Randox Health Grand National Handicap 4m2 1/2f Aintree Saturday

In the forty renewals of the great race, between 1958, when the Co Wicklow trained Mr What came home in front, and 1997, Irish yards only collected the prize on one other occasion, (the Dan Moore trained L’Escargot in 1975) but in the twenty runnings since, stables from across the Irish Sea have been responsible for more than a third of the winners, (Bobbyjo 1999, papillon 2000 Monty’s Pass2003, Hedgehunter 2005, Number Six Valverde2006 Silver Birch 2007, and Rule The World two years ago. This is clearly a very significant trend so any contenders from The Emerald Isle need to be treated with plenty of respect, perhaps none more so than current market leader, Total Recall.

Trained in Co Carlow by master handler, Willie Mullins, (who won with Hedgehunter in 2005) the 9yo son of Westerner certainly has plenty to recommend him. He was campaigned until this season mainly around 2 1/2m, with only limited success, (a single victory from his first six races over fences). It is only since he started tackling longer distances last October, that Total Recall’s career has really taken off, culminating in a superb victory in The Ladbroke Trophy at Newbury, ( The Hennessy Handicap until 2017 ) last December. Having won his previous race, a 3m Limerick Handicap very easily from Alpha Des Obeaux off a mark of 129, he was sent off the well backed 9/2 favourite in the 20 runner field for the Newbury classic. Racing off an eighteen pounds higher mark for the 3m2f contest, he duly obliged in the style of a real stayer, keeping on strongly from the last to collar the talented Whisper on the line. Reverting to hurdles two months later, he won a Leopardstown 3m Handicap easily prior to his latest race in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Sent off a 14/1 chance, he was responding to pressure from pilot, David Mullins, to go into 6th place with four to jump, but unfortunately came down at the third last. We will never know what might have happened had he stood up, but there was still petrol left in the tank and I suppose the fall saved him from having too hard a race. He had only fallen once before, (his first race over fences) so this progressive staying chaser, although 9lbs higher than for the Ladbroke Trophy, with 11-4 on his back on Saturday doesn’t look overburdened, and could just make it number two for Willie.

One who did have a hard race at the Cheltenham Festival was the gallant 8yo Shantou Flyer. Runner up in his three previous races, he looked as if he might break the sequence under a good ride from the excellent young James Bowen ( and would have done so in another few strides) when mugged by Coo Star Sivola in The Ultima Handicap. He was pulled up in last year’s National as a 7yo when trained by Rebecca Curtis, but is a much stronger and more mature animal now, and he was staying on stoutly in the 3m1f Ultima on dreadful ground on the first day of The Cheltenham Festival. His pedigree, (by Shantou out of the Bob Back mare Carrigmona Flyer) shouts stamina, and having had thirty two days to get over his Festival effort, he looks nicely handicapped racing off the same mark, giving him a racing weight of 11-1 and at current odds around 40/1 this veteran of 24 chases, who has only ever fallen once, looks one to be interested in.

The Gordon Elliot trained Ucello Conti was going well enough in mid division when unseating at Beechers on the second circuit last year, and runs this time off a 2lbs lower mark, giving him a nice racing weight of 10-9. His Uber shrewd trainer has only given him the two runs since last year’s effort, finishing second to Saturday’s opponent Anibale Fly at Leopardstown in December, and pulled up on heavy ground in the Thyestes Chase at Gowran Park the following month. He is owned by one of the most successful partnerships on the National Hunt scene, Simon Munir and Isaac Souede and it would come as no surprise to see the 10yo involved on Saturday.

The above mentioned Anibale Fly did best of the Irish contenders in the Gold Cup, finishing third, 8 1/2L behind Native River. While he couldn’t go the pace of the first two, Tony Martins 8yo stayed on well to hold on to third place. Given a revised rating of 168 following that Gold Cup effort he gets to race off his previous mark of 159 in this early closing contest giving him 11-7 to carry. His sire Assessor is a big influence for stamina and his legendary owner J.P. McManus would love to bag a second Grand National.

The Nigel Twiston-Davies trained Blaklion ran a marvellous race in last year’s renewal finishing in 4th place. He looked the most likely winner approaching the 2nd from home but took a bump, and was headed between the last two. Slightly hampered at the last he stayed on but lost third place near the line. He ran another fine race over the National fences when winning The Becher Chase, (3m2f) on heavy ground last December, beating The Last Samurai by 9L. Unfortunately this has led to a 9lbs rise in his rating to 161 giving him a racing weight of 11-9 at the weekend, a burden only carried once successfully (by Many Clouds three years ago) since the immortal Red Rum won with 12-0 on his back in 1974. That said his top trainer has won the great race twice before, with Earth Summit in 1998 and Bindaree four years later, so certainly knows what is required, and Blaklion is undoubtedly an improved performer this term.

The David Pipe trained 9yo Vieux Lion Rouge has an enviable record over the big Aintree fences having completed in all four attempts. He was 6th in last year’s National, 7th the year before, finished 7th behind Blaklion in the Beecher Chase last December and won the previous year’s renewal of that same contest. Presumably with the National in mind he has only had one run since early December, finishing a respectable 4th in an Ascot Handicap (17Feb 3mSoft). He will strip a fresh horse on Saturday and off a 2lbs lower mark than last year it wouldn’t be the biggest surprise to see the prize go back to Pond House in Somerset for a third time. (Miinnehoma 1994 Comply Or Die 2008).

Selection: Total Recall

E.W. : Shantou Flyer and Ucello Conti

John Gray

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