best bets, predictions and our horses to watch for Aintree race

The 2021 Grand National gets underway this afternoon. Here, 1990 winner Marcus Armytage gives his verdict, while you can find the view of our tipster Marlborough and the thoughts of the great and the good from sport below.

Good luck!

It may not be quite the message the Government has wanted to get across to the public in the last 12 months but, as a degree of normality begins to return, it is time we should all start Takingrisks.

A year after the Randox Health Grand National was cancelled by Covid, the 173rd running will finally take place — albeit in front of its smallest ever crowd which might just about amount to 1,000 people if you add up the owners, trainers, officials, racecourse staff and police.   

In the immediate post-Red Rum era Gordon W Richards was dominant with his Cumbrian stable successful with Lucius in 1978 and Hallo Dandy in 1984.

Today it is his son Nicky’s opportunity to return the race to the village of Greystoke with the 2019 Scottish National winner Takingrisks. At Ayr, he had (an admittedly young) Cloth Cap behind him in third.

The 12-year-old is owned by Frank Bird, who coincidentally made his money in chickens, and is ridden by Sean Quinlan, a jockey who has not looked back since leaving the south for the north. Takingrisks would not be the first winner where the owner has needed persuading to run after initial reluctance.

Takingrisks also comes to the race on the back of a win in the Sky Bet Chase at Doncaster. He will relish both the distance and the ground. The one thing for sure is that if he is still on the premises crossing the Melling Road for the last time he is unlikely to be outstayed by much.

Only his age would appear to be statistically against him with Amberleigh House in 2004 the last to win it but until Takingrisks won at Doncaster last time out, no 12-year-old had ever won that race.

What else should we have on the short-list? With the exception of his price Cloth Cap looks almost too good to be true. Many Clouds, in the same Trevor Hemmings silks, won the Ladbrokes Trophy on his way to winning the National and, after his recent Kelso win, Jonjo O’Neill’s improving nine-year-old is 14lbs well in but it is better to be well in with Lady Luck than the handicapper.

As short as 4-1 to give Hemmings a fourth win in the race following Hedgehunter, Ballabriggs and Many Clouds, I would still want 4-1 to get over the first.

Woe betide the race if it ever became predictable and if Thursday’s Foxhunters taught us anything — a 66-1 winner, a 200-1 shot in fourth and the favourite struggling the whole way — it is the different effect the National’s spruce fences have on horses which means we should look well beyond the obvious.

The last grey to win was Neptune Collonges in 2012 and there are similarities beyond their colour with Bristol de Mai. Both horses had a touch of class, were third in a Gold Cup and Daryl Jacob rode both. Nigel Twiston-Davies’s top weight has a strong chance.

Course form cannot be underestimated which puts Kimberlite Candy right in the frame and he looks the pick of JP McManus’s seven runners. He has twice been second in the Becher Chase and will relish the trip. Magic of Light was second to Tiger Roll two years ago and while that should be noted few placed horses come back and actually win it.

The other horse which may run way above expectation is Hogan’s Heights who won the Grand Sefton two years ago by 16 lengths, way above anything else he has ever done before or since and it may be that, as it does to some horses, Aintree turns him into a Tiger.

Back in 1990, in the middle of the Irish famine between L’Escargot in 1975 and Bobbyjo in 1999, there were just four Irish runners — this year they account for 18 runners.

Burrows Saint, who won the Irish National aged six, looks laid out for the race. If his trainer Willie Mullins is used to winning big races, triumphing in the National with his amateur son Patrick on board as the Walsh and Carberry families have done in the last 25 years, would take the thrill of winning to a different level.

Any Second Now won a Grade two over two miles last time and I dare say not many of rivals would have the speed to do that and he appears to stay too having won a Kim Muir.

There are three chances for a first female ridden winner and while Rachael Blackmore appears to have the best chance on Minella Times, it would be no surprise were Tabitha Worsley on Sub Lieutenant was the first female home. Bryony Frost’s mount Yala Enki has a shot if he jumps round which is not guaranteed.

I cannot help but think last season’s Welsh National winner Potters Corner, in whom my children have a micro-share, missed the boat when last year’s race was cancelled and, much like another grand stayer Lord Du Mesnil, the good to soft ground now looks more of a hindrance than a help.

Of course, if it is just a happy story you are after then there could be no more fitting finale to Colin Tizzard’s career before he hands over to his son Joe than winning the race with Mr Marlarky.

  1. Takingrisks
  2. Kimberlite Candy
  3. Bristol de Mai

Marlborough’s verdict

A typically competitive renewal of the Grand National that is more open than the market would suggest. You would have to go back nearly 25 years to Lord Gyllene in 1997 to find the last horse to make the running to win the Grand National, meaning likely favourite Cloth Cap could have a sizeable task on should he attempt to do the same, as per his two pillar-to-post victories so far this season. Cloth Cap cemented his position at the head of the market last month with a comfortable win in the Premier Chase at Kelso, a race that Many Clouds and Ballabriggs (in 2016 & 2011 respectively) both used as launchpads for Grand National glory.

Moreover, Cloth Cap’s Kelso victory last month not only sees him escape a penalty for his success, but also leaves him officially 14lb “well-in” in the eyes of the handicapper. If there is a chink in his armour, Cloth Cap did show a tendency to jump to his left at times at Kelso, which could prove problematic in a field as big as this.

Far and away his biggest danger looks to be BURROWS SAINT, whose record on “good to soft” ground or better (since joining Willie Mullins) reads 4111. Burrows Saint justified favouritism to win the Irish Grand National back in 2019 and looks to have been targeted at Aintree ever since, with his three races this season consisting of two hurdles and a 2nd placing to re-opposing stablemate Acapella Bourgeois on heavy ground back in February. Provided the rain stays away, Burrows Saint looks ready to peak and prove the one they all have to beat.

Anibale Fly is a high-class horse on his day, having finished 2nd in the 2019 Cheltenham Gold Cup prior to finishing a good 5th placing under top weight in the Grand National the following month (also finished 4th in the Aintree showpiece in 2018). He races off a notably kinder weight this year and can reward each-way support. Discorama has been well-backed over the last week and rates an interesting contender following wind surgery through the winter, an operation that can easily draw out further improvement. Seven-year-old Farclas has yet to race beyond three miles, and therefore has his stamina to prove here. If he can stay this far, he could be a major danger to all, having proved most progressive in his burgeoning steeplechasing career; he completes the shortlist. 

Marcus Armytage’s four horses to watch at the 2021 Grand National

Odds correct as of April 10

CLOTH CAP – 11/2

Impressive winner of the Ladbrokes Trophy and subsequent start at Kelso. Likely to be a short-priced favourite. Jockey Tom Scudamore is bidding to emulate his grandfather Michael who rode the winner. His father Peter was never better than third.

KIMBERLITE CANDY – 14/1

Never worse than second in two starts over the fences and stays a trip having won the Warwick Classic. Goes well fresh. Jockey Richie McLernon tasted the narrowest of defeats in the race beaten a nose on Sunnyhillboy by Neptune Collonges in 2012. Great chance for redemption.