Merigo primed to trump 'Poker'
Cheltenham hero Poker De Sivola will today bid to become the first Coral Scottish Grand National-winning favourite since his trainer Ferdy Murphy collected with Paris Pike 10 years ago.
Murphy has since taken the Ayr showpiece for a third time with Hot Weld in 2007, while Graham Lee, who replaces Katie Walsh now, was on board when Grey Abbey trounced the field under top-weight three years previous to that.
Having also cantered up in a Catterick novice chase prior to Cheltenham, Poker De Sivola is undoubtedly the horse to beat. He has scope for further improvement at just seven years of age, he will love the ground and is a proven stayer.
Nonetheless, his two recent wins came in novice events, and he must compete here off an 11lb higher mark than when last seen struggling in handicaps in the autumn. While he is fancied to make the frame, the assessor has done enough to make winning this afternoon's Grade Three very difficult.
At up to 16/1, Merigo is the value option. In four runs at Ayr, Timmy Murphy's mount has won twice and been placed twice, and he saves his best for races over extended distances such as this afternoon's four miles.
A winner of the Eider Chase over the trip last year, Merigo has yet to recapture that form this term. On his reappearance in November the nine-year-old never featured, but he did then run encouragingly when second over hurdles at Warwick.
In a competitive race over three and a quarter miles next time, Murphy didn't punish him when he struggled as the tempo increased on good ground, and that judgement could bear fruit now. Granted, Merigo would appreciate a bit more cut, but he comes here a fresh horse compared to many of the others.
Having dropped to a rating just two pounds higher than when he won the Eider, he gets in bang on 10st. With so much in his favour, Merigo's price looks over big.
The second favourite is Paul Nicholls' Meanus Dandy, a horse that doesn't convince in the way he finishes. With that in mind, Faasel, a staying-on second at Cheltenham on his seasonal debut, has each-way claims if he improves for that outing.
The first of six Irish-trained runners on the Ayr programme comes in the preceding Samsung Electronics Scottish Champion Hurdle. The in-form Paul Gilligan saddles Lady Hillingdon in the Grade Two, and it's worth noting that Andrew Lynch's mount has two wins and three seconds from five starts across the water this term.
However, she faces a tough task at today's weights, so is passed over in favour of Arcalis. The 2005 Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner had been out of form before keeping on to finish second to Thousand Stars in the County Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Although Arcalis has been raised a few pounds, he is still 20lbs below the mark off which he started favourite for this in 2005. With Dee Ee Williams, a length behind him at Cheltenham, since winning at Aintree and Thousand Stars expected to step up to Grade One company next week, Howard Johnson's 10-year-old is the clear pick.
In Ruby Walsh's absence, Tony McCoy steps in for five rides for Paul Nicholls.
The best of the quintet may be the first two, Advisor and Tchico Polos.
Advisor, one of seven in the opening juvenile hurdle, comes here having made no impression in the Triumph Hurdle last month. Unsurprisingly, this is much less competitive, and Advisor had previously looked a really exciting prospect when recording two clear-cut victories. He can regain the winning thread now.
Tchico Polos has more on his plate in the subsequent Grade Two novice chase, with Cheltenham runner-up French Opera likely to take the beating. That said, McCoy's mount bounces off this drier ground, and he could dominate this from the start.
Best bet: Arcalis