April is the month when the turf Flat season starts to hit full stride and for many punters the fixture that lights the blue touch paper is the Craven meeting at Newmarket in the middle of the month.
Before sampling the breezy delights of Newmarket’s Rowley Mile course, however, there’s the small matter of the ever-expanding Grand National meeting at Aintree that begins with a cracking card on April 6.
In recent years Aintree’s prestigious three-day meeting has begun to rival Cheltenham’s somewhat bloated four-day fixture for thrills and spills, and there’s little doubt that the highlight of the Merseyside racing calendar offers three days of top-class racing culminating in the running of the world’s most famous race on the final day.
As racecourses go, Cheltenham and Aintree are chalk and cheese: where the former is twisty and undulating with a punishing uphill finish, the latter is long and flat and essentially sharp in nature, and given the two contrasting course configurations it takes a good horse to win a race at the Cheltenham Festival and then do the same at Aintree.
Exactly a year ago at Aintree that’s exactly what Fota Island managed to do when adding the John Smith’s Red Rum Handicap Chase to the Grand Annual Chase that he had won in such superb fashion at Cheltenham just over two and a half week’s previously.
Not surprisingly there will be plenty of horses from this year’s Grand Annual that will be seeking compensation on Merseyside including Andreas, an early casualty in the Grand Annual when a well backed favourite and Green Tango, who made strong late headway in the same race despite seeming unsuited to Cheltenham. Aintree’s flatter track should suit.
In the Betfair Bowl Chase on the opening day, Cheltenham also-rans boast a healthy record and Gold Cup failures Monkerhostin and Beef Or Salmon could well be among those bidding to banish the blues of a poor Festival run, while the versatile Impek, a runner-up in the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, may compete and is already a winner over slightly shorter on this sharp course earlier in the season.
In the big juvenile event, the John Smith’s Anniversary 4-Y-O Hurdle, several key players from Cheltenham’s Triumph Hurdle seem likely to figure including Fair Along, the Triumph Hurdle runner-up, who has already won a race over course and distance, along with Afsoun, who was under the weather in the Triumph, and rates a strong fancy.
On the second day – April 7 – the big race is the John Smith’s Melling Chase, and since its inception in 1989 this race’s roll-call of winners has featured the top chasers in training, who have successfully stepped up in trip after excelling at their specialist distance of two miles.
Remittance Man, Viking Flagship, Katabatic, Martha’s Son and Moscow Flyer are just a handful of past two-mile champions who have added this valuable prize after being crowned two-mile champions with a victory in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.
Newmill, this year’s shock Queen Mother hero, won’t be running at Aintree but Kauto Star and Dempsey may line-up for this prize. The former, who was a warm favourite for the Queen Mother, fell early in that race bringing down the well supported Dempsey. If they have recovered from their tumbles, they should go close, while Irish raider and course winner Fota Island will be a likely contender too.
The unique Grand National fences come into play for the John Smith’s and Spar Topham Chase on the second day, and sound-jumping and well-seasoned campaigners do well in this hurly-burly contest, while in the John Smith’s Mildmay Chase it pays to look for a fresh horse that hasn’t endured the rigours of running in Cheltenham’s Royal & SunAlliance Chase, a race that tends to spoil their chances at Aintree.
Grand National day features the big race itself that stands alone as the major betting race of the year. The 2006 contest is dominated by Clan Royal, a runner-up in 2004 and last year’s easy winner, Hedgehunter. Since the course was modernised in the early nineties and the fences made easier and the landing sides raised, the classy and better horses have come to fore and dominated the event. Indeed, the National now has the look of just another long-distance steeplechase but one with plenty of history attached.
All eyes will be upon the fillies in the Shadwell Stud Nell Gwyn Stakes on the second day of Newmarket’s Craven meeting on April 19, but sadly in recent years this race has supplied few serious pointers towards the 1,000 Guineas, while further Classic clues may be on offer in the Craven Stakes for colts on April 20, the meeting’s final day. In 2004 the Barry Hills-trained Haafhd became the first colt since Tirol in 1990 to complete the Craven-2,000 Guineas double.
The search for Classic pointers switches to Newbury on April 22 when the Lane End Greenham Stakes takes place over 7f. In recent seasons Turtle Island, Celtic Swing and Victory Note have all landed Classics after scoring here and backers should pay this race plenty of respect in the colts’ Classic reckoning.
The Spring Cup Handicap at Newbury on April 22 is another race worth a second glance. Horses that have run well in the William Hill Lincoln during the previous month have an excellent record here, and any that come from Redcar following a prominent showing in the first big Flat handicap will surely warrant close consideration.
At Ayr on the same day there’s the Scottish Grand National to whet the appetite. One thing’s for sure and that’s any horse which has run in the Aintree Grand National must be avoided as such runners have an appalling record in the Scottish equivalent.
In 2004 Northern-trained Ryalux recorded a popular success and if the ground turns soft at the West of Scotland track plenty of folks will be rooting for another northern runner in Ossmoses, a strapping grey and stout stayer who all but landed the Midlands National over a similar marathon trip at Uttoxeter last month.
Twelve months ago trainer Paul Nicholls failed by a whisker to win this race with Cornish Rebel and the same trainer’s lightly-raced Ladalko has been kept fresh for this valuable prize. The Nicholls yard may also run Desert Quest, the County Hurdle winner, in the Scottish Champion Hurdle while Monet’s Garden, a runner-up in the Arkle Trophy Chase, bids to land a three-mile novices’ event at Ayr.
The curtain comes down on April’s busy and varied month with the mixed jumps and Flat card at Sandown on April 29. The Betfred Gold Cup is the jump season’s final big handicap and fancied runners from the Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson stables should be noted. The latter almost landed this prize plus a valuable bonus a year ago with Juveigneur and he could well become a serious candidate again.
Paul Nicholls should also be the trainer to watch in the Betfred Celebration Chase, with either Kauto Star or Andreas, two of the stable’s crack team of two-mile chasers, likely to land the honours. On the Flat the Betfred.com Mile Stakes is the highlight, and horses that ran well in Newmarket’s Earl of Sefton Stakes earlier in the month hold a good record in this Group Two contest.