The many who heed no other race all year long will on Saturday see the John Smith's Grand National dignified, most unusually, by a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner. None the less there remain aficionados who might surprise them by professing still greater interest in a mere novice chase on the same card, featuring a new steeplechasing sensation in Sprinter Sacre – or indeed the race that opens the great meeting on Merseyside today.
To these, there could be no more momentous overture than the BGC Partners Liverpool Hurdle, even if it would seem more likely to prove a lap of honour than a real race. For it is precisely this ability to reduce elite performance to the nearly perfunctory that measures the journey of Big Buck's to the brink of Turf history. His unprecedented fourth consecutive success in the divisional championship at Cheltenham sets him up to complete an equivalent sequence in this sequel, and so claim outright the record of 16 consecutive hurdle wins he now shares with Sir Ken.
Somewhere, some time, Big Buck's will finally become acquainted with one of the various hazards that deny even the most talented horses such metronomic consistency. He will be brought down by a faller, perhaps, or by sickness. It is pointless, however, anticipating any alternative in this field – a good deal inferior to that at Cheltenham – to a champion so palpably in his prime. Seldom, after all, has his dominion seemed more vulnerable than at the Festival, where he was obliged to stem a series of disappointing results for his stable, and was tracked with such menacing ease by Voler La Vedette. In other horses you might fear the consequences of that demanding race, but none of the usual rules seem to apply to Big Buck's (2.0).
Punters assessing the rest of the card, however, are obliged to revisit familiar dilemmas. True, the interval between Cheltenham and Aintree this time round is as sparing as it ever can be; moreover there have been many occasions when horses have gone from a draining experience at the Festival to replicate the form at Liverpool. But the same, perennial, doubt must nag at the confidence of anyone contemplating the favourite for the Betfred Bowl.
For few horses summoned their deepest reserves at Cheltenham more obviously than did Riverside Theatre, who was all out to win the Ryanair Chase. Should he run flat today, it would take two seconds to figure out why. His ravenous finish up the hill suggests he should have no problem with this, the longest trip he has tried, but the fuel could run dry for other reasons.
With Big Buck's one of the last big guns available to Paul Nicholls, clinging to a precarious lead in the defence of his trainers' championship, Nicky Henderson takes a belt-and-braces approach to this rich prize with three runners. Stable jockey Barry Geraghty favours Riverside Theatre over Burton Port after his fourth in the Gold Cup. On the face of it that was a solid effort, but he just seemed to struggle for rhythm and his comeback run against Long Run at Newbury no longer looks quite so eye-opening.
At 16-1, Master Of The Hall (3.05) is least fancied of the Seven Barrows trio, but has looked pretty classy on his day and remains relatively unexposed. He plainly does not like Cheltenham, but duly sat out the Festival and so arrives here a fresh horse. The ease of his success over course and distance in the autumn has been ungenerously attributed to the failings of his rivals, in testing ground, but at least showed that he will be at home on the track – and with any further deterioration in conditions.
Nacarat also avoided the Festival, as he did before winning this race last year. He looks as good as ever at 11, but this seems like proving a stiffer test in every respect, with the ground turning against him as well. The trip may yet be the making of the Ryanair third, Medermit, but the rogue element is Hunt Ball. His improvement since November, formally measured at 80lb, beggars belief. This is uncharted territory, however, in terms of both class and distance, even after his new peak at the Festival.
Despite his admirable attitude and connections, this much sharper track makes a reluctant necessity of opposing Countrywide Flame as he bids to follow up his Festival success in the Matalan Juvenile Hurdle. Unless the going becomes really testing, Dodging Bullets (2.30) can reverse the form after travelling best down the hill, on what was only his second start over timber.
Those prepared to take a chance might find Gottany O's deserves fidelity after his odds-on defeat at Hexham, now that he is tried in a tongue tie, while another shrewd yard clearly expects major improvement from Zarzal.
The card's other Grade One provides a refuge from Sprinter Sacre for two of those he bulldozed in the Arkle Chase, with Al Ferof (4.50) the obvious one to prosper over this longer trip – though their allowance means that neither of the mares is likely to prove a pushover.
The amateurs get first crack at the National fences in the John Smith's Fox Hunters' Chase and if the veteran My Way De Solzen (3.40) retains half the gusto of his pomp he should present some spectacle. The two handicaps look ultra competitive, and thus yield tempting odds against Rick (5.25) and Oiseau De Nuit (4.15) (see Turf Account).
Kieren Fallon has been booked to ride Most Improved, the gamble for the Qipco 2,000 Guineas, for both next week's reappearance in the Novae Craven Stakes and the first colts' Classic.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Oiseau de Nuit (4.15 Aintree) In top form last spring and returns here off a 2lb lower mark than then, after being brought down when set to challenge at Cheltenham.
Rick (5.25 Aintree) Travelled round Cheltenham nicely and it is significant that connections cross the water again to try him over this sharper track.
One to watch
Right Result (James Bethell) Made a promising start for his new stable when fourth at Pontefract on Tuesday, dropped out from his wide draw and coming from off the pace.
Where the money's going
According To Pete is 25-1 from 33-1 with Paddy Power for the John Smith's Grand National. Coral have cut Giles Cross to 10-1 from 12s.