2:05 Unibet Many Clouds Chase (Grade 2) 3m 210y
Protektorat looks a terrible favourite in the Many Clouds having been beaten a distance on his only previous start at around three miles, and he will need to stay further to cope with this trip on the most testing ground we’ve seen in some time. It’s a no from me.
Many people believe that, with his 12th birthday on the horizon, Native River is a busted flush, but I could not disagree more.
This is one of the most consistent, straightforward and reliable staying chasers in training, and the one time he had conditions in his favour last term, he looked pretty much as good as ever, slamming an in-form Bristol De Mai in the Cotswold Chase last February.
As usual, a combination of superb jumping and bottomless stamina won the day at Sandown, and those qualities will be much needed again here. Native River won this race by a street in 2019 when bullying Might Bite early, and although beaten last year, that was purely down to the dolling off of all the fences in the straight.
I’d recommend watching the first circuit again, when he took on Frodon for the lead, and again tossed that one aside through the sheer power of his jumping – no easy feat against a horse who uses his own bold jumping as his chief weapon.
He is, to steal the title of Greg Davies’ popular stand-up special, a magnificent beast, and he can silence his detractors with another trademark display of jumping and galloping, assuming they deign to jump all the bloomin’ fences.
2:40 Unibet Becher Handicap Chase (Grade 3) 3m1f188y
Betting in the Becher is all about finding value, so it’s hard to recommend the favourite in such an open-looking contest where luck will play its part.
In terms of wearing my heart on my sleeve, I will be cheering heartily for Snow Leopardess, who doesn’t know how to run a bad race, and will surely relish the chance to tackle these fences given the way she jumps on park courses.
Her one weakness is a relative lack of tactical speed, and her only below par run last season was when she was waited with on the Mildmay Course here on Grand National Day. She was a joy to watch when making all on her return at Bangor, and a 5lb rise leaves her favourably treated.
She was ridden aggressively at Bangor, and I’d hope Aidan Coleman would do the same this time. At around 6/1, however, I’ll confine my involvement to cheering.
Didero Vallis has twice jumped around here in the Grand Sefton, and has shown that he needs a trip in excess of three miles, so ought to do better now upped in trip over these fences.
He’s warmed up for previous tries here with a spin at Ascot, and did so again this time, finishing sixth of 14 to Larry in Bateaux London Gold Cup at the end of October.
That run would have been designed to set him up for this, and with the soft ground and extra half mile placing extra emphasis on stamina, he is a fairly confident shout to improve on previous fifth- and eighth-placed finishes here.
He certainly appeals as capable of beating most of these given his record over the fences and his yard’s form, so 25/1 with seven places on offer (I know, I know) makes genuine appeal.
3:15 Unibet - Horserace Betting Operator Of The Year Handicap Hurdle 2m4f
With Finn Lambert’s 10lb claim, and some lenient handicapping, Ballyandy sees himself effectively running off a mark of 130 here, and for a horse placed in both the Welsh Champion and Greatwood Hurdles last autumn off 154, that is a remarkable drop.
True, he’s not fired since an excellent third in the International Hurdle a year ago, but he’s been held up in ground faster than ideal on the latest runnings of those handicaps mentioned, and he is most effective when the ground is testing.
When returned to the track within eight weeks of a previous run, his record over hurdles on soft or heavy ground reads 31342318233, with the blip coming in the 2020 Champion Hurdle.
He’s almost certainly on the downgrade, but has a much better chance of expressing himself in these conditions, and he must go close if retaining even a modicum of his old enthusiasm.
1:50 Close Brothers Henry VIII Novices’ Chase (Grade 1) 1m 7f 119y
I’ve had a change of heart after looking at this race again. I was initially inclined to be against Il Ridoto on the basis of his quick turnaround after winning in handicap company at Newbury last weekend, assuming he must have had a fairly hard race despite winning easily, but my concerns have been assuaged, and I think he’s value against likeliest winner Third Time Lucki.
I’m told Il Ridoto didn’t even look like he’d had a race at Newbury, and while such statements are often hyperbole, this one comes from a racecourse habitué who is not prone to such exaggeration.
I recall being equally impressed by the demeanour of Big Buck’s after he had beaten an exhausted-looking Punchestowns in the Cleeve Hurdle some years ago, and will trust Paul Nicholls’ judgment with the exciting four-year-old.
That age group have an excellent record in this race despite being considerably under-represented in terms of runners, and Il Ridoto dispatched some useful handicappers with imperious ease at Newbury.
Third Time Lucki remains the one to beat, but there is a niggling doubt about how well he will come up the hill, and the younger horse could easily take advantage of the concession of weight-for-age.
2:25 Betfair Tingle Creek Chase (Grade 1) 1m 7f 119y
A cracking contest seems certain, but can you bet on it? I’ve no doubt that a peak Chacun Pour Soi would beat a peak Nube Negra nine times out of 10, but I doubt that the favourite will be at his best for this return, and that very much opens the door to Nube Negra, for whom fitness is no issue. Dan Skelton’s charge is a fine jumper, and will punish any weakness shown by Chacun Pour Soi.
Chacun Pour Soi is at his best when pressing on, with his Champion Chase defeat put down to the adoption of more patient tactics. The question here is whether Willie and Patrick Mullins will want to be aggressive on a horse who is likely to improve for the run.
My gut feeling is that they won’t want to subject him to an unnecessarily hard race with other targets in mind, and if he’s nursed around, I fancy that Nube Negra will do him for a finishing kick up the hill.
3:00 Betfair Exchange London National Handicap Chase 3m 4f 166y
Rather you than me, squire. Pass.
3:35 Betfair Daily Rewards December Handicap Hurdle (Listed) 1m 7f 216y
It’s possible that we can find a bit of value in this competitive handicap hurdle, but not from the usual sources.
The most interesting runner here hasn’t raced over hurdles since flopping at Bellewstown for Gordon Elliott last summer, but Zambezi Fix has improved for a switch to Bernard Llewellyn, and is unlucky not to have added to his sole success at Wexford since that move.
Perhaps unlucky isn’t the word, as it has been a tendency to make mistakes over fences which has cost him, notably beaten a nose at Chepstow in March after missing two of the last three fences, and when falling at Ffos Las on his latest start when appearing to be full of running. He travelled as if well ahead of his mark there, and given he’s got a 5lb lower hurdles mark, he’s surely capable of exploiting it, his chase runs screaming that he will prove at least as good over smaller obstacles.
Native River 2:05 Aintree – 2pts win @ 11/4 (Hills, 5/2 general)
Didero Vallis 2:40 Aintree – 1pt e/w @ 28/1 (Hills, 25/1 SkyBet – 7 places)
Ballyandy 3:15 Aintree – 1pt e/w @ 20/1 (general)
Il Ridoto 1:50 Sandown – 1pt win @ 7/1 (general)
Zambezi Fix 3:35 Sandown – 1pt e/w @ 12/1 (BetVictor, Betfred, Boyles – 4 places)