Cue Card can deny Mullins pair and secure atonement
If there has been a more riveting Aintree card than the one that gets the Crabbie's Grand National meeting underway today, it's not easy to recall.
Gordon Elliott elected to keep Don Cossack at home, despite the Gold Cup hero's 26-length destruction of Cue Card in last year's Melling Chase.
His presence would have added hugely to the Betfred Bowl as it would have presented a definitive clash with the King George victor, but waiting for Punchestown makes perfect sense. There aren't many others you'd miss and the 18-strong Irish contingent is immense.
Willie Mullins keeps Douvan for Saturday's shorter Grade One novices' chase, so he is without a runner in the Manifesto Chase. That apart, he is well represented as he goes in pursuit of the trainers' title, with Annie Power long odds-on to reaffirm her Prestbury Park superiority over her three closest pursuers as she strives to deliver him a first Doom Bar Aintree Hurdle.
Djakadam and Don Poli, second and third in the Gold Cup, join Cue Card in the £150,000 Bowl, just 20 days after their Cotswold endeavours. With the recovery time far from ideal, it will make for a fascinating encounter.
Road To Riches and Taglietelle have since run as though they were still feeling the effects from Cheltenham, although Savello - fourth in the Grand Annual - did win at Kelso on Saturday.
Some horses can bounce back quicker than others, and it was interesting that Smashing, pulled up in the Ryanair Chase, seemed to benefit from that judgement call by conquering Road To Riches at Navan. With that in mind, Cue Card appeals as the one to keep on side in the Bowl. Not at his best last season, he has been a revelation this term following surgery on a trapped epiglottis.
He slammed Silviniaco Conti in the Betfair and then collared the mighty Vautour at Kempton, when Don Cossack exited two-out. In the Gold Cup, he was going as well as anything when he fell three-out. If Paddy Brennan had the chance over, he might not make the forward move between horses on the approach to one of the track's trickiest fences at such a crucial point in the race, but hindsight is a fine thing.
The Galway native is a proper jockey and the sort of competitor who will be bristling to set the record straight. Cue Card, like Smashing, didn't have a hard race. That will stand to him, and, as an experienced chaser, the fall shouldn't knock his confidence, so he gets the nod.
There will be little to choose between Djakadam and Don Poli. Bryan Cooper gets a fine tune out of Don Poli, and, while he laboured at Cheltenham, he beat Many Clouds here in December.
Don Poli won't be as unsuited to the track as some might think, possibly even less so than Djakadam. Ruby Walsh's mount is a high-class slogger, and the suspicion is that such a quick venue won't play to his strengths, unless plentiful rainfall arrives in time.
Coneygree, Valseur Lido and Don Cossack have relegated him to the runner-up berth in three of his last four completed starts. Djakadam could win, of course, but another near-miss here might constitute a cracking turn.
Valiant defeat won't do for Mullins and Walsh in the £200,000 Aintree Hurdle. Nichols Canyon, a course and distance winner in 2015, will be better over this 20-furlong trip, but Annie Power should reassert her authority.
My Tent Or Yours ran a blinder at Cheltenham after his long lay-off under a fantastic Barry Geraghty ride and The New One won this in 2014.
However, Annie Power proved that she is the best jumps mare since Dawn Run with that demolition of all three in the Champion, so she is unopposable over a trip that we know she stays.
It's a similar story in the Anniversary Hurdle. Aidan and Joseph O'Brien's Ivanovich Gorbatov destroyed the Triumph Hurdle field; he could be even more suited to this track, so it's hard to make a case for Mullins' second and third, Apple's Jade and Footpad, turning the tables, notwithstanding that juveniles are never to be trusted.
With Paul Nicholls's Fred Winter one-two Diego Du Charmil and Romain De Senam also in opposition, it should be cracking contest, but the JP McManus-owned Ivanovich Gorbatov sets a tall standard under Geraghty.
Douvan's punch-bag Sizing John steps up to two-and-a-half miles in the opener and can enhance Henry De Bromhead's fine Aintree record.
In the Foxhunters', On The Fringe bids for a double-double on the back of his Cheltenham triumph. Last year's winner should score for Jamie Codd.
Selections: 1.40 Sizing John; 2.15 Ivanovich Gorbatov; 2.50 Cue Card; 3.20 Annie Power; 4.05 On The Fringe; 4.40 Minella Present; 5.15 Augusta Kate