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Liverpool Hurdle preview

The Festival of the Fake Tan bottle, also known as Aintree, kicks off tomorrow. Making his debut on my blog is aspiring sports journalist Calum Madell, who has his own website, TheYoungRacegoer and can be followed on Twitter @calummadell.

The Liverpool Hurdle.

Big Bucks looks an absolute certainty in this to take his record to 17 UK hurdle wins from 17 starts and also to land this race for the fourth time in succesion. Unlike last year where he had the prospect of Grand Crus to overcome, there is little to challenge him this year. Obviously anybody can tip a 1/4 shot and I won't be putting him up as a selection. I do like these races as betting proposition, mainly through straight forecasts, betting without the favourite and place markets, which regularly has a bit of value in them.

The question is who do you back to win without the machine that is Big Bucks? Smad Place is the bookie's favourite to do just that however i'm not convinced he is the one. He is one of the least exposed of the field and has made some gallant efforts in good handicaps this year, notably over 2m4f at Ascot off 144 and then off 151, chasing home the smart Bourne over the same C&D. He went well on his first try over 3m when chasing home Big Bucks in the World Hurdle, beating Oscar Whisky and Thousand Stars in the process. On that form he is the one to beat but I feel he was slightly flattered by being stuck right off the pace and all he did was pick up the pieces. He is only a 5yo so more is to come but I don't feel 2nd is a certainty for him.

There is an alarming lack of pace in this and although I can't see that being a hindrance to Big Bucks, it could for others. Tidal Bay is one who looks likely to be held at the back and still seems to have his quirks. He ran over hurdles on his first start for Paul Nicholls when behind Houblon Des Obeaux and Kayf Aramis off top weight in a handicap at Cheltenham. Although since he has run a good race back over fences when 2nd to Midnight Chase in the Argento, he took a step backwards again when last of five in the Denman Chase. The lack of pace does worry me for him in this and I can see him struggling, although ability wise, 2nd is his for the taking.

Paul Nicholls is also represented by Poungach who showed himself to be a potentially decent sort when easily being the smart Cantlow who subsequently finished 3rd in the Pertemps, at Sandown in December. That was just his fourth start over hurdles though he was readily put in his place by Oscar Whisky on New Year's Day at Cheltenham, receiving 8lb and never looking like beating him. Again improvement is likely but a strong pace looks needed for him too and while he should stay, there are others I prefer to chase Big Bucks home.

With a real muddling pace probable, RESTLESS HARRY looks the likely pace setter and will be pretty hard to catch. He has been in good form this year with a grade 2 rout at Wetherby on his reappearance and then victory on heavy at Haydock in between a failed chasing campaign. He was just under 10 lengths behind Big Bucks at Ascot in the Long Walk Hurdle but the pace was surprisingly strong that day and i'd be surprised if they went quick here. Although he was 11th in the Pertemps at Cheltenham, the ground may not have been suitable and he did have to lump top weight. This is a more suitable race for him and it's surprising that one so classy has never raced here. With ground also likely to be on the soft side, Robin Dickin's 8yo should be right at home in this race and he looks to have the best chance of the rest.

Crack Away Jack has now joined Tom George after only being at Paul Nicholls' for a few months. it's been a decent amount of time now since we've seen any real spark from him, especially since his injury problems which meant he missed all of 2010. Although running okay over two miles over fences at Cheltenham, he was well behind Smad Place back over hurdles and then was pulled-up back over fences at the festival. He was quite fancied for all those runs which also means he was probably ready to run well and he hasn't, so he is best ignored here.

I wouldn't discount WON IN THE DARK to run a good race. He took advantage of a decent lead last year when finishing 3rd behind Big Bucks and Grand Crus. There were some smart rivals in behind that day and he has been trained for this race. He hasn't shown much promise this year but has been running at inadequate distances all season. He's another who should appreciate the softer going and the step up to 3 miles should see him back to his old sparkle. He looks overlooked and is worth a shout at his massive price.

Across The Bay is the final runner in the field and on official ratings has a significant amount to find. He's improved this season over hurdles with two good runs at Haydock but he was miles behind Big Bucks in the Cleeve Hurdle and then was pulled-up in the Pertemps.

Verdict

Big Bucks is an absolute certainty in this and 1/4 isn't the worst price ever, though he's not the kind of price you put a selection up at. The value seems to be in the place market and the forecast market. Smad Place is the most fancied of the rest but I still think he was flattered by his 3rd place finish in the World Hurdle because he set right off the pace. He won't be able to do that here and I think others are better value to chase home Paul Nicholls' certainty. Nicholls is also represented by Poungach, who runs for just the sixth time of his career though he was readily put in his place by Oscar Whisky last time and he's yet to convince he's good enough. A muddling pace is likely and that will go right against Tidal Bay who on form is the second best and with an easy lead likely at a sedate pace and ground on the soft side, RESTLESS HARRY looks the best of the rest. He's won two good races this year, notably when routing a grade 2 field on his reappearance at Wetherby. WON IN THE DARK is no forlorn hope either at a massive price. He was 3rd in this last year and has been targeted for this after running over shorter distances in Ireland all year. Finally Crack Away Jack joins Tom George but hasn't been the same for a while and Across The Bay has a lot to find.

Advice
Big Bucks/Restless Harry straight forecast 3pts win
Won In The Dark 2pt place @17/2 Bet365

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