There’s some small but select fields to start the three-day Aintree Festival on Thursday.
It’s ironic that the focus in the UK is on the trainers tussle between Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls, but the Irish Trainers Championship has had a big effect on runner numbers.
Willie Mullins has left his big battalions at home for the up-coming Fairyhouse and Punchestown festivals as he tries to narrow the gap on Gordon Elliott at the top of the table.
But the pretender to the throne has plenty of ammunition to fire on Merseyside in the days ahead.
The feature race on day one is the Grade 1 Betway Bowl (2.50pm) and I’m sticking with Elliott’s Empire of Dirt to atone for Cheltenham losses.
Many thought the 2m 5f trip of the Ryanair Chase caught him out that day, particularly when his Leopardstown conqueror Sizing John franked the form by winning the Gold Cup.
But I was at the start for ITV and as soon as they jumped off I knew Empire of Dirt would struggle. He ‘put down’ on jockey Bryan Cooper at the first fence and was always playing catch up after that. He just ran a bit flat.
If he’s recovered some of his earlier sparkle, he can get back to winning ways on Thursday at the expense of last year’s winner, Cue Card.
Colin Tizzard’s runner fell at the exact same fence last month in the Gold Cup as he did 12 months ago. However, he’s a year older now and it could be asking a lot for him to bounce back in such style again this time.
One that could out-run his price is Silviniaco Conti. He’s a dual winner of this race, he swerved Cheltenham, so is fresher than most of the field.
And that’s the problem I have with Bristol De Mai. He was an impressive winner at Haydock before running third to Native River at Newbury. He’d a tough race that day, but still managed to run really well in the Gold Cup, finishing seventh. A mistake late on definitely cost him a few places but I fear this contest may come too quick for him again.
Tea for Two ended Lizzie Kelly’s Gold Cup dream at the second fence when he unseated her. He’s never won going left-handed though and I don’t think he’ll start now.
We start off the day (but not the ITV coverage) with the 2m 4f Novices Chase (1.45pm). Only six runners go to post and I’m reluctant to put up a short-price fav in Top Notch on the first race of a three-day Festival, despite a good second to Yorkhill at Cheltenham.
He lacks a bit of scope and tends to make a mistake in his races. If he does that here it will cost him and at the prices, I’d prefer to take a chance on Paul Nicholls’ Frodon.
He’s won his last two chases, including the valuable Caspian Caviar Gold Cup in December and I love the way he goes about his job.
The two hurdle races on the card feature the impressive Triumph Hurdle and Champion Hurdle winners in Defi Du Seuil (2.20pm) and Buveur D’air (3.25pm). Both are long odds on and shouldn’t have much trouble in adding to their tally here.
The Foxhunters Chase at 4.05pm gives On the Fringe the chance to get back in the winner’s enclosure after things didn’t work out for him as planned at Cheltenham. He was well back in the field for most of the way and at 12 years old now, can’t make up the ground as quick as he used to.
He sets the standard and his price reflects that, but there’s 29 runners declared and the likes of Balnaslow, last year’s third Mendip Express and Poole Master at double-digit prices offer more value each-way.
The ITV coverage ends with the 2m Handicap Chase at 4.40pm and the Grand Annual Chase at Cheltenham could hold the key to this. I fancy Theinval to confirm his run there with Irish challenger Dandridge where they finished third and fourth to Rock the World.
Theinval won a handicap hurdle here in 2015 off the same mark of 144, so looks well treated off the same mark over jumps.
Irish rider Paul Townend is an eye-catching booking for Astare De La Cour and can hit the places in the same race.