the day provides Silviniaco Conti (2.30) with an excellent opportunity to compensate for his Cheltenham misfortune in the Betfred Bowl.
Quite how well he would have got up the hill in the Gold Cup remains hard to say, but he was certainly still tanking along when coming down and his novice success here last year helped to establish his relish for sharp tracks.
As a rule he is a splendid jumper and, with however heavy a heart, he must be acknowledged a more likely winner than First Lieutenant, if only on account of the latter's exertions in pursuit of Cue Card at Cheltenham.
Mouse Morris turned out to be right – as if anyone could be surprised – in believing First Lieutenant better suited by this kind of trip, as he was caught flat footed that day, but the net result was a pretty hard race.
Flaxen Flare (2.0) landed a 25-1 nap at Cheltenham and merits fidelity as he steps up in class for the Matalan Anniversary Hurdle.
He travelled very powerfully in his new blinkers and a rapid tempo round these turns could prompt him to raise his game anew.
The amateurs, meanwhile, get a first crack at the big fences, and you can only hope they show a suitably professional sense of their obligations. Step forward Sam Waley-Cohen, who has a brilliant record round here and teams up with a feasible contender in Cottage Oak (3.40).
Though ultimately well beaten behind the classy Salsify in the Festival version, he was prominent a long way and may prove suited by this shorter trip.
The other race on Channel 4 is a horribly competitive handicap, with Paul Nicholls looking sure to be involved with either of his pair, but Pires (4.15) is none the less a strong fancy back on better ground for a trainer who had his rangefinder spot on at the Cheltenham Festival.
The meeting opens on going officially given as a mixture of good to soft and good, following a cold, breezy but dry day.
Only six runners were declared for the Melling Chase tomorrow, but the fact these include not only Sprinter Sacre but also Flemenstar and Cue Card qualifies it as potentially the race of the season.
For those Flat racing diehards indifferent even to such a field, meanwhile, the first serious Classic trials of the season are run in Paris today – featuring What A Name in the Prix Imprudence.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Flaxen Flare (2.0 Aintree) Worth playing up Festival winnings in this higher grade as the way he travelled in the blinkers at Cheltenham suggests he will adore this sharper track.
California English (7.55 Wolverhampton) Hasn't always looked wholehearted but, ridden by Andrea Atzeni, definitely equal to this kind of rating, nailed only by a thriving rival in a photo on his last visit here.
One To Watch
The well-bred Moidore (John Quinn) is still going forward for his new trainer, judged from the gusto of his approach prior to a photo-finish defeat to Lady Kashaan on his reappearance at Musselburgh last weekend.
Where the money's going
Balthazar King is 16-1 from 22-1 with William Hill for the John Smith's Grand National on Saturday.Reuse content