The focus leapfrogs the all-pervasive Cheltenham Festival in today's most valuable contest, the Red Square Vodka Gold Cup at Haydock, to Aintree. Since its distance was stepped up to three and a half miles 12 years ago the Grade Three contest has been one of the recognised stepping stones to the Grand National and all bar three of this afternoon's 18 runners still hold the 5 April engagement.
No horse has ever won both races; the 1997 Haydock victor, Suny Bay, came closest when he chased home Lord Gyllene in the big one. And whatever finishes fifth today may repay close scrutiny. That was the place occupied by both Party Politics (1992) and Earth Summit (1998) before their National triumphs.
Haydock is a tricky course and not every horse enjoys the drop fences. One who has proved he can cope is Wonder Weasel, who is unbeaten in his three visits to the track. "It is probably tempting fate to say that he is a good jumper," his trainer Kim Bailey said yesterday, "but he is. He's not very big – barely 16 hands – but he's strong, like a little barrel. And when he was younger he was thought neat enough to go to America for timber racing, only they didn't get on with him and he came back."
Bailey acquired Wonder Weasel for 51,000 guineas at the Doncaster sales three years ago and the long-term plan has always been the National, with today's race always pencilled in as his preliminary target this term, as owner David Halsall is a local man. The 10-year-old has warmed up with three runs: two respectable placings at Cheltenham on either side of a victory at Wetherby confirmed the bright promise he showed in the first half of last season.
Wonder Weasel is dropping back in trip after appearing not to get home over four miles and a furlong at Cheltenham on New Year's Day – he had rallied to lead at the last but veered and faded dramatically on the run-in – but Bailey puts his defeat down to the course rather than a deficit in stamina or resolution. "He got there easily but then I think he saw the hill and thought 'Sod this for a lark'," he said. "He's jumped round there twice but he's much happier on flat tracks. There's no trickiness to him, he's a sweet horse and we love him lots."
Whatever the merits of today's race as a trial, it should make a fine spectacle. The sight of a bunch of seasoned, classy chasers in a rhythm round two circuits of Haydock is usually a fine one and this edition is full of interest.
The top weight, Shotgun Willy, who is still in the Gold Cup, makes his long-awaited first appearance since failing by half a length to give a stone to Take Control in the Scottish Grand National last April. Iris Bleu is sharply progressive (his recent Sandown victim, Frosty Canyon, is 16lb better off today) and was probably attempting the impossible when taking on See More Business at Wincanton last time. Mini Sensation is on a hat-trick and he, too has shot up the ratings, but he is a true mudlark and needs the heavens to open.
Bobby Grant is another Haydock specialist, with three wins, two seconds and a third from eight appearances, and looks sure to give another good account. He is going further than he has even tried before round his favourite track and the jury remains out on his stamina after he got bogged down on almost unraceable ground behind Mini Sensation at Uttoxeter last month. The race certainly owes his trainer Peter Beaumont one, as it was here two years ago that his splendid stable favourite Young Kenny lost his life. The vote, though, goes to Wonder Weasel (next best 2.10).
Two of the seasons smartest staying novice hurdlers clash in the Prestige Novices' Hurdle at Haydock. A history of leg problems means that Tees Components (1.10) will not be risked on Cheltenham's undulations but he can show today that whatever wins at the Festival will have to look to its laurels in the follow-up at Aintree.
If Whitenzo (2.40) can avoid his customary howler he should outclass his rivals in the Doncaster feature chase and the prospects for Europa (2.05) were not significantly harmed when Abalvino, who beat him a neck at the Yorkshire track in January in receipt of 16lb, won at Newbury yesterday. A rare Tony McCoy-free Saturday (he is in Dubai resting an injured shoulder ahead of Cheltenham) should not prevent a Pipe stable double at Newbury with Miss Cool (3.00) and Fast Mix (4.35).
A week ago at Lingfield pretence (nap 3.40) did us a favour and although the Jeremy Noseda-trained three-year-old faces a stiffer task today he can carry on the good work.
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