The Irish are poised to launch their strongest raid yet on the £1m Randox Health Grand National (5,15) at Aintree tomorrow, but Gas Line Boy can prove too hot for the invaders to handle.
Almost half of the 40-strong field for the world’s greatest steeplechase will come from the Emerald Isle and will include some top performers, but Aintree and its mighty fences is a law unto itself and previous experience is vital.
Gas Line Boy may have fallen at the very first fence on his National debut four years ago, but is a much more accomplished jumper these days and looked more than a shade unlucky when fifth here 12 months ago.
He was close up when hampered at the second from home and still in with a big chance when short of room at the last before fading in the final 150 yards.
Both outings since then have been over these obstacles. He would have won a veterans chase over a circuit and a bit here in October but for falling three from home when well clear, but he made amends with a spring-heeled performance to take the Grand Sefton Chase over two miles five furlongs here before Christmas.
He was hampered by a faller four from home, but took control on the run-in to justify favouritism and, at odds of around 33-1 tomorrow, he looks a solid each-way bet.
Blaklion is one of the mainstays of the home team. He was sent off favourite when fourth here 12 months ago and looked set to land the spoils when leading five from home and soon opening up a clear advantage, only to be collared and hampered two from home before fading on the long run in.
He was still eight lengths ahead of Gas Line Boy, but the latter is 4lbs better off this time and Blaklion is likely to be at single-figure odds, so Gas Line Boy looks the better value betting proposition.
The Last Samuri was runner-up in this in 2016 and finished 16th last year when he faded in the final three parts of a mile. He has also been placed twice in lesser events over these fences, chasing home Blaklion in the Becher Chase here in December, but both he and Blaklion now have big weights to carry – a vital factor if underfoot conditions are on the muddy side.
So I prefer the chances of Regal Encore, who was doing all his best work in the closing stages when eighth last year on his first attempt at these obstacles.
The ten-year-old belied odds of 66-1 when third at Newbury in November in what was formerly the Hennessy Cognac Gold cup when he was nine lengths adrift of the winner, Total Recall, who is one of the leading Irish candidates tomorrow.
The latter is vying for favouritism after winning his first three races this season, including that top-class handicap chase at Newbury. Trained by Willie Mullins, the gelding later scored over hurdles at Leopardstown in February before lining up fro the Cheltenham Gold Cup in which he was chasing the leaders when coming to grief at the third from home.
That was a fair effort against top drawer opposition, so it is easy to see why so many people fancy him for a big run here, but the nine-year-old was running off a mark of just 129 when winning the Munster National at Limerick in October and took the big Newbury event the following month off 147.
He now faces a big task off a mark of 156 having never faced these obstacles and, having failed to complete the course in three of his nine starts over fences, he is not on my short list. But Regal Encore, who now meets him on considerably better terms now, certainly is.
Tiger Roll is another strong contender from Ireland. He has three Cheltenham Festival victories to his credit, the latest in the cross-country event over three miles six furlongs there last month and stamina is his strong suit as underlined by a victory over four miles there last year. His trainer Gordon Elliott won this in his first year with a licence and is having a wonderful season, so Tiger Roll commands the greatest respect, as does another Irish challenger in Anibale Fly,
He won a major event at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting and was staying on really well when third in the Cheltenham Gold Cup on his first venture over a trip in excess of three miles.
He carries the colours of leading owner JP Mcmanus, who is likely to have four representatives in the line-up, but is is no surprise that his retained jockey, Barry Geraghty, will be on board Anibale Fly, who will be having a first look at this mighty circuit. That inexperience may be his undoing.
Those who would love to see a female rider make history will be supporting Bryony Frost on Milansbar while Katie Walsh – third in 2013 – rides Baie des Isles, trained in Ireland by her husband Ross O’Sullivan. There has been considerable support for this one in the betting market.
Milansbar has bags of stamina and was successful over three miles five furlongs at Warwick in January under this rider, while the 11-year-old was recently second in the Midlands National over this trip in the mud at Uttoxeter under another jockey.
Baie des Isles acquitted herself well in the Grand National Trial at Punchestown, finishing second in 2016, winning it last year and then finishing third under Miss Walsh this time around. That form is solid, but both this grey mare and Milansbar will be making their first acquaintance with these mighty obstacles.
Lord Windermere won the 2014 Cheltenham Gold cup and, although he was pulled up on the second circuit here in 2016, he produced a good effort to finish seventh 12 months ago. He came to grief – his first fall for more than five years – behind Blaklion here in December and, at odds of 66-1 is a lively outsider off a low weight.
Vieux Lion Rouge finished sixth last year and seventh 12 months previously, so enters calculations again, especially as he has stayed upright in four starts over this track. At 33-1, he looks a value each-way bet too.
JOE ROWNTREE’S TIPS
1: Gas Line Boy (33-1)
2: Regal Encore (33-1)
3: Vieux Lion Rouge (33-1)
4: Lord Windermere (66-1)