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All the latest news and updates from Aintree Racecourse ahead of the start of the Randox Health Grand National Festival.

BAKER LOOKS FORWARD TO START OF 2017 RANDOX HEALTH GRAND NATIONAL FESTIVAL

John Baker, Jockey Club Racecourses Regional Director, North West, is ‘excited’ about the start of this year’s Randox Health Grand National Festival, which begins with Grand Opening Day at Aintree racecourse tomorrow.

This year’s three-day meeting has once again attracted a stellar line-up of horses, including a number of winners from last month’s Cheltenham Festival, such as G1 Stan James Champion Hurdle victor Buveur D’Air, G1 RSA Chase winner Might Bite and G1 JCB Triumph Hurdle scorer Defi Du Seuil.

Baker said: “I’m really excited about the racing. Looking at the number of Cheltenham winners we’ve got coming is fantastic and the declarations for Thursday’s racing are brilliant.

“There is real feel-good factor and buzz around the meeting itself this year. Obviously, we’re immersed in getting the site ready but now the butterflies are going and we can’t wait to get started.”

Regarding ticket sales for this year’s meeting, Baker continued: “Things have gone well – sales have been good and we will have 150,000 people through the gates over the three days.

“The weather looks good at this stage as well. We will have 30,000 people here on Thursday, 50,000 on Friday for Ladies Day and then we are at capacity for Grand National day itself with a 70,000 crowd.

“Hospitality sales have been tremendous, which has been a real bonus for us, so we will have over 11,000 people in hospitality this week which is great.

“We have a couple of hundred tickets left for the Steeplechase Enclosure for Saturday. They will have gone before Saturday comes. Tickets are still available for Thursday (Grand Opening Day) and Friday (Ladies Day).

“We’re in really good shape. The team here at Aintree have done a tremendous job of getting everything ready. The track looks in tremendous order so we are really pleased with it.

“Obviously, a dry week poses its own challenges on the track but it is nice and cold here today so that will probably save us from watering too much.”

Focusing on the feature race of the meeting, Saturday’s £1-million Randox Health Grand National, Baker was also delighted about the high-quality field of 40 set to line-up for this year’s renewal, which includes 2014 G1 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Lord Windermere, 2014 G1 Stayers’ Hurdle victor More Of That and 2016 runner-up The Last Samuri.

Baker remarked: “I think the Grand National is becoming a race full of class horses. Many Clouds (2015 winner) was a high-class individual and Rule The World (2016 victor) had high-class form in the book and that is the sort of horse you need for the race now. We’re very pleased with the quality this year and there are a lot of positive stories going into the race itself.”

The 2017 meeting also marks a number of momentous landmarks in Aintree’s rich heritage, which includes the 20-year anniversary of the bomb scare at the meeting, which saw the Grand National abandoned and subsequently staged on a Monday and the 40-year anniversary of Red Rum etching his name into Aintree folklore after the Ginger McCain-trained gelding recorded his third win in the extended four and a quarter-mile event.

Baker commented: “The bomb scare is just another story which speaks volumes about the people of Liverpool and what they are about. To get the race on again for the Monday in front of a massive TV audience was phenomenal – the way the people of Liverpool embraced that and how they looked after people shows that the event was just another incredible chapter in Grand National history. That is what the race does every year and it is what it will do again this year.

“It’s also 40 years since Red Rum’s third Grand National win, 50 years since Foinavon’s victory and 100 years since the race was run at Gatwick.”

ON THE FRINGE OF GREATNESS

Aintree’s Grand National fences will be in use for the first time this year when 29 horses line up in tomorrow’s Randox Health Fox Hunters’ Chase (4.05).

Run over two miles and five furlongs, the event is a highlight of the year for amateur riders – completing the course gains them the accolades of their peers, but to win bestows a level of greatness.

In that regard, Sam Waley-Cohen has achieved legendary status with his exploits over the big fences, including winning the Randox Health Fox Hunters’ Chase on three occasions (Katarino 2005, 2006, and Warne 2014). Tomorrow he rides Black Thunder for trainer Warren Greatrex, having pulled up the same horse in the 2016 Randox Health Grand National.

Not that respect and adulation are reserved for the winning riders – the horses, too, gain status by an Aintree win, and so a third straight success in the race for On The Fringe would add to his place among hunter chasing’s greatest performers. On The Fringe won the race in 2015 and 2016, while his trainer, Limerick’s Enda Bolger, has won it three times, for he also saddled Elegant Lord to win in 1999.

Should On The Fringe score again, he would join Credit Call (1972, ’75, ’76) as three-time winners of the race.

The key danger to On The Fringe would appear to be Pacha Du Polder, who is trained by Paul Nicholls and ridden by Bryony Frost. The trio teamed up to win the St James’s Place Foxhunter Chase at last month’s Cheltenham Festival (On The Fringe fourth), and Nicholls said on his Betfair Blog: “He has been a wonderful horse and a great servant for us. He has finished second [2015] and fifth [2016] in the race, but he wasn’t at his best last year. He’d had quite a lot of runs before Cheltenham and a hard race there, but this time he’s going to Aintree relatively fresh. He loves the big fences.”

Ireland’s most successful point-to-point rider, Derek O’Connor, has yet to win a race over the Grand National fences, but he could go close on Balnaslow, who finished fifth at Cheltenham, but only three lengths behind Pacha Du Polder, having made much of the running. Third on that occasion was the 100/1 outsider Barel Of Laughs, who was trained in Shropshire by Phil Rowley and ridden by Alex Edwards – the two men team up tomorrow with Bear’s Affair.

Quick ground and East Anglian point-to-point tracks bring out the best in multiple winner Broken Eagle, who now puts his talents to a different test for trainer Alan Hill, who won the race as a rider on Border Burg (1987) and Sheer Jest (1995). Hill will leg his son Joe, 21, up for the spin on Broken Eagle. Stuart Coltherd trained Tartan Snow to win the 2013 race under Jamie Hamilton – tomorrow, Stuart’s wife Lesley tries to match the feat with Damiens Dilemma, while Jamie’s brother, Tom, rides Flash Garden.

Former leading Flat trainer David Loder is a part-owner in Distime, who is trained by his wife Angie and ridden by Katie Walsh, an ambassador for the Randox Health Grand National Festival, while Britain’s five-time point-to-point champion rider, Will Biddick, partners Mr Mercurial for the stable of Sheila Crow. Premier Portrait, who won eight point-to-points last season and became Britain’s champion in that sport, will line up under Gus Levinson, 18, the son of the horse’s owner/trainer, Charles Levinson.

At 15 Big Fella Thanks is the oldest horse in the race, but he has a fine Aintree record and should be a superb spin for teenager Noel George, the son of trainer Tom. Eight years ago Big Fella Thanks was sixth in Mon Mome’s Grand National, and then fourth the following year. The colours of Johnny Weatherby, chairman of Weatherbys, racing’s key administrative hub, and Her Majesty’s representative at Ascot, will be carried by the Kelly Morgan-trained Decade Player.

One to consider is Loch Ba, trained by Fran Nimmo – the partner of jockey Charlie Poste – for owner/rider James Jackson-Stops. Loch Ba has hacked up in recent hunters’ chases at Wincanton and Carlisle, while Sam Cavallaro has a good record over short trips, especially at Cheltenham, although he fell in the Randox Health Fox Hunters’ Chase last year. He is trained by Heidi Brookshaw, whose father, Steve, trained Lord Gyllene to win the 1997 Randox Health Grand National.

Declared runners for Friday’s G1 JLT Melling Chase

3.25pm £200,000 JLT Melling Chase (Grade 1) 2m 4f
1 Fox Norton (FR) (Hood) Colin Tizzard 11st 7lb Robbie Power
2 God’s Own (IRE) Tom George 11st 7lb A. P. Heskin
3 Josses Hill (IRE) (Sheepskin C/P) Nicky Henderson 11st 7lb Nico de Boinville
4 Kylemore Lough Kerry Lee 11st 7lb Jamie Moore
5 Royal Regatta (IRE) (Blinkers, Tongue Strap) Philip Hobbs 11st 7lb Richard Johnson
6 Sub Lieutenant (IRE) (Tongue Strap) Henry de Bromhead, Ireland 11st 7lb B. J. Cooper
7 Top Gamble (IRE) (Tongue Strap) Kerry Lee 11st 7lb Davy Russell
8 Traffic Fluide (FR) Gary Moore 11st 7lb Joshua Moore
9 Uxizandre (FR) (Visor) Alan King 11st 7lb Barry Geraghty

GOD’S OWN BIDS TO JOIN DOUBLE HEADERS IN JLT MELLING CHASE

God’s Own bids to join an illustrious line of dual winners of the Grade One JLT Melling Chase, which has £200,000 in prize money, when taking his place among nine runners in this year’s race over two and a half miles at Aintree on Friday (3.25pm).

The Tom George-trained nine-year-old was sent off a 10/1 shot when beating six rivals last year, and while the favourite, Vautour, fell when leading and going strongly at the ninth fence, God’s Own beat him on merit when the pair met at Punchestown a few weeks later.

Adrian Heskin will ride God’s Own, who, if successful, would join some illustrious names who have won the event twice – they include such stars as Viking Flagship, Direct Route, Native Upmanship, Moscow Flyer and Voy Por Ustedes.

The mighty Sprinter Sacre won the JLT Melling Chase in 2013, while Don Cossack proved his talent and versatility when taking the prize in 2014 – the following year he stepped up in trip over a very different track and landed the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup.

On his latest start God’s Own finished fifth in the two-mile Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. At Aintree on Friday, he will meet several horses who also contested that race, including Fox Norton (Robbie Power), the Colin Tizzard-trained seven-year-old who finished runner-up, just a head behind winner Special Tiara.

The Kerry Lee-trained Top Gamble (Davy Russell), who was fourth, and sixth-placed Traffic Fluide (Joshua Moore) from Gary Moore’s stable are also among the JLT Melling Chase’s declared runners.

While the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase runners are stepping up in trip for Friday’s test, those who tackled the Ryanair Chase over nearly two miles and five furlongs are facing a slightly shorter challenge and on a flatter track.

Sub Lieutenant (Bryan Cooper), trained by Henry De Bromhead and therefore a stablemate of Special Tiara, ran a super race in the Ryanair to finish second to Un De Sceaux. Further behind was the Nicky Henderson-trained Josses Hill (Nico de Boinville)in fifth and Uxizandre (Barry Geraghty), from Alan King’s stable, in seventh. Uxizandre had won the Ryanair Chase in 2015, becoming Sir A P McCoy’s final winner at The Festival.

Royal Regatta, who last raced in February when third to Cue Card in the G1 Ascot Chase at Ascot, will be reunited with champion jockey Richard Johnson. In November last year he won at Ascot, beating Kylemore Lough (Jamie Moore) by a head. Kylemore Lough, a stablemate of Top Gamble at Kerry Lee’s Herefordshire yard, completes Friday’s field.

DEFINITLY MAY BE NATIONAL FAVOURITE

Definitly Red is the 9/1 favourite for the Randox Health Grand National with Betway, official betting partner of the Randox Health Grand National Festival, on the eve of the first day of the meeting, Grand Opening Day on Thursday, April 6.

The Brian Ellison-trained gelding just shades favouritism at the moment from 10/1 shot More Of That (owned by J P McManus), who is the chosen mount of Barry Geraghty, while another of McManus’ horses, Cause Of Causes (the intended ride of amateur jockey Jamie Codd), is an 11/1 chance alongside the David Pipe-trained Vieux Lion Rouge.

“Definitly Red heads our market ahead of the final declarations for the Randox Health Grand National but it’s impossible to say with any confidence at the moment who will actually go off as favourite for this year’s race,” said Betway spokesman Alan Alger.

Looking ahead to tomorrow’s action, Cue Card is the 13/8 favourite with the sponsors to win the Grade One Betway Bowl for the second successive season, while Champion Hurdler Buveur d’Air is the red-hot 4/11 jolly for the Grade One Betway Aintree Hurdle over two and a half miles.

Top Notch heads the betting at 5/4 for the Grade One Merseyrail Manifesto Novices’ Chase with Betway, while Cheltenham Festival winner Defi Du Seuil is the odds-on market leader for the Doom Bar Anniversary 4YO Juvenile Hurdle at 2/7.

GERAGHTY RED HOT FAVOURITE TO BE TOP JOCKEY

Barry Geraghty has been installed by Betway as the red-hot favourite to be the Racing UK Leading Rider at this year’s Randox Health Grand National Festival. The firm, which is the official betting partner of the Randox Grand National Festival, make the jockey, who is retained by leading owner J P McManus, the 1/2 market leader ahead of Richard Johnson at 9/1 and Bryan Cooper at 12/1.
“Barry Geraghty has got a host of fancied rides at Aintree this year and, if hotpots Buveur d’Air and Defi Du Seuil do the business on Grand Opening Day, he could prove very difficult to catch,” said Betway spokesman Alan Alger.

Betway has also priced up the Irish Thoroughbred Marketing Leading Trainer Award and make Nicky Henderson the 1/6 favourite to come out on top at the end of the three days. Paul Nicholls is a 6/1 shot with Colin Tizzard and Philip Hobbs next in the market at 14/1.

BUY A RANDOX HEALTH GRAND NATIONAL RUNNER

A horse with a Randox Health Grand National entry will be offered for sale in Aintree’s winner’s enclosure after racing tomorrow.

Just A Par, who is handled by Britain’s 10-time champion Jump trainer Paul Nicholls, is Lot 1 in a catalogue of 24 horses being placed on the market by auctioneers Goffs UK. The bay 10-year-old seems to come to his best in the spring, and landed Sandown’s bet365 Chase in April, 2015 before finishing a short-head second in the same race last year.

Priced at 40/1 with Betway, the official betting partner of the Randox Health Grand National Festival, for victory in Saturday’s £1-million showpiece, Just A Par showed his well-being when winning a handicap chase at Newbury last month under leading conditional jockey and intended big-race partner Harry Cobden, who carried the colours of Paul Barber and the executors of the late Graham Roach.

Labaik, who won the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle for Gordon Elliott’s stable at Cheltenham last month, and was included in the original catalogue for tomorrow’s sale, has been withdrawn, but there are plenty more exciting young horses for buyers to consider.

The Irish point-to-point circuit has been a fertile source of horses who have gone on to achieve great things under Rules in Britain and Ireland, and it has been the starting place for a number of the sale’s enviable lots. They include Fullasthesea (Lot 5), Some Man (Lot 9), Plan Of Attack (Lot 14), Madison To Monroe (Lot 20), Kupatana (Lot 21) and Clondaw Native (Lot 26) who are all four-year-olds with a record of having run once and won – they have shown the ability to jump, race and display a degree of stamina, but are raw enough to encourage interest from leading owners and trainers. The top price at last year’s inaugural edition of the sale was £335,000 for an Irish pointer called Samcro, who has since run twice in bumpers and won each time.

A small number of British point-to-point trainers are also proving adept at readying a newcomer for a race before heading to market, and they too have representation in the Goffs UK catalogue. Present In Court (Lot 12), The In Thing (Lot 13) and Blackbow (Lot 16), are four-year-olds with a single run-and-win record in British point-to-points.

Horses with bumper form are also commonly found in catalogues of this type – Mark Johnston, the Middleham trainer best known for his raids on Royal Ascot and the Qatar Goodwood Festival, offers Golden Jeffrey (Lot 2), a four-year-old who won a bumper at Catterick on his most recent start in February. Contented (Lot 8), also comes via the bumper route, having been third at Thurles last month for Johnny Hurley’s stable.

Cresswell Legend (Lot 28) from Kim Bailey’s stable, has winning form in an Irish point-to-point and a Huntingdon bumper. Tomorrow’s appearance in the ring will be his second inside 12 months, for he made €75,000 when knocked down to Bailey at Goffs’ Punchestown Sale during the festival meeting at that track last year.

Horses in the catalogue can be viewed at Aintree from 1pm today, and the sale takes place at 5.45pm after tomorrow’s final race, the Grade Two Goffs Nickel Coin Mares’ bumper.

CLARKE LOOKING FORWARD TO MORE HISTORY MAKERS IN 2017 RANDOX HEALTH GRAND NATIONAL

Aintree historian Jane Clarke is anticipating another superb renewal of the Randox Health Grand National, the feature race of the 2017 Randox Health Grand National Festival, which begins with Grand Opening Day at Aintree racecourse tomorrow, Thursday, April 6.

Clarke, whose interest in the race was sparked as a seven-year-old, works for the racecourse as their historian but is also curator of the Aintree Racecourse museum, which plays host to a wide array of Grand National memorabilia from the race’s rich heritage. During the rest of the year, Clarke operates as a tour guide for the racecourse.

Regarding her role at the racecourse, Clarke said: “I am termed the historian at Aintree – the Grand National nut might be a more accurate description! I have been passionate about the race since I was a seven-year-old and I’ve been coming up to Aintree since I was old enough to travel. I got to know the management and helped them open the museum-cum-visitors’ centre where we have about 2,000 artefacts and memorabilia about the Grand National, and it was my pleasure to collect most of that!

“My tasks are varied here. I give out the jackets for the grooms on the three days of the Grand National meeting and I organise the parade of the previous winners who come back on Grand National day, which is unbelievable as it is really special to see those old heroes. I also answer all the questions that come in on the Aintree website from people who ask about horses and jockeys who took part in past Grand Nationals. I also take tour groups of disadvantaged people, those with learning difficulties or dementia, and local school children round the racecourse and I very much enjoy that. I show them the artefacts, let them try on the jockeys’ silks and allow them to walk on the turf – I find that very fulfilling.”

Reflecting on the importance of the Grand National as not only a spectacle, but also as an event that captures the hearts and minds of the British people, Clarke continued: “Aintree has a huge place in my heart. When I saw the Grand National in the early 1960s, it just grabbed me as I had never seen anything like it before. It was the unpredictability of the race, the unknown if you like, which, I have come to realise is a mirror of life it is as you never know what is going to happen. You don’t know who is going to come first, who is going to fall at the first fence; it’s glorious in a way.

“It is one of the few sporting events left which has such a long and colourful history. The race has all the ingredients of life and once the tapes go up, nobody knows what is going to happen. It’s the only marathon chase with 40 runners and it is the race that all the jockeys who ride in it want to win.

“I think the Grand National is a proud part of Liverpool, a proud part of the heritage and long may it reign because it is absolutely unique. The race has a character of its own and it will be what it will be despite what we do to it.”

The 2017 meeting also marks a number of momentous landmarks in Aintree’s rich heritage. They include the 20-year anniversary of the bomb scare at the meeting, which saw the Grand National abandoned and subsequently staged on a Monday, and the 40-year anniversary of Red Rum etching his name into Aintree folklore when the Ginger McCain-trained gelding recorded his third win in the extended four and a quarter-mile event. Foinavon’s iconic 1967 Grand National victory occurred 50 years ago.

Clarke remarked: “All the anniversaries seem to be coming up this year and we have a lovely Red Rum exhibition to mark his third victory. It’s very poignant that Brian Fletcher, who rode Red Rum to two victories in the race died this year, and Foinavon’s jockey John Buckingham died as well, but we still remember them all. When I talk to the various groups I take round Aintree, the two horses they always remember are Red Rum and Foinavon even if they weren’t alive at the time, they still know about those two horses.”

Looking ahead to this year’s renewal of the world’s most famous chase, Clarke is keen on the chances of Tom George’s Double Shuffle. The seven-year-old son of Milan is a 40/1 chance with Betway, the official betting partner of the Randox Health Grand National Festival and finished a half-length second in a G3 handicap chase at Kempton on his latest start in February.

Clarke added: “He hasn’t been talked about all that much but I do like Double Shuffle. Tom George and Adrian Heskin are in great form and that is the one I have got my fingers crossed for.”