Barizan class to tell for Williams
Shane Donohoe's hat-trick seeking Drussell leads a five-strong Irish challenge on the first day of a quality-laden Aintree Grand National meeting.
Four winners from last month's Cheltenham Festival, including the Gold Cup hero Imperial Commander, turn out at the Liverpool venue this afternoon, with Drussell pitched into Grade One company for a first time in the Matalan Anniversary Novices' Hurdle.
Having shown marked improvement to record impressive victories at Fairyhouse and Ayr on its last two starts, the four-year-old is entitled to this step up in class. That said, Drussell has plenty more to find if he is to land a first Irish success in the two-mile contest since Al Eile triumphed in 2004, as the quality of opposition in the 11-runner field is of the highest order.
Likely to head the market is Ruby Walsh's mount Sanctuaire, which justified market confidence to run out a comprehensive winner of the Fred Winter Hurdle at Cheltenham. Notus De La Tour, nine lengths behind in second at Prestbury Park, will be a formidable opponent off seven-pound better terms with the favourite, while Me Voici and Super Kenny are also likely to make their presence felt.
Preference, though, is for Barizan, Evan Williams' game Triumph Hurdle runner-up. At Cheltenham, the five-time winner looked to have stolen an unassailable lead over the field before finally succumbing to Soldatino up the hill. If AP McCoy's mount has recovered sufficiently from that, the flat track ought to work to his advantage now.
The day's other two Grade Ones go uncontested by Irish-trained horses, though Leopardstown's Lexus Chase winner What A Friend tackles Imperial Commander in the Totesport Bowl. Despite his undoubted talent, Imperial Commander has never been as potent away from Cheltenham. With that in mind, he can be opposed at odds-on.
Nacarat, on a track that suits his front-running style, represents a genuine threat to the champion under Tony McCoy; Caruthers and Calgary Bay, fourth and sixth respectively in the Gold Cup, maybe less so. Having been put away especially for this since accounting for the subsequent Hennessy winner Joncol at Leopardstown, What A Friend gets the nod to oblige.
Still open to huge improvement at just seven years of age, the Alex Ferguson-owned gelding's only other start this term came when he beat all bar Denman in the Hennessy at Newbury in November. Despite being a touch quirky, What A Friend is clearly a horse of immense talent, and he will thrive off the strong pace in this.
The BGC Partners Liverpool Hurdle gets proceedings under way at 2.0. Paul Nicholls and Ruby Walsh are again to the fore, with the dual World Hurdle winner Big Buck's seeking to complete a double double, having also taken this a year ago.
Unbeaten in his last eight completed starts, the son of Cadoudal will come unstuck at some stage, though today isn't expected to be that day. Time For Rupert, his closest pursuer at Cheltenham, won't take up its engagement after scooping badly yesterday, and it's hard to make a case for the remainder.
In the John Smith's Fox Hunters' Chase, run over the Grand National fences, Nedzer's Return and Having A Cut hold strong claims for the travelling party. Gordon Elliot's Nedzer's Return has won two hunters' chases in emphatic fashion of late, while the Edward O'Grady-trained Having A Cut has had his season tailored around this. Baby Run, winner of the equivalent event at Cheltenham, sets the standard if he takes to the fences. But Having A Cut was a good third in the race last year, and that experience tilts the balance his way.
The Totepool Manifesto Novices' Chase is the final graded race on the card. Somersby, a gallant second to Sizing Europe in the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy, is taken to just shade it from the scintillating Kempton winner The Nightingale.
2.00 -- Big Buck's
2.35 -- Barizan (Nap)
3.10 -- What A Friend
3.45 -- Having A Cut
4.20 -- Pigeon Island
4.55 -- Somersby
5.30 -- Tara Royal