If this was a mere overture, then what kind of crescendo might conceivably be achieved here tomorrow? Within a couple of hours Aintree had saluted perhaps the best performance yet from the most accomplished hurdler of recent seasons, in Big Buck's; and a ride of astounding precocity over the National fences by a schoolboy of just 16. In between, moreover, Denman had been beaten out of sight behind Nacarat – whose success, in turn, provided timely succour for his jockey, Paddy Brennan. Timely, that is, not merely because it was only days ago that he quit his position as stable jockey to Nigel Twiston-Davies; but also because the adolescent who promptly won the John Smith's Fox Hunters' Chase showed exactly why things were only going to become more awkward in his old job.
Looking at Willie Twiston-Davies yesterday, not even Brennan would charge his former employer with undue nepotism in the promotion of his two sons. Last year, Sam had won the hunter chase at the Cheltenham Festival on Baby Run; seeking to emulate his brother, last month, Willie had hit the deck two out when in a clear lead. The boy wept. Yesterday, a young man put the record straight.
It would be churlish to deny that Sam and Willie are enjoying unusual opportunity – no less than Patrick Mullins, who emerged as the last threat to Baby Run on the long run to the line on Boxer Georg, a horse trained by his father, Willie. But Twiston-Davies Snr knows that his patrons will only tolerate the situation so long as his boys prove themselves equal to their chances. Here, in the amateurs' Grand National, was the proof of a fairly sensational pudding. Willie will return to school to sit his GCSEs next month, but the only lessons he wants to learn after that will be on the racecourse. Looking back to Cheltenham, he sounded like a fast learner. "At the time, I thought it was the end of the world," he said. "But while Cheltenham is special, I would rather win a race over these fences."
Brennan was able to observe all this with fairly literal detachment. For the unfettered enthusiasm with which Nacarat had gone clear in the Totesport Bowl was a faithful reflection of his rider's sense of liberation since resolving to go solo. "I've cleared the air and already feel a lot happier in my riding," Brennan said. "I think for both Nigel and me to go forward it was the right decision. Nigel has been a great supporter and it just happens he has two wonderful lads riding for him. But I'm going to get out and ride winners."
Nacarat is trained by Tom George, who decided to keep the grey fresh for this after he had disappointed in previous visits to Cheltenham. On the drying ground, Nacarat jumped flamboyantly and saw out his race much better than of late. Denman produced a lethargic performance barely three weeks after that generous effort in the Gold Cup. In the end he was eased down in fifth, beating only Punchestowns.
Paul Nicholls, who felt that Denman had not been at home on the track, could afford to take a fairly relaxed view by then, having already doubled his lead at the top of the trainers' championship in the first two races. Zarkandar made hard work of maintaining his unbeaten record in the Matalan Anniversary Hurdle, perhaps fortunate that Grandouet was brought down two out, but Big Buck's had been simply breathtaking in the BGC Partners Liverpool Hurdle. Once again Tom Scudamore had stalked the favourite on Grands Crus, apparently going equally well on the turn, but Ruby Walsh showed an elaborate indifference on Big Buck's. As Grands Crus came off the bridle, and Scudamore became ever more urgent, Big Buck's coasted five lengths clear to extend his unbeaten sequence over hurdles to 12. Scudamore dismounted and told David Pipe that Grands Crus remained the best horse he has ridden, and dared not think what that made Big Buck's. Nicholls assented that, in terms of ability, even he has not trained a better one.
Nicholls brings one of his star steeplechasers to today's big race, but Master Minded was already beaten when making that mistake at Cheltenham and Somersby (3.05) appeals as more likely to intrude on the rematch between Albertas Run and Kalahari King, albeit the Ryanair Chase principals are both previous winners here. It is a horribly competitive card, complicated by changing ground and many horses now over the top. Desert Cry (2.00), Sarando (2.30) and Westmeath (4.15) are among those capable of outrunning big odds.
Helleborine ran only a fair trial for the Qipco 1,000 Guineas when second at Maisons-Laffitte yesterday. Short of room, she allowed Moonlight Cloud first run and the winner, trained by Freddie Head, is now the more likely of the pair to head to Newmarket.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Kilcrea Kim (4.50 Aintree) Creditable effort in top novice company at Cheltenham and fairly handicapped.
Dev (3.40 Aintree) Has won over these fences and made an encouraging start for this yard at Cork last month.
Where the money's going
Backstage is 10-1 from 12-1 with Coral for the John Smith's Grand National tomorrow.