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I was fortunate enough to be a guest at the spectacular Sky Garden for the Crabbie’s Grand National launch yesterday where the views are truly jaw dropping, particularly on a day like yesterday without a cloud in the sky. I’ve not been to The Shard before but I imagine the two advantages that the Sky Garden has over its near neighbour are (a) it’s free and (b) you can also see The Shard. The most disturbing news of the event, however, was being informed by Crabbie’s staff that they no longer produce their strawberry and lime line of ginger beer. Disaster.
The rest of the day was top drawer. I got lucky with a good table including Sportinglife.com editor, David Ord, The Daily Mail’s Charlie Sale, author Sean Magee, Boylesports’ PR man, Leon Blanche and Tom and Sophie George amongst others, and we were entertained by the superb Laura Wright who will perform the national anthem before the big race as she did at the Rugby World Cup.
Tom George almost fell off his chair when I told him that God’s Own was 14/1 without Un De Sceaux for the Champion Chase and said that Saint Are would prep for the big race in a veterans’ chase at Newbury in his bid to go one place better than last year. Sophie George seemed keener to talk about Bun Doran who she described as a rocket on the home gallops. It’s likely that he will be held back for a novice hurdle at Aintree.
It was also announced that the press room would be renamed the Alan Lee Media Centre to remember the racing correspondent of The Times who passed away in December. Aintree do a lot of things right and this was a very fitting tribute.
I’d say that there were around 20 interviews throughout the course of the lunch, though bizarrely, not with Jonjo O’Neill given that he was in attendance. After the racecourse chairman and sponsors had welcomed us, it was AP McCoy who kicked off the interviews by selecting the O’Neill-trained Holywell as his pick of the weights which were headed by Many Clouds as you would expect. Venetia Williams was talking in terms of giving the race a miss with Houblon Des Obeaux after she described his raise of 14lb for beating a load of out-of-form horses in the Denman Chase as excessive. She was sitting on the same table as Phil Smith! Kerry Lee was worried that Mountainous might be balloted out but there was better news for connections of Pineau De Re, Alvarado and Highland Lodge as their rating was bumped up to help them get in having excelled over the fences before.
Phil Smith was not a well man so didn’t go into as much detail as to how he framed the race as usual but he mischievously made a point of highlighting the ride Jacques Ricou gave to the Gordon Elliott-trained Ucello Conti on his last start stating that if he races that wide again at Aintree, he’ll end up in Goodison Park. He is owned by Simon Muir who sent him to Elliott specifically to try and win the Grand National and previously finished second in the Paddy Power Chase. I can see him being a market mover from his current 40/1.
A lot is being made of the fact that Many Clouds has the best chance of any defending Grand National winner since Red Rum as the rules dictate that he can carry just 1lb more as the ceiling is 11st 10lb (carried 11st 9lb) but that really is a red herring. The reality is that he is off a 5lb higher mark of course. Don’t get me wrong, he’s the right favourite but a far greater argument to back him is that this season he is being trained for the race whereas last season it was an afterthought after the Gold Cup and he only ran on his owner’s insistence.
What else? There was an awkward moment when the BetFred PR representative commented that his firm were the official betting partner of the Grand National for the next three years despite not betting an authorised betting partner with Nick Rust in attendance. Makes you wonder if that was a directive from above to make sure the point was got across.
On the subject of the Grand National and Betfred, the Betfred Grand National Trial at Haydock on Saturday is the race that I have covered in Big Race Focus this Wednesday lunchtime. The race couldn’t have gone any better for us last year with a 1-2 at fancy prices so I’ve highlighted a couple of contenders I like this time. Surprisingly, no winner of the Betfred Grand National Trial has gone on to win at Aintree in the same season but Red Rum prepped in that trial ahead of all five of his Aintree appearances and seven Grand National winners since 1973 used that trial as a successful platform, the latest being Neptune Collonges.