Five potential Grand National pointers this month

Rathvinden won last year's BobbyJo Chase before finishing third in the Grand National at Aintree.
Rathvinden won last year's BobbyJo Chase before finishing third in the Grand National at Aintree.

Alex Stearn has poured through the fixtures calendar and picked out five races that it may pay to keep an eye on with the 2020 Grand National in mind, including a race over hurdles...

The weights for the Grand National are announced at a lavish ceremony in Liverpool on Tuesday, and after that, connections can start their prep for April safe in the knowledge that the handicapper can’t touch their confirmed rating. Although some will be disappointed with the weight they are allotted, a small number of connections may be left licking their lips at the prospect of a nice racing weight thanks to the inclusion of a certain dual Grand National winner in Tiger Roll. February is an ideal timing for Grand National prep races, giving ample time for the horse to come into peak form for the main event, and plenty of contests will likely provide clues for Aintree. 

Grand National Trial – Haydock, Saturday 15th February

Next weekend will see Haydock host the main English trial for the Grand National, which is yet to produce a winner of Aintree’s showpiece event. However, this year could well be different, and now the entries for both contests have been released, a familiar name - who remarkably has never been over the unique fences - will be looking to rubber stamp his claims.

Yala Enki was an emphatic 54-length winner of this contest in 2018 for his former handler Venetia Williams, and considering he has long shaped like a horse that would relish the test that the Grand National poses, it’s quite a shock to see that he has never tried these fences. Having moved to Paul Nicholls over the summer, connections have seemingly lowered their sights from Grade 1 level, and his campaign looks to have possibly been planned with April in mind. He started his campaign later than usual in the Ladbrokes Trophy, before running an excellent third in the Welsh National and then going two places better in Taunton’s Portman Cup last time out. He does normally need a soft surface to perform to his best and this campaign isn’t exactly a tried and tested route to Liverpool, but given he is a sound jumper, stays all day and is rated high enough to get in comfortably, the 33/1 on offer for April could look very juicy if he puts in a good performance at Haydock. 

Boyne Hurdle – Navan, Sunday 16th February 

Rather unsurprisingly, Gordon Elliott is plotting a familiar path in his bid to put Tiger Roll’s name alongside the only horse to have achieved three Grand National successes, Red Rum. This route, however, isn’t one that I can imagine catching on with other Irish hopefuls. 

The Boyne Hurdle (yes, hurdle) takes place at Navan in the middle of February, and last year it saw Tiger Roll start as a 25/1 outsider in what looked for all the world like a prep run for the Cross Country race at Cheltenham in March. Nevertheless, his trainer clearly had him in the form of his life given that he posted three of his best four career performances last season, and this year will have a familiar feel. After a procedure to have a small chip removed from a joint ruled him out of the first half of this campaign, connections tentatively earmarked this contest as his next port of call and have since offered nothing but hope he will make his reappearance here. We all hope he does indeed line up here, and that he has no ill-effects of his injury so he can head to Aintree in his bid for history - but the biggest factor affecting his participation seems to be in the hands of the BHA handicappers for now…

Bobbyjo Chase – Fairyhouse, Saturday 22nd February

Willie Mullins has made the Bobbyjo Chase his own in recent times, and has always been keen to use it as a springboard for his leading lights’ journey to Aintree. He’s won the last four renewals of the contest, and it is often where we see his main hope for the main event - 2019 saw Rathvinden win the Bobbyjo before finishing 5 lengths behind Tiger Roll at Aintree. 

The 2018 National runner-up Pleasant Company was also due to line up in the Bobbyjo in 2019, but missed his chance on account of the quick ground, and he could well head back to Fairyhouse for this year’s renewal. Now at the ripe old age of 12, he’s not getting any younger and it wouldn’t be a surprise to have his season shaped around a tilt at the National given he was still very much in contention when unseating Paul Townend in last year's renewal. This campaign has only seen him start once so far, and with that coming on the back of a long lay-off he very much needed the run. The race conditions wouldn’t have been ideal either considering it was over hurdles, and he found things unfolding far quicker than he is used to. The Bobbyjo Chase would be ideal timing to sharpen up his jumping before one last attempt at Aintree in April – and it's worth taking some interest in all of the Closutton inmates who line up at Fairyhouse.

Premier Chase – Kelso, Saturday 29th February

The Scottish contingent of trainers usually target a local contest with their runners for their final start before Aintree, and it could be no different for Nick Alexander this year as he gets Lake View Lad ready for his date with destiny. 

The Premier Chase is a listed contest over three miles, and the small field it often attracts tends to make it feel more like a public schooling session for Grand National contenders rather than a proper trial that will produce the winner, having not done so before. However, plenty of people, myself included, have been very keen on this gallant grey for this year’s Grand National after things didn’t particularly go his way during last year's renewal. He was an eye-catching third in the Ultima Chase at Cheltenham before finding the ground to be a touch on the quick side at Aintree, and he will be hoping for a softer surface this time around. That was also his first attempt at the fences, and even though he is a very sound jumper, experience is crucial and with that under his belt he can put up a much better performance this year. His sire Oscar is renowned for producing high-class stayers, and it's worth remembering that he is owned by Trevor Hemmings, who loves nothing more than success over these famous fences. Everything will be very much geared towards a bold performance at Aintree, and Kelso looks the likeliest destination for him rather than Haydock.

Grimthorpe Chase – Doncaster, Saturday 29th February

Also due to be run on the same day as the Premier Chase is the Grimthorpe Chase at Doncaster, and although the race hasn't produced a subsequent National winner of late, it does often throw up a live contender. Although last years winner Chidswell was rated too low to warrant an entry in April, the 2017 and 2016 runnings showed us that this contest tends to attract high-class horses. 

Brian Ellison may well target this contest again with his stable star Definitely Red after he was victorious here in 2017, and he was unlucky in the National itself, being hampered and his saddle slipping at Aintree five weeks later. Nevertheless, he did start as short as 10/1 for the race and has often shaped as if he had the ability to win around Aintree, but given he has improved in that time, the handicapper has perhaps got a hold on him now and he’s one that would need to be seen before making a decision of whether he’s a viable win prospect. The previous year proved to be a big pointer, too, and saw the now retired The Last Samuri run out a convincing winner of the contest before finishing second at Aintree a month later. This race is often favoured by the southern trainers, with the likes of Alan King and Nigel Twiston-Davies perhaps the likeliest to make the trip north with one of their entries. 

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