The Grand National at Aintree in April remains the highlight of the steeplechasing year and one of the most anticipated events of the whole sporting calendar. Currently, bookmakers are offering 20-1 the field in their ante-post betting lists.
The early favourite is last year’s Irish Grand National winner Shutthefrontdoor, owned by JP McManus and trained by Jonjo O’Neill. They enjoyed Aintree triumph with Don’t Push It in 2010 but suffered heartache in 2012 when the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner lost his life in a freak accident whilst attempting the big-race double.
Shutthefrontdoor had always promised to be a useful stayer and finished a close sixth in the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham over four miles. He confirmed the promise of that run when winning at Fairyhouse and began his 2014-15 campaign with a comfortable victory at Carlisle.
O’Neill also has Merry King prominent in the ante-post lists after a fine run in the Hennessy Gold Cup in November. He is another dour stayer but proved disappointing last season after a similarly encouraging effort at Newbury.
Trainer Paul Nicholls ended his Grand National hoodoo with Neptune Collonges in 2012 and he looks to have an ideal candidate with Unioniste.
Like Neptune Collonges, he is a grey gelding racing in the colours of John Hales. He was trained with the Gold Cup in mind last year and although he fell short of that standard he remains a top quality handicapper, especially when the mud is flying.
Nicholls firmly believes that Rocky Creek has the class to win a Grand National and he will have benefitted from his run round in fifth place last season. Stable companion Sam Winner is also prominent in the early lists but may be handicapped out of it after some fine efforts at Grade 1 level.
Last year’s race may be a useful guide in helping to find the 2015 Grand National winner. Pineau De Re is on course to attempt back-to-back victories in the race, a feat last achieved by Red Rum in 1973 and 1974. Runner-up Balthazar King is also being trained specifically for this race along with Alvarado and Monbeg Dude who both ran with credit in 2014.
Monbeg Dude won the Welsh National in 2013 and advertised his claims last year with a fine victory in a Grade 2 chase at Cheltenham. He survived a couple of mistakes to finish seventh in last year’s Grand National and connections will be hoping for softer ground this time.
He caught the eye when running on into fourth place in the Hennessy behind Many Clouds. He again ran well at Chepstow in December when finishing fourth behind Emperors Choice and is sure to be among the leading contenders in April.
Alvarado maintained an incredible sequence for owners Angela and William Rucker when finishing fourth last year. The Rucker family have now had a horse placed in each of the last six Grand Nationals dating back to State Of Play in 2009.
Cheltenham festival winner Spring Heeled could also be aimed at Aintree this year. Jim Culloty’s eight-year-old held off the challenge of Cause Of Causes to win the Kim Muir in March. He has since finished fifth in the Gold Cup at Sandown and fourth in the Galway Plate. Culloty may run Spring Heeled over hurdles until the weights are published for Aintree in an effort to protect his handicap mark. Good ground is the preferred surface for the son of Old Vic.
Mendip Express may just have booked his Aintree ticket when running on late to finish second to Oscar Time in the Becher Handicap Chase in December. Harry Fry’s nine-year-old has won four of his eight races under rules with his only disappointment coming when pulled up in the Scottish National last year.
The Grand National takes place at Aintree on Saturday 11th April 2015 with a TV audience expected to be in advance of 600 million people.
By Harvey Mayson