The obsession with its climax, for better or worse, tends to mean that the first two days of the John Smith's Grand National meeting can be unjustly overlooked. But some of the sport scheduled at Aintree before Saturday is more than a match for the championship events at Cheltenham last month – not least now that Sprinter Sacre has been diverted there to try two and a half miles on Friday.
Thursday's opening card features a first clash between The New One, so impressive in novice company at the Festival, and several more seasoned members of the elite. After nine declarations were made for the John Smith's Aintree Hurdle, Coral chalked up The New One as 3-1 favourite to beat the Champion Hurdle third and fourth, Countrywide Flame and Zarkandar, both quoted 4-1. Grandouet, still on the bridle when falling in the Champion is 9-2 and his stablemate Oscar Whisky, is 6-1 to win the race a third year running. Barry Geraghty has chosen to ride Grandouet, leaving Tony McCoy to step in for Oscar Whisky.
Ruby Walsh, having won the Champion Hurdle on Hurricane Fly, takes over on Zarkandar – who will be fitted with blinkers for the first time. Paul Nicholls, his trainer, had contemplated the idea earlier in the season. "And his run in the Champion reignited the idea," he said on his Betfair blog. "So we worked him in blinkers this morning and he was much sharper than normal. It is worth remembering that he wore blinkers in his three starts on the Flat in France. They really woke him up."
On the same card Nicholls will saddle Silviniaco Conti in the Betfred Bowl. Still going strongly when falling three out in the Chelenham Gold Cup, Silviniaco Conti is 10-11 favourite with the sponsors to make amends.
With the weather cold but dry and watering under way, the National course remains good to soft, good in places. Among the trainers pleased by the changing conditions is Sue Smith, who has been hampered by the weather in preparing her two runners, Auroras Encore and Mr Moonshine. "They've both been crying out for some drying weather so the forecast ground should suit them well," she said. "It's been difficult to get the horses in top condition, as the weather has been so bad, but they finished their last bit of work this morning and they're raring to go. The ground has been so wet here that it's been difficult to keep them ticking along, but we took them both to Wetherby for a racecourse gallop last Wednesday and both worked very well. We've also schooled them over the National-type fences on the Malton gallops and they both pleased me with their jumping."
Chris McGrath's Nap
Ace Master (5.20 Southwell) Back in business since being fitted with blinkers and goes especially well here, pulling clear of the rest against a thriving rival the other day.
Pearl Nation (7.30 Kempton) Few miles on the clock and shaped well on his reappearance after missing the break, while this drop in trip is also likely to suit.
One to watch
Jamaican Bolt (Geoffrey Oldroyd) Tanked through the race before fading into fifth on his return at Doncaster on Saturday and should last longer next time, especially after returning to five furlongs.
Where the money's going
Top weight Imperial Commander is 14-1 from 16-1 with William Hill for the John Smith's Grand National on Saturday.