Against slick, specialist hurdlers, everyone connected with the horse would surely have settled for a careful school round before finishing off the race as earnestly as he could. As it was, On His Own really set the cat among the Aintree pigeons by contriving to win his comeback race at Navan. He plainly has outstanding prospects in the John Smith's Grand National, having looked sure to go close when falling at Becher's second time round last April.
The Ladbrokes Boyne Hurdle was his first start since, having been set a congenial 10st 10lbs when the National weights were published last week. His only previous start over timber had been a couple of years ago, when still in the care of Howard Johnson, and he was sent off at 10-1 behind his stablemate, Thousand Stars, who started 1-2 under Ruby Walsh. But On His Own travelled comfortably through the heavy ground and led into the straight, his stamina really kicking in after he was pressed briefly at the second last.
Driven out by Paul Townend, he beat Si C'etait Vrai by just over two lengths and is now at least sharing favouritism with all bar Ladbrokes, who pointedly kept Prince De Beauchene – also trained by Willie Mullins for Graham Wylie – at 9-1, ahead of On His Own at 11-1.
Which of the pair starts shorter on 6 April is likely to be determined by Walsh, whose fine Aintree record and an enviable choice of mounts together nearly guarantee that his ultimate preference will start favourite. He doubtless surveyed On His Own's performance in some bemusement, having finished tailed off on Thousand Stars. Mullins, himself taken aback, must now decide whether to persevere with his original plan of giving On His Own a spin over fences before the National. One factor may be relative inexperience, as the horse has still only made a dozen career starts, including a point-to-point and two bumpers.
There was another turn-up in the Red Mills Chase, where the odds-on Rubi Light dropped away tamely behind Chicago Grey. The winner had so lost his way since winning at the Cheltenham Festival two years ago that he was sent off 25-1 outsider of four, but a wind operation has evidently helped and he will now join On His Own at Aintree. He is 20-1 from 33-1 with William Hill.
Today's Irish programme features the racecourse debut of a brother to Kingsbarns, ante post favourite for the Investec Derby – in a bumper at Punchestown. Egyptian Warrior is likewise trained by Aidan O'Brien, whose daughter, Sarah, takes the mount. The champion Flat trainer, who last saddled a runner under National Hunt Rules in 2005, also saddles a second newcomer, Shield.
Cheltenian, absent since winning the 2011 Festival Bumper, resurfaces in a novice hurdle at Doncaster today. His trainer, Philip Hobbs, has not yet given up hope that the horse could return to the Festival next month. On trial elsewhere on the card is Swynmor, who fell when leading over the final hurdle in a Grade One at Chepstow last month.
Kauto Star will be sadly missed at the Festival this year but fans have the chance to see the retired champion exhibiting his new dressage skills before racing at Newbury on 2 March. Paul Nicholls, his former trainer, will meanwhile find Festival stress levels rising closer to home as he hosts his media open morning today.
It was David Pipe's turn on Tuesday, top of the bill being his outstanding novice chaser, Dynaste. Pipe maintained that no decision has yet been made between the RSA Chase, over three miles, and the Jewson, over two and a half. And he is also shuffling his cards carefully in the handicaps, in which the stable has such a good record over the years. Gevrey Chambertin is one who has not exactly hidden his light under a bushel, giving Pipe a choice between two novice hurdles and three handicaps after hacking up at Wincanton last time. "He won off 130, in not a great race, and the handicapper has put him up to 145," Pipe said. "He will find it tougher, but even 145 could be a workable mark as he is improving at a rate of knots."
Chris McGrath's Nap
Free Spin (7.30 Kempton) A few miles on the clock in Ireland and volunteered for this drop in trip when making his first start for David Barron here last month, tanking into the lead but run down late.
Sommersturm (7.0 Kempton) Slipped to a basement mark for his flourishing new stable and soon took advantage, responding to a tongue-tie in a fair race of its type at Lingfield last time.
One to watch
Avonmore Star (Mike Murphy) Shaped well on only his second start since changing stable, at Kempton last week, trying to kick off a strong pace and only run down in a multiple photo.
Where the money's going
Zarkandar is at 5-1 from 11-2 with William Hill for the Stan James Champion Hurdle, while Our Conor is 9-2 from 5-1 for the JCB Triumph Hurdle.
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