To state the obvious, the 2021 Randox Grand National revolves around red-hot favourite Cloth Cap, a horse who seems to tick just about every box for the Aintree spectacular.
A runaway winner of the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury in November, the nine-year-old ran out a similarly dominant victor of his National prep race at Kelso last month.
As a consequence, he’s officially a stone well-in at the weights, a huge advantage in a marathon test such as this. He’s also trained by a man who excels with staying chasers in 2010 National-winning handler Jonjo O’Neill and is owned by a man with a remarkable record in the world’s most famous jumps race in three-time winner Trevor Hemmings.
And the fact he was able to finish third in the 2019 Scottish National over four miles as a seven-year-old suggests stamina shouldn’t be an issue. To add to his already considerable appeal, he loves decent ground.
So what’s not to like? Well the price for starters. With 39 rivals to beat and 30 fences to negotiate, odds as short of 4-1 look incredibly short. Cloth Cap made all at Newbury and Kelso but those tactics will be hard to replicate in a National and could leave him vulnerable at the business end of proceedings.
It’s also worth noting that while he has been mightily impressive this season, he has yet to encounter an Irish-trained horse.
That’s significant as it’s not just the Cheltenham Festival where the Irish have dominated of late. Four of the first five in the 2019 National were Irish, as were the first four in 2018 when Tiger Roll landed the first of his two Aintree
That’s not to say that Cloth Cap can’t beat the best of the Irish but the fact is he has yet to do so. And at twice the price of the National favourite, the Willie Mullins-trained Burrows Saint looks an appealing alternative.
An impressive winner of the 2019 Irish Grand National, the eight-year-old has won just one of his six subsequent starts but three of his last four runs were over hurdles while his most recent effort over the bigger obstacles came on unsuitably testing ground when second to stablemate Acapella Bourgeois in the Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse at the end of February.
Hedgehunter took in the same race en route to Aintree glory in 2005 and the fact Mullins opted to go down that route with Burrows Saint bodes well for his prospects. Granted luck in running — a critical factor in an Aintree National — he should go mightily close in the hands of Patrick Mullins.
Outside of Cloth Cap, the market is dominated by Irish contenders and Minella Times for the all-conquering pair of Henry de Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore and the Ted Walsh-trained Any Second Now warrant serious respect.
However, at significantly bigger prices, Milan Native and Anibale Fly make each-way appeal.
Victorious in the Kim Muir at last year’s Cheltenham Festival, Milan Native didn’t fire on his return to the Cotwolds when ninth in the Ultima last month but that was his first run after a wind op and the expectation is he’ll be seen to much better effect today.
Anibale Fly is an intriguing contender. Fourth to Tiger Roll in 2018, Tony Martin’s charge finished fifth to the same horse a year later. He has shown next to nothing since but the 11-year-old has tumbled down the weights as a result and is dangerously handicapped if retaining the ability that twice saw him placed in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
That’s a significant if but odds of 25-1 reflect that reality and his impressive CV suggests he can again hit the frame.
Away from the National, dual Cheltenham Festival hero Shishkin is impossible to oppose in the Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase.
The other Grade Ones looks more competitive but Dan Skelton’s My Drogo looks an exciting prospect and he can land the spoils in the Betway Mersey Novices’ Hurdle while Thyme Hill, who missed the Cheltenham Festival after an 11th hour setback, can get back to winning ways in the Ryanair Stayers Hurdle.
But while that would be significant success for Tom O’Brien, a man tasked when filling the considerable void left by the retired Richard Johnson, there’s no doubt that today is all about the Grand National.
And while Cloth Cap is clearly the most likely winner, Burrows Saint is a huge threat. Come 5.30pm this afternoon, it may well be a case of Saint be praised.
2.25: My Drogo (Nap)
3.35: Thyme Hill (NB)
6.20: Sure Touch (Each-way)
1: Burrows Saint
2: Cloth Cap
3: Milan Native
4: Anibale Fly