As usual it’s a tough race to solve, with the promise of a stellar renewal adding to the most unforgiving, if enjoyable, of headaches.
The obvious starting point lies with last year’s winner Many Clouds, who bids to become the first horse since Red Rum in the 1970s to successfully defend his crown.
There’s plenty to like about Oliver Sherwood’s gallant stable star, especially the fact this race has been his concrete target this time around - last year’s winning effort was seemingly more of an afterthought following his disappointing sixth in the Gold Cup.
Yes, this term has been all about the Grand National for Many Clouds, and he has put in some sterling efforts along the way, culminating in slamming fellow National fancy Unioniste by 10 lengths (when giving the runner-up 4 lb) in Kelso’s Premier Chase last month.
Many Clouds is actually one of the more favourably treated horses this year, his mark 6 lb higher than in 2015 (set to carry only 1 lb more in actually weight, 11-10 this year), and he looks to have the best chance of any winner in recent years of retaining his crown.
However, the fanfare surrounding Many Clouds’ quest for history means his price continues to shorten, and there is plenty of value knocking around as a result.
An interesting runner at a very big price - 40/1 generally - is Le Reve, who also figures near the top of the Timeform weight-adjusted ratings.
Le Reve looked a likely National type when scoring at Sandown in February, and whilst he will have to prove his ability over Aintree’s unique National fences, he’s generally a sound jumper and could take well to the Liverpool course.
Many eyes will be on dual King George winner Silviniaco Conti, who looks to be Paul Nicholls’ strongest chance of winning this year’s National, the 10-year-old appearing on a good mark (164) on just his second start in a handicap based on the form of his demolition job in the Betfair Ascot Chase last time.
Silviniaco Conti's half-brother Ucello Conti also catches the eye for the Gordon Elliott team. The gelding joined his new stable relatively late - as a seven-year-old just before Christmas, having had plenty of racing in France - but he has improved on each of his three starts for the yard, finishing third in the Thyestes Handicap Chase at Gowran Park on his latest one in January.
With a proven record on a range of going and his last two runs confirming his stamina for at least 25 furlongs, Ucello Conti could be an intersting outsider if the Elliott team can squeeze out further improvement in time for Aintree’s showpiece.
The weight-adjusted ratings provide insightful clues when trying to unravel this head-scratcher, and they’re currently topped by The Last Samuri after his commanding 10-length win in the Grimthorpe at Doncaster in early March.
A sound jumper who will stay long distances, The Last Samuri's chance is there for all to see and he's worth backing at 12/1.
Another that rates highly on the adjusted ratings is Bishops Road who highlighted his credentials in Haydock’s National Trial in February. Whilst that race isn't the pointer to this race as it's name suggests, Bishops Road evidently has stamina in abundance and holds sound claims of giving trainer Kerry Lee another winner in what has been a fantastic debut season.
As was proven last year, Cheltenham can provide plenty of clues for Aintree, and several caught the eye at Prestbury Park last month. The Ultima Handicap could prove to be a big clue, with top weight Holywell putting in a good performance to finish second. He was more impressive than Kruzhlinin, who didn’t jump well late on when tiring – which is a concern with Aintree’s fences looming.
Another to note was O’Faolains Boy, who ran a big race to finish seventh of nine in the Gold Cup. He was able to keep tabs on top-class horses such as Don Cossack, Djakadam and Cue Card for the best part of three miles, before eventually fading, and his mark of 157 looks attractive after that effort.
One that appeals most at a double-figure price, however, is Shutthefrontdoor, who didn't quite read the script last year when just failing to give A.P. McCoy the perfect send off. He finished just over 12 lengths behind Many Clouds in fifth, but he shaped better than the bare result suggests and there’s plenty of reasons to think he can do better this time around.
Jonjo O’Neill’s runner is 1 lb lower on official ratings this year, and arrives on the back of a prep run – something he was without 12 months ago, which could well have taken its toll late on.
The fact that his prep, when pulled up at Newbury at the beginning of March, was a rather moody effort may temper enthusiasm, but he was said to be suffering from abscesses that day and could well be a different proposition on April 9th.
J.P. McManus has a strong hand for this year’s renewal, which could go some way to explaining why Shutthefrontdoor is currently a 25/1-shot, with Barry Geraghty having the luxury of being able to choose from a selection of runners, which includes Gold Cup fourth Carlingford Lough and commanding Kim Muir winner Cause of Causes.
It’s an interesting conundrum for Geraghty, though Shutthefrontdoor is currently the bookies’ favourite to get the nod as his ride. Even if the jockey does go elsewhere though, Shutthefrontdoor looks to have a good chance in my opinion, and he rates as a lively punt at a big price alongside the more obvious improver The Last Samuri.
Back The Last Samuri at 12/1 for the Grand National
Back Shutthefrontdoor at 25/1 for the Grand National
G1 - The Bet365 Celebration Steeple Chase (class 1)
G3 - The Bet365 Gold Cup Steeple Chase (handicap) (class 1)
G1 - Aes Champion 4yo Hdle
Grade B - Setanta Sport H'cap Hdle
Grade B - Palmerstown House Pat Taaffe H'cap Chase