While Phil Smith holds court on the Grand National in his Head of Handicapping blog the remainder of our NH team underline how there's much more to Aintree than the showpiece alone. This week's bulletin gives an in-depth update on all the best action from the Merseyside venue and just what effect it's had on the crowning of the season's champions.
ONE HOLDS ON
The feature race on Thursday's card at Aintree was the Grade 1 Doom Bar Aintree Hurdle run over 2m4f, writes Chris Nash.
It looked an ideal opportunity for The New One to gain some compensation for his unlucky run in the Champion Hurdle. He was sent off the 4/9 favourite and although he ultimately secured the prize he did so in somewhat unimpressive fashion.
The race looked to be run at an even gallop until Rock On Ruby led and quickened it exiting the back straight. On turning in he had got himself a clear lead of around four lengths but The New One closed him down to be within three quarters of a length at the second last and then a good two lengths up at the last before making harder work of things than had looked likely for whatever reason.
Putting figures on the race wasn't straightforward. The winner arrived with a mark of 167, Rock On Ruby was 163 returning to hurdling and Diakali had run a career-best 159 in the County Hurdle last time.
I decided to level the race through Rock On Ruby's rating, who had been as high as 170 in the past but had shown his very best form at 2m. This had The New One running to 164 - though I added a "+" sign to this effort as to my eyes he could have won by further. It is possible that he idles slightly in front, that he wants a truer gallop, that he is better at 2m or that his effort at Cheltenham left him slightly below his very best here, and I saw no reason to change his rating from 167.
Diakali ran another personal best in finishing just a nose behind Rock On Ruby and this looked a mighty run given he'd raced freely early and, in trying to come from last, had made up ground in the heat of the race. I will be liaising with my Irish colleagues to suggest a mark of 163 for him in the future. This assessment of the race has the fourth-placed Ptit Zig running to 154, which fits in closely with several of his other efforts this season.
SHOUT IT QUIETLY
Second-season hurdler Whisper has proved a revelation in 2013/14 and is now one of the best staying hurdlers around, writes Martin Greenwood.
Seemingly exposed at around 140 as a novice and on his first two runs of this season, Whisper has done nothing but improve since and has won three of his last four starts, namely handicaps at Newbury (off 140) and Cheltenham (Coral Cup, off 153) and The Silver Cross Stayers' Liverpool Hurdle at Aintree last Saturday on his first attempt at 3m. His only defeat in this period was a close second off 147 to another of this season's vast improvers Saphir du Rheu in the Welsh Champion Hurdle at Ffos Las in February.
With the absence of World Hurdle winner More of That, and the slight regression in Zarkandar's ability, Whisper, stamina issues apart, had only one serious opponent to reckon with in the shape of World Hurdle third At Fishers Cross, who probably hasn't gone on in the manner expected of him after a successful novice season. In the event, there was never any doubt in Whisper's ability to see out the trip, under these relatively quick conditions at least, and he never looked like being caught after taking over the lead from At Fishers Cross at the last, if anything idling a little in front. With the runner-up (162) and third-placed Thousand Stars (158), an Aintree regular, seemingly running to the pound, I have no hesitation promoting Whisper to 164, with the promise of more to come.
The Henderson/Geraghty combination also scored in my other graded race at Aintree with Beat That spread-eagling the field in the Doom Bar Sefton Novices' Hurdle on the Friday. There didn't appear to be a great strength in depth despite the large field, and with Seeyouatmidnight (possibly unsuited by the track, and possibly amiss after stopping relatively quickly) a major disappointment after the significant promise he had showed when winning at Musselburgh and Haydock, Beat That only had to reel in long-time leader Cole Harden (career best effort over this longer trip, now 150) to score in pretty ready style.
Beat That was having only his third race over hurdles, and his first since finishing second to Killala Quay over 2m4f at Sandown in December. Killala Quay was beaten a long way this time for Beat That and the runner-up finished 25 lengths plus clear of the rest. Beat That relished the longer trip, cruising for the most part and value for more than the four-length winning margin.
My standards suggest somewhere in the mid-150s for Beat That, and his new mark is 156, which makes him the best staying novice in the UK at the minute. Probably only the Willie Mullins-trained pair Faugheen and Briar Hill could challenge his position come the end of the season, and with those two likely to run at Punchestown it makes for an interesting contest. Whatever the fate of that pair, there is no doubting the potential of Beat That, who looks likely to play a prominent role in his future races, whether it be over hurdles or fences.
CHELTENHAM CHAMPIONS STRENGTHEN THEIR POSITIONS
Cheltenham form stood the test in the Grade 2 International Festival for Business 2014 Top Novices' Hurdle on Friday, writes David Dickinson.
Josses Hill and Sgt Reckless, second and fourth to Vautour in the Supreme, locked horns again with the length and a half between them at Cheltenham extending to six lengths on this sharper track. I have raised Josses Hill to 150 and left Sgt Reckless on his Cheltenham mark of 146.
King of the Picts finished strongly over this 2m, giving further credence, as if any were needed, to the race in which he'd chased Vautour and The Tullow Tank home over 2m2f at Leopardstown in February. That remains the pivotal piece of novice hurdle form in the speed division.
The Grade 1 Injured Jockeys Fund 50th Anniversary 4-year-old Hurdle went the way of the admirable Guitar Pete, who rallied strongly from an unpromising position to snatch the spoils late in the day. He had finished in front of Calipto when third in the Triumph but was not generally expected to confirm the form given that horse's ill fortune at Prestbury. In a race that is not easy to get a level on I have raised Guitar Pete by 2lb to 146.
One fascinating situation with the juveniles is that the weight for age scale assumes improvement in the four-year-olds for a little while longer yet. Such a scale can only ever be an average. A look at the performance figures we have for Guitar Pete suggests strongly that his improvement is exceeding that which the scale expects. His figures from his first win at Listowel through to Aintree are 129, 132, 137, 139, 140, 142, 144 and 146. Such figures reflect great credit on the team that have seen him run his race time and time again.
Does this extra improvement seem likely for a horse that ran six times on the Flat before going hurdling? Well, yes it does actually. His racecourse career began in a 1m maiden at Navan less than 11 months ago. So for a Flat horse he would be regarded as a late maturer.
Of course the irony of the whole thing is that Tiger Roll, who he beat at Leopardstown in February, seemingly improved past him to win the Triumph at Cheltenham. So is that also credible? Again, yes it is. Tiger Roll has had no Flat career, so Leopardstown and Cheltenham were the second and third racecourse appearances of his life. For Guitar Pete those same two races were racecourse appearances numbers 12 and 13. This should serve as a reminder that weight for age scales just deal with the average.
Balder Succes put up the best two-mile novice performance of the season in Saturday's Grade 1 Doom Bar Novices' Chase at Aintree, writes John de Moraville.
Alan King's decision to bypass Cheltenham paid handsome dividends as the slick-jumping six-year-old (upped 9lb to 162) powered clear of another notable improver, Simply Ned (157), with Arkle third Trifolium (156) filling the same position again.
Balder Succes's victory compares favourably with two of the past three Maghull winners, Special Tiara (157) a year ago and Finian's Rainbow (157) in 2011. None are in the same league as 2012 winner Sprinter Sacre (169 at that stage of his career), though Finian's Rainbow still landed a Queen Mother Champion Chase himself and Balder Succes looks just the type to develop into a leading candidate for that next March.
Whereas Simply Ned notched a career-best in second, Trifolium, fourth-placed Moscow Mannon (146) and front-running Next Sensation (146) in fifth ran virtually to their pre-race ratings.
With last year's first four - Sprinter Sacre, Cue Card, Flemenstar and Finian's Rainbow - all hors de combat, Friday's Betfred Melling Chase took a lot less winning than usual.
That, though, won't have bothered Willie Mullins, who skilfully steered Boston Bob (161) back from a couple confidence-cracking falls to notch his second Grade 1 chase success.
Runner-up Rolling Aces was back to his best on 156 with Ballynagour, upped in class, repeating the 155 he achieved when spread-eagling his Byrne Group Plate Handicap rivals at Cheltenham.