Denman risks the Festival factor
Gold Cup second is at tight odds but faces very different test from Cheltenham
Aintree demands courage not just of horse and rider, but of those who try to predict their fortunes. Never mind the exotic hazards of the John Smith's Grand National itself – to punters, the next three afternoons of top-class racing are together akin to jumping Becher's Brook. For while you think you know where you stand on taking off, with championship form fresh in the book from Cheltenham, once committed you often find that the ground falls away beneath you.
You can never guarantee how Cheltenham form will stand up here. For one thing, horses who have given their all at the Festival have had little time to get over their efforts. Moreover the two courses play to very different strengths anyway, not least after such a dry start to the spring. Even extensive watering seems unlikely to inhibit a frantic tempo round the sharp, flat Mildmay course, suggesting an unequivocal emphasis on speed.
Today the conundrum finds its most obvious expression in Denman. The 2008 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner made an unexpectedly sprightly defence of his crown, having seemed on the wane when making a tame comeback at Kempton the previous month. He had, of course, been treated for a cardiac disorder during his absence, but immediately seemed in better heart at Cheltenham, jumping with all his old gusto and persevering up the hill once Kauto Star had gone clear.
Though Denman is supposed to be difficult to read at home, Paul Nicholls says that he has been in ebullient form since Cheltenham. He will be very short odds for the Totesport Bowl, not least because he should be relatively fresh after missing so much of the campaign. At the price, however, the usual Aintree caveats apply. Compared with the scimitar of Kauto Star, Denman has always been the bludgeon, best on galloping tracks. His exuberant jumping should allow him to take the initiative, but he will do well to get Exotic Dancer (3.10) off the bridle through the race and could just be vulnerable to that rival's pace in the closing stages.
Exotic Dancer came from a long way back when third in the Gold Cup, and has shown himself very much at home round here – winning this race easily two years ago, and producing a top-class performance under a huge weight on his reappearance last autumn.
Albertas Run is better than he showed at Cheltenham, and tries a tongue-tie today, while Star De Mohaison would be easy to fancy at his best, in receipt of 10lb. Unfortunately his present form must be guesswork, so disappointing was he in the Gold Cup. The one certainty is that Ruby Walsh will be doing his best, Denman's owners having sportingly allowed Sam Thomas, his deputy, to keep the ride on the favourite as a reward for his efforts at Cheltenham.
The Nicholls stable can look forward to another excellent day, regardless. Chapoturgeon (4.55) will surely be hard to beat if in the same form as at the Festival, as the way he travelled there suggests he will have no problems with this track. Likewise the only reservation about Big Buck's (2.0) is that not even Nicholls could keep an edge on Kauto Star and Master Minded when they came here from Cheltenham last year. In principle all looks set fair: Walsh is a joy to watch on this rather awkward customer, who proved himself effective here when winning a steeplechase at the meeting last year.
Walsh and Nicholls will certainly be hard to beat in the Matalan Hurdle, Hebridean (2.35) having long been thought so clearly suited to this track that he sat out Cheltenham. Walkon ostensibly sets the standard of those who did go there, but Starluck showed far more speed before fading on the hill. He would be preferred but for the fact that Hebridean, apparently flourishing at home, has been kept fresh.
First crack at the National fences goes to the amateurs in the Foxhunters' Chase, and it would be nice to see a young point-to-pointing graduate beat the veteran handicap refugees. It happened at Cheltenham, when Cappa Bleu emerged from Shropshire, and maybe Agus A Vic or Having A Cut (3.45) can achieve something similar for Ireland.
The raiders could make their presence felt in the handicaps, too. Valain (next best, 4.20) may prove better suited by this track, having been set plenty to do at Cheltenham and done well to close before hitting the second last. Whinstone Boy (nap, 5.30) is another who could take to this place. He is a strong traveller who could well improve on the better ground.
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