By Mitch Rice
We may still only be in Cheltenham Festival territory, with the prestigious meeting taking place at Prestbury Park at the time of writing. But this is the peak of the National Hunt racing season, what the winter months have build-up to, and as giddy fans of the sport we simply can’t ignore the fact that the Grand National Festival is now only around three weeks away.
That’s right, before the dust even has time to settle on the concourses of Cheltenham Racecourse following the four-day Festival, jump racing lovers will have already turned their attention to Aintree’s very own major meeting — tossing their Cheltenham guides in the bin, getting straight on the internet and desperately searching for the best tips for Grand National.
With the historic race taking centre stage on Saturday, 9th April, the rest of the three-day festival can often be overlooked. However, with 11 Grade 1 races — just three less than what the Cheltenham Festival boasts — there is plenty of top-class action to have you chomping at the bit. That said, read on as we take a look at some of the other standout races at the Grand National Festival…
The Bowl Chase (Grade 1)
Day one’s racecard at Aintree kicks off the festival with four successive Grade 1 races, the third of which is the Bowl Chase. Inaugurated in 1984, the three-mile, one furlong race was designed to attract those that competed in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham — usually, the horses that didn’t win, giving them the chance for a consolation prize somewhat.
Native River was the only horse from the Prestbury Park showpiece to compete in both races last year though, finishing third in the field of four as Clan Des Obeaux secured a fifth win in the £84,000-for-the-winner contest for Paul Nicholls. He could be sent back to Merseyside to defend his crown after bypassing Cheltenham for the second time.
The Aintree Hurdle (Grade 1)
The showpiece race on the opening day, the Aintree Hurdle was first introduced in 1976 and was originally contested on the same day as the Grand National — being moved to day one back in 2013, allowing it to stand on its own as feature race and away from the mammoth shadow of the National.
Run over two miles and four furlongs, Abacadabras won the £104,000 contest from 5/1 for Denise Foster and Jack Kennedy last year — giving the young jockey another reason to celebrate after his Gold Cup success with Minella Indo at Cheltenham. But he’ll have his work cut out during his career if he wants to better Ruby Walsh’s record of five victories.
The Melling Chase
Ladies’ Day, as the second day of the festival at Aintree is affectionally known and famed for, is headlined by the Melling Chase. Introduced to the Merseyside meeting in 1991, it may be younger than our aforementioned races, but that takes nothing away from the contest as the two-mile, four-furlong trip attracts Ryanair Chase and Queen Mother Champion Chase contenders.
Speak of which, second to the brilliant Allaho in the Ryanair Chase last March, Fakir D’oudairies bounced back to form with a commanding win in this Grade 1 race — gifting Joseph O’Brien the £104k-winning prize purse with an 11-length victory over Nuts Well. The Top Novices’ Hurdle, the Mildmay Novices’ Chase and the Sefton Novices’ Hurdle are the other top-grade races on Ladies’ Day.
The Liverpool Hurdle
As already mentioned, it’s hard to stand out on the final day of the meeting when all anybody seems to care about is the Grand National itself, but the Liverpool Hurdle is still a fantastic race that deserves some recognition. Currently known as the Ryanair Stayers’ Hurdle for sponsorship purposes, the race was inaugurated in 1974 and is run over a distance of three mile, half a furlong.
Thyme Hill, who missed last year’s Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham due to a minor injury, recovered in time for the meeting and reappeared after a 112-day with a dramatic victory in the Liverpool Hurdle — beating the Dan Skelton-trained Roksana over the line by nothing more than a neck after an extremely tight finish.