Venetia Williams is one of only three women to train a Grand National winner and she can hit the target again with Houblon Des Obeaux in the big race at Aintree.
Williams saddles two of the 40 runners for the four-and-a-quarter mile marathon and, although the bookies have stable companion Tenor Nivernais at shorter odds in the betting, I think 33-1 or so about Houblon Des Obeaux represents outstanding each-way value.
The ten-year-old has no experience over these mighty obstacles but, in 31 starts over fences, he has failed to get round only twice and he has been doing much of his racing at the top level. Good enough to run with credit in Grade One events over hurdles here in his younger days, he has become a rock-solid staying chaser with victories at Grade Two level to his credit. He has twice lined up for the Cheltenham Gold Cup without disgrace and his past two visits to Aintree have seen him taking on the very best in the Grade One Betfair Bowl over the smaller Mildmay obstacles.
In the autumn of 2014, he chased home Many Clouds – to whom he was conceding 6lb – in the Hennessey Gold Cup at Newbury and, less than six months later, that winner was romping home here in the greatest steeplechase in the world. Just two years ago, Houblon Des Obeaux was chasing home subsequent Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Coneygree off a mark of 161 at Newbury and he arrives on Merseyside to run off a level some 19lb lower.
Not that his form in the interim has been disappointing – far from it. Last February saw a wide-margin victory in the Denman Chase at Newbury off a 4lb higher mark than this week.
The gelding returned to action with an excellent effort to finish third in the Welsh National at Chepstow over Christmas and was doing his best work in the closing stages when fourth behind One For Arthur over three miles, five furlongs at Warwick three weeks later.
He was beaten just more than 19 lengths that day but meets that winner on a stone better terms, so it will be much closer this time. That was followed by a disappointing run when only eighth, a long way behind Vieux Lion Rouge in the Grand National Trial at Haydock in February. But he bounced back with a fine effort when fourth under top weight in the Midlands National over just a furlong short of this trip. So his stamina is assured and his prominent style of racing may help him to steer clear of trouble. Provided he can negotiate his way around this tricky circuit, I certainly expect him to get into the shake-up.
Vieux Lion Rouge heads the market and is chasing a hat-trick following two wins from two appearances this season. He was sent off at 66-1 12 months ago, but ran a mighty race, chasing the leaders throughout the final circuit before fading approaching the penultimate obstacle.
He had a nice, long summer holiday before reappearing to win the Becher Chase over a circuit and a half of these fences in December and he followed up in great style in the National Trial at Haydock.
He was pressed all the way up the home straight, but kept on strongly to hold Blaklion by just more than three lengths. However, the runner-up is now 3lb better off, so there will be little between them – just as the betting suggests.
Highland Lodge, who was caught on the line and beaten a short head by Vieux Lion Rouge here before Christmas, also merits consideration. He is marginally better off at the weights, yet is freely available at odds of around 25-1, so looks a solid each-way option.
Last year’s runner-up, The Last Samuri, is as big as 16-1 with some layers, but has a lot more weight to carry now.
Definitly Red romped home at Doncaster and has been well supported in the betting since that ready victory. The eight-year-old has had only nine races over fences, has never been over this sort of extended trip and faces these mighty obstacles for the first time, but has won three times this term and is clearly on the upgrade.
Saint Are chased home Many Clouds two years ago, but disappointed and was pulled up last year. However, he showed glimpses of his best when narrowly beaten at Doncaster, while Gas Line Boy could prove interesting at around 100-1.
A dour stayer, he fell at the first fence in this two years ago and has been lightly raced since then. However, he won at Kelso before Christmas, made the frame in a valuable event at Sandown and then finished fourth in the Haydock National Trial and is at the right end of the weights.
It is 38 years since Rubstic triumphed for Scotland, but One For Arthur is a bonafide contender this time for Fife handler Lucinda Russell. Successful at Kelso in October, he was doing all his best work at the finish when three lengths fifth behind Vieux Lion Rouge in the Becher Chase here and then overcame early interference to win the valuable Betfred Classic Chase over three miles, five furlongs at Warwick.
Pleasant Company can prove best of the Irish, having won two of his three starts this term including the Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse which is often a reliable National trial. He is from the same family as 2008 winner Comply or Die.
JOE ROWNTREE’S TIPS
1: Houblon Des Obeaux (33-1)
2: Highland Lodge (25/1)
3: One For Arthur (14/1)
4: Pleasant Company (16-1)