The Aintree Grand National meeting kicks off on Thursday as the follow-up to Cheltenham takes centre stage. The three-day festival welcomes a host of Cheltenham winners, as well as horses who have been laid out for some of the valuable races up for grabs at the Liverpool track. This is our race-by-race preview of Day 1, Thursday, April 6.
13:45 - Manifesto Novices' Chase (Grade 1)
This race is being seen as a chance for TOP NOTCH (5/4) to get his head in front after a defeat to YORKHILL at Cheltenham. TOP NOTCH has been campaigned over fences since last year's Cheltenham festival, winning four out of his six starts. He is progressing well and finished strongly at Cheltenham to grab second behind Willie Mullins' runner. However, CLOUDY DREAM (3/1) could be worth siding with after his very impressive Arkle run. He was second behind the dominant ALTIOR at Prestbury Park. Before that, he had put in a couple of good performances, most notably when he was just three lengths in arrears to subsequent Champion Hurdler BUVEUR D'AIR in a novice chase at Haydock. FRODON (4/1) should be there or thereabouts for Paul Nicholls, but it will come down to which one of TOP NOTCH and CLOUDY DREAM has come out of their Cheltenham challenges in better heart. My vote is for CLOUDY DREAM.
14:20 - Doom Bar Juvenile Hurdle (Grade 1)
DEFI DU SEUIL (1/3) hasn't put a foot wrong in his career to date, winning six from six so far. The latest of those victories was a classy one at Cheltenham when he had five lengths in hand, and probably more up his sleeve, over MEGA FORTUNE, who himself is a good yardstick. DIVIN BERE (5/1) and FLYING TIGER (9/1) both ran in the Fred Winter at Cheltenham and they can fill the places here. FLYING TIGER had the upper hand that day but DIVIN BERE was saddled with top weight and can reverse the form now on an even footing with the same rival. If there is a market available to bet without the favourite, I would take it and plumb for DIVIN BERE, and the odds for such a bet should be around EVENS.
14:50 - Betway Bowl Chase (Grade 1)
An interesting renewal of this race where last year's victor CUE CARD returns to try and reclaim his crown. Once again, the Colin Tizzard 11-year-old tipped up at the third last in last month's Cheltenham Gold Cup, and that is not ideal preparation for a now fading star. Gordon Elliott points EMPIRE OF DIRT (5/2) at this race, having been clear about the fact he would have chosen to send this one to the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March. He was overruled by connections on that occasion as EMPIRE OF DIRT was directed to the Ryanair Chase, where he finished fourth behind UN DE SCEAUX over that shorter trip. Better is expected now back over three miles, and he holds good form with last month's Gold Cup winner, SIZING JOHN. The pair went toe to toe at Leopardstown in the Irish Gold Cup in February, where Jessica Harrington's charge held on by less than a length. TEA FOR TWO (14/1) is the each-way option, but the vote here is with EMPIRE OF DIRT and the in-form Gordon Elliott.
15:25 - Betway Aintree Hurdle (Grade 1)
The Champion Hurdler BUVEUR D'AIR (4/11) returns to action quite quickly after his Cheltenham heroics but is far too short at his current odds. The extra four furlongs here will suit MY TENT OR YOURS, who was second at Cheltenham, proving he hasn't lost all of his old spark. The longer trip will also suit THE NEW ONE (6/1) who jumped poorly in the Champion Hurdle, ultimately finishing 10 lengths behind BUVEUR D'AIR. One with plenty to prove, but enough ability to do so, is IDENTITY THIEF (14/1). He was an excellent hurdler, whose last run over timber was a good second to VROUM VROUM MAG at Punchestown in 2016. Campaigned over fences since, the Henry De Bromhead trained runner has been in and out of form. He won his first two starts over the larger obstacles, before going completely off the boil and unseating, pulling up and finishing way down the order in three subsequent runs. Having his first look at a hurdle in a year is a negative, but it will suit him and he should cope well on the ground. He avoided Cheltenham and so comes here fresh, something that can be a plus when they come over the final flight and are asked for that last effort.
16:05 - Randox Health Foxhunters' Chase
ON THE FRINGE was the hot favourite for the Cheltenham equivalent of this but disappointed to be fourth behind the re-opposing PACHA DU POLDER who stayed on well that day. Both of these are very short prices, 2/1 and 3/1 respectively, and in a race like this over these fences, each-way betting is the superior option. Neither of the market leaders are each-way prices, but MENDIP EXPRESS (20/1) and DINEUR (20/1) are eye-catching. MENDIP EXPRESS was eighth in the 2016 Foxhunters at Cheltenham and ninth in this year's renewal. Before that, he was five lengths behind ON THE FRINGE at Punchestown in April 2016, and although he failed to win on his seasonal re-appearance, and slightly under performed at Cheltenham, he'll be sharper today and is capable. DINEUR ran well here last year, clearly likes this course, and returned for his seasonal reappearance with a good second at Chepstow recently.
16:40 - Betway Red Rum Handicap Chase (Grade 3)
An open-looking handicap here where Irish interest will be buoyed by the presence of Henry De Bromhead's ALISIER D'IRLANDE (9/1). However, it is another Irish connection I am latching onto and that is Davy Russell riding DANDRIDGE (6/1) who ran well to be fourth in the Grand Annual at Cheltenham last month. He'll act well on the ground and Davy Russell can produce him with a canny ride to make his presence felt coming to the winning post. Each-way backers could do worse than backing GINO TRAIL (14/1). He is a model of consistency, having been in the front two home in each of his last six starts, including three wins. That run of form included an excellent second to subsequent Champion Hurdle winner, BUVEUR D'AIR. He'll certainly make his presence felt again for Kerry Lee, even though he has to carry 11st 7lbs.
17:15 - Mare's NH Flat Race (Grade 2)
This is a real puzzle, but it may be worth forgiving IRISH ROE (7/1) her recent blowout in the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham. She found life tough against the boys in that contest, and could find this test slightly easier against her own sex. Before that run behind FAYONAGH at Cheltenham, she won three on the bounce, including a dead heat at Cheltenham in November on similar ground. PETTICOAT TAILS (3/1) is a warm favourite, but this will be a step up for her, while MARTELLO PARK (12/1) and DROPS OF JUPITOR (25/1) can also make their presence felt in a tricky race to unravel.
13:45 - Cloudy Dream - WIN - 3/1 (NB)
14:20 - Divin Bere (W/O Fav) - EVNS
14:50 - Empire of Dirt - WIN - 5/2 (NAP)
15:25 - Identity Thief - EW - 14/1
16:05 - Mendip Express/Dineur - EW - Both 20/1
16:40 - Dandridge - WIN - 6/1
17:15 - Irish Roe - WIN - 7/1