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What have we learned from Cheltenham ahead of the Grand National
From Matthew Harris: March 2016

What have we learned from Cheltenham ahead of the Grand National? 'It ain't what you do (it's the way that you do it)', so sang eighties songstresses Bananarama. They may not have known this at the time of publication, but that statement was prescient in more ways than one; particularly when considering the effect that a strong - or otherwise - showing at the Cheltenham Festival could tell us about a horse's chances heading into the Grand National.

Yes, it's nearly that time again: the world-famous Aintree meeting is just around the corner on April 9, and after an action-packed Cheltenham many punters were left marking their cards as to the runners and riders that turned in eye-catching performances at the four-day fun fest earlier in March.

Similarly, not turning up at Cheltenham at all can actually enhance a steed's prospects for the four mile contest, with Many Clouds (8/1) and Silviniaco Conti (10/1) installed as the early bookmakers' favourites despite being absent from the festival.

'It's better to keep your mouth shut and have people think you're a fool, rather than open it and remove all doubt' wasn't the B-side to that Bananarama hit, but a philosophical zinger from Mark Twain. It holds truth in this context too: by avoiding Cheltenham - and thus not performing badly - those two favourites have managed to enhance their hopes without even getting their hooves dirty.

So here's a quick recap of the results from Cheltenham, and any potential movers-and-shakers to keep an eye on for Aintree.

Day One

Holywell (12/1) really impressed in the Ultima Handicap Chase on day one of the festival. This 3m 1f slog can be a good pointer towards Grand National suitability, and the nine-year-old showed well under the stewardship of Richie McLernon. The Irish Gelding led with three to jump, and despite a slackening of pace that allowed Un Temps Pour Tout to take the honours, a respectable second place in a decent field is a nice guide heading into Aintree.

Incredibly, Holywell has finished in the top three of 21 of his 25 starts, and a previous triumph at the Grand National meeting in the Mildmay Novices' Chase (defeating the likes of Many Clouds and Don Cossack, no less) suggests that Jonjo O'Neill has got a real contender on his hands here.

Incidentally, another brace of entries in that Ultima Handicap Chase - Morning Assembly (33/1) and Kruzhlinin (25/1) - are confirmed for the National, and they finished fourth and fifth respectively in that Cheltenham renewal.

Stat fans will love this little titbit for the office: that was the first time that Morning Assembly had finished outside of the top three in a race since March 31, 2013. Food for thought, perhaps.

Another market mover following day one of Cheltenham was Bally Beaufort, who tumbled from 66/1 to 100/1 after being pulled up in the National Hunt Challenge Chase Cup.

Day Two

One of the visual highlights of day two of the Cheltenham Festival - if not a punters paradise - is the Coral Cup. Here 26 horses do battle, and so aesthetically at least it is the closest that the festival comes to producing a National-like spectacle.

In this year's renewal little of note was recorded, however The Romford Pele (50/1) was completely out-paced and as such is one to avoid for Aintree.

Day Three

The jury remains out on Gilgamboa, who is available from prices as wildly ranging as 33/1 to 66/1. An inconsistent run in the Ryanair Chase, in which he finished fifth, will have done little to promote his cause, however smart punters will know that Many Clouds finished sixth in the Gold Cup before triumphing in the Grand National less than a month later, so don't be too hasty to write off the chances of a JP McManus steed that has placed in 10 of 14 outings.

There was further disappointment for those with one eye on Aintree when both Ballycasey (80/1) and Ballynagour (66/1) flattered to deceive and finished fifth and seventh respectively in the Stable Plate when expected to go well.

There was better news in the Kim Muir Challenge Cup Handicap Chase however, which brought the curtain down on day three. Cause of Causes (20/1) looked imperious as he took the spoils, and encouragingly even appeared to finish stronger than he started in this 3m 2f stretch. He finished eighth in the Grand National last year, so this American horse is well worth keeping an eye on.

Day Four

If omens are your thing, then the Cheltenham Gold Cup can often create some juicy ones heading into the Grand National. As mentioned, Many Clouds finished sixth in last year's renewal before leading the field home at Aintree, so we can look to that kind of marker again here.

Carlingford Lough (25/1) is thus an interesting proposition. He finished fourth in the Gold Cup behind a trio of top performers, so you could argue that this Irish gelding left Cheltenham with his profile well and truly enhanced.

It's been such a rollercoaster ride for this JP McManus horse that it is hard to unequivocally pin your colours to his mast, and a record of nine wins in 28 starts is hardly earth-moving. But finishing in the money places in five of ten outings over 24f or more suggests that this is a stayer who improves over greater distances.

O'Faolains Boy (50/1) actually led the field until the third last in the Gold Cup, but faded badly when pressured by Don Cossack and co. On His Own (40/1) was left eating dust at the back of the pack and never recovered.


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