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The Cheltenham Festival remains National Hunt racing’s most celebrated outpost, and rightly so, but no single day in the horse racing calendar is as talked about – or wagered upon – than the Grand National.
The 2017 renewal will take place on Saturday April 8 at Aintree, as ever, and while celebrating the best long-distance stayers that the finest yards have to offer, it will also be a chance to reflect upon those missing from the field.
The sad passing of Many Clouds has deprived the racing world of a brave that was being targeted at this year’s renewal. The 2015 National winner, his triumph in January’s Cotswold Chase was perhaps a fitting epitaph for this outstanding chaser.
Also absent will be Native River, who was surprisingly removed from the reckoning by trainer Colin Tizzard. The Welsh Grand National champion had already been well-backed by ante-post punters, and his absence will have many tearing up betslips in disgust.
Even without that pair, the 2017 Grand National is shaping up to be an ultra-competitive affair, and while the betting market will mature in the coming weeks and months it is still worth marking your card with five early picks that are expected to go well:
The Last Samuri (18/1)
The National is very much a specialist’s race – only the select few have the engine and the willpower to go the distance over some of National Hunt racing’s most arduous obstacles, with 10,000 racegoers bellowing in your vicinity.
As such, backing a ‘horse for the course’ is always a smart option, and in finishing second in 2016 The Last Samuri announced himself as an obvious contender for this year’s renewal.
The nine-year-old has since backed that runners-up spot at Aintree with a third in the prestigious Becher Handicap Chase in December – a renewal ran on the National course, and the feeling is that with softer conditions and a longer distance, this ante-post favourite is the one to beat in 2017.
Vieux Lion Rouge (25/1)
Another with Aintree pedigree is Vieux Lion Rouge, who looks a very agreeable price in the ante-post stakes at 25/1.
The eight-year-old finished seventh in last year’s National as an unfancied 66/1 outsider, and despite only running once since my what a performance it was. The David Pipe trained powerhouse outstripped the rest in that Becher Handicap Chase to lay down an excellent marker for the April showpiece.
A lack of activity has perhaps caused an inflation in the horse’s price, because in the early entry list he is one of the most outstanding candidates in the field.
Ucello Conti (33/1)
Coming from good stock is one way to separate the wheat from the chaff, and as a half-brother to the legendary Silviniaco Conti it is fair to say that Ucello Conti has some big shoes to fill.
The signs are that the nine-year-old could still live up to his more famed sibling, however. A fourth in the Becher Handicap Chase followed a sixth place in last year’s National, and second in the Goffs Thyestes Handicap Chase in January confirms that on softer ground this is a horse to watch.
Highland Lodge (50/1)
There’s a saying that you can’t teach an old horse new tricks (or something like that), but Highland Lodge is testament to the assertion that often a bit of experience and greying around the temples can be a key factor on big days like this.
The eleven-year-old has enjoyed something of a journeyman career up until the last year or so, where a career renaissance of Lazarus proportion has changed the view of many that the James Moffatt trained stayer was set for a relaxing retirement.
Victory in the 2015 Becher Chase was followed by a runner-up finish 12 months later, and while he is yet to taste the atmosphere of National day that is still some very handy Aintree form to have under your belt.
The Crafty Butcher (50/1)
A switch to the Willie Mullins yard has done this ten-year-old the world of good, and it is no coincidence that his most eye-catching performances have come since the move.
A three-length defeat in the Proudstown Handicap Hurdle back in November was a marker for what was to come, with a second place in the Paddy Power Chase a month later at Leopardstown signalling his best effort with Ruby Walsh on board.
He fell last time out at Punchestown, but the going there was spectacularly heavy. If the surface is less yielding at Aintree come April then this Crafty Butcher could make mincemeat out of the rest.