Quality National Hunt around Britain tomorrow with the ravaged-by-non-runners Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown, and the Becher and Grand Sefton at Aintree. It's the latter pair which has captured the attention of aspiring racing journalist, Adam Webb. Read more of his work at OnTheOtherHoof and follow him on @adamwebb121
Betfred Becher Handicap Chase
Grade 3, £140,000, approx 3m2f
1340 local 0040 AEDST
Since the Becher Chase was introduced to the calendar in 1992, the race has become one of the most recognised trials leading towards the Grand National in April with three horses having completed the double. Both Amberleigh House and Silver Birch used this as a springboard to Aintree success whilst Earth Summit completed it after winning the world’s most famous steeplechase earlier in the year. Plenty of other Becher winners have performed with enormous credit including the likes of Samlee, Clan Royal and Black Apalachi who all went on to finished placed.
Seventeen runners head to post for this year’s renewal with no less than half the field priced at 12/1, indicating the competitive nature towards the head of the weights. General favourite with most firms and heading the Irish challenge is Goonyella. The eight year old gelding has missed out on the previous two renewals of the Grand National due to being too low in the ratings and only got as far as the first fence in this contest twelve months ago.
However, an impressive win in this year’s Midlands National at Uttoxeter and a third place in the Scottish equivalent at Ayr behind Wayward Prince ensures he will be guaranteed a run next year. With the likely testing ground at Aintree on Saturday and a pipe-opener over hurdles at Cork having blown away the cobwebs, he would hold strong claims but the main concern which covers several of the leading contenders is whether this will be seen as a ‘sighter’ before a return in April. It’s worth noting his mark of 150 looks fairly stiff also with April in mind.
Other leading Irish contenders to fit the ‘sighter’ category include Irish National victor Thunder And Roses and Bet365 Gold Cup runner up Vics Canvas. Trainer of the former Sandra Hughes nominated this as an early season target, wanting to give the son of Presenting a view of the place before returning in April. The other concern with Thunder And Roses is his jumping.
Whilst the changes at Aintree have made the course easier to an extent, the fences still take some jumping and he will need to be foot perfect which isn’t guaranteed. The latter has very few chase starts for a horse aged 12 and ran a career best when second to Just A Par at Sandown. His return at Haydock when sixth behind Baradari in the Fixed Brush Hurdle was a fair effort considering the trip was always going to be on the sharp side against progressive younger horses. A Cork National winner last season, conditions shouldn’t faze him but he would ideally like further.
Nigel Twiston-Davies has an excellent record in the Becher Chase with five victories and he saddles ALGERNON PAZHAM who holds a strong winning chance. Whilst he lacks experience, his jumping is mostly sound and he should take well to these fences after doing everything right bar win on his return at Bangor when beaten less than a length by What A Good Night. No six year old has ever won the Becher but it’s not a huge concern with the variety of horses that have succeeded in the race’s history. Ryan Hatch claims a valuable 3lb and the fact his other entry Foxbridge is a non runner here speaks volumes about Twiston-Davies having one representative.
Several of these ran in the Grand National last season including Saint Are, runner up to Many Clouds having improved leaps and bounds for his stable switch from Tim Vaughan to Tom George. He ran a solid enough race on his cross country debut at Cheltenham behind Josies Orders but he’s never won on ground worse than good to soft so any rain would be a negative.
Top weight Unioniste appears to have a difficult task on his first outing of the season. An early faller at the fifth in April, a clear round will be at the forefront of connections’ thoughts. Add in the fact that the majority of Nicholls contenders are needing their first outing, he can be ignored. Soll finished ninth in the National after looking a likely winner at one stage but the worries are that he has a history of breaking blood vessels and the form of David Pipe’s yard remains questionable.
2014 Grand National winner Pineau De Re could only finish twelfth behind Many Clouds. Dr Richard Newland’s charge has shaped with promise on both his starts this season, more notably his latest effort at Sandown in a veterans chase when chasing home Vino Griego. He remains on the same mark here and won’t be inconvenienced by the weather forecast. He attempts to become the first horse since Bindaree in 2002 to win a race after his Grand National success and it wouldn’t be a huge shock if he could follow in Earth Summit’s footsteps.
Dolatulo was a blatant non-stayer in the National having travelled well until stamina limitations became apparent, ending up being the last to complete the course. The son of La Fou also ran in the Grand Sefton last season where Denis O’Regan said to trainer Warren Greatrex that he would benefit from running over further and proved that when taking the Rowland Meyrick at Wetherby. Greatex and jockey Gavin Sheehan are in a rich vein of form at the moment and with this being the plan over a more suitable trip, a bold bid is expected.
The other horse to attempt this year’s Grand National was PORTRAIT KING who belied his big price by running well for a long way before falling at the third last. Although he was just beginning to be pushed along, his endless stamina reserves would have kept him in touch and he would have at least finished in the first six.
Recently bought by owners Jim Beaumont and Douglas Pryde who both had majority shares in 2013 Grand National winner Auroras Encore and moved to the yard of Patrick Griffin, his return at Bangor was disappointing on reflection but he looks to have been primed to run well here. Unlike most near the top of the weights, the son of Portrait Gallery needs his mark of 132 to be roughly around 140 to have another crack at next year’s National so he needs to go close to ensure a chance to make the final line-up next April.
No Planning ran a fair race on his most recent start at Haydock behind Vieux Lion Rouge and whilst Sue Smith has a decent record around Aintree, the son of Kayf Tara doesn’t stand out as the type to excel around these fences. Ardkilly Witness had some decent form last season including a fourth behind Rocky Creek in the Racing Plus Chase at Kempton and whilst these fences shouldn’t pose any problems, he has shown a tendency to jump right-handed. The last time he ran left handed over fences at Newbury was a key example of this in a Grade Two novice chase behind Just A Par.
Buachaill Alainn ran a strange race behind Emperor’s Choice at Haydock after looking to be in trouble with a circuit to go before staying on eyecatchingly close home. With the stable seemingly looking for a National contender in the spring, this horse could step up to the plate but would need to improve a few pounds. Cowards Close makes his debut for Chris Gordon having left champion trainer Paul Nicholls. He has form on soft ground which includes a win in the Grand Military at Sandown but needs to improve significantly on his two outings this season. Highland Lodge is another making his debut for a new yard having being sold at Doncaster Sales last month for £22,000 to Jimmy Moffatt but has looked out of love recently with the game so is a watching brief tomorrow. Dare To Endeavour has the assistance of Liam Treadwell in the saddle which is the only positive for the horse’s chance with his poor recent form whilst Financial Climate should appreciate the jumping test of Aintree but probably lacks the class to be winning a race of this nature.
The 2015 Becher Chase has a competitive look on paper with several likely Grand National candidates for April but with question marks about several near the top of the market, ALGERNON PAZHAM looks the most likely winner for trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies who has a fine record over the Grand National fences and looks to achieve a sixth win in the contest.
It wouldn’t be a huge shock if Pineau De Re was able to win his first race since his Grand National success in 2014 after a promising effort at Sandown last time and it’s difficult to see Dolatulo out of the frame with the yard flying at present and this being the main target. The other advised bet would be PORTRAIT KING who ran well in the Grand National back in the spring and it’s significant that he has halved in price throughout the week with best price at the time of writing 16/1.
1) Algernon Pazham
2) Portrait King
3) Pineau De Re
Algernon Pazham (8/1 Generally)
Portrait King (16/1 Best price)