Sport Horse Racing

Sunday 11 December 2016

Rocky Creek has serious chance of National glory

Form, weights and price make Nicholls charge best choice, writes Ian McClean

Ian McClean

Published 05/04/2015 | 02:30

Paul Nicholls is optimistic. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Paul Nicholls is optimistic. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

In isolation, the Grand National and the retirement of AP McCoy are mega news event. Combine them and you create the biggest media fusion storm since Brad married Angelina.

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Already many of the other jockeys are expressing their relief at the diversion of spotlight towards McCoy, reckoning it's removed the pressure away from them entirely. Meanwhile, Betfair have opened a market on how short the McCoy favourite will start next Saturday - with 4/1-9/2 the current favourite. It didn't help of course that owner JP McManus volunteered that Shutthefrontdoor has been "laid out for the race all year" at Limerick city's big clean-up on Good Friday, and many bookmakers will be tempted to do just that should McCoy perform the act of fairy godmother by guiding the favourite home in front to a worldwide audience of some 600 million to trigger his instant retirement.

It all amounts to Shutthefrontdoor being substantially over-bet by Joe Public and consequently going off a ludicrously deflated price for a race in which heart frequently over-rules head for punters. And while the Jonjo O'Neill favourite is undoubtedly unexposed, there are plenty of reasons for opposing the under-priced market leader. For starters, I cannot remember a Grand National winner having just six starts over fences before the race, and while many will point to his victory in the Irish National (traditionally a good indicator) last spring, the form of that race is very poor, with none of the next five home registering a win of any kind in the meantime.

Shutthefrontdoor has been laid out for the race all year, but his absence from the track since November - combined with his inexperience - is a big negative given that the last 32 winners at Aintree had each run within 50 days of the feature. In addition, while his jumping was assured at both Carlisle and Fairyhouse, I cannot overlook his very suspect jumping just three runs ago in the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham, and a reiteration of anything like that faced with 39 rivals and 30 fences will mean sayonara for his chances next Saturday.

Finally, I'm not a big fan of youth in the face of the Grand National's unique demands, and we have to go back to Bindaree in 2002 to find the last eight-year-old winner of racing's most daunting challenge. In fact, the National roster could be accused of bare-faced reverse ageism as the record for any horse aged under eight is appalling. We need to go back 75 years for the last seven-year-old to win the endurance test - a poor omen for anyone thinking of Unioniste next week.

Weight is usually a critical factor in the outcome and last year's winner, Pineau de Re, is bidding to defy an 8lb rise in trying to emulate Red Rum with back-to-back victories. Last year's hero had plenty in reserve and could conceivably have won with an extra burden - but of greater concern is the fact that his form does not appear so persuasive this time around on the run up to Aintree. Runner-up last year, Balthazar King, is only 3lb higher and his preparation has been geared around keeping him fresh for this (he skipped Cheltenham), but now 11, the Hobbs gelding is now being asked to win off a career-high handicap mark.

On the other side, The Druid's Nephew is officially 10lbs 'well in' after his impressive victory at the Cheltenham Festival following the framing of the National weights. However, I was interested in Barry Geraghty's immediate post-race reaction at Cheltenham (and I share his reservations) about the Neil Mulholland horse's idiosyncratic jumping technique in the context of the challenge at Liverpool. Aintree's obstacles are made for gliders, not negotiators.

Lord Windermere and Many Clouds represent Gold Cup form, but they feature as numbers one and two on the race card and the associated weight combined with their respective performances in the Cheltenham highlight is enough to temper enthusiasm.

One classy horse that seems to have lost its way is First Lieutenant, but he has consequently dropped to the his lowest mark in four seasons. Aintree has a habit of bringing certain horses alive and the combination of the environment and Nina Carberry could easily revitalise this former Betfred Bowl course winner.

I'm a believer in course form and have always had decent regard for Saint Are, which has always displayed a liking for the track. His run in the Becher Chase earlier this campaign looked extremely good in the context of next week. However, the reservation is that in an effort to get into the race, the Tom George horse went and won an egg-and-spoon race at Catterick, which unfortunately came with a 14lb rise attached. It booked him his place - but has it also scuppered his chance?

Ultimately the horse with the most appeal at the price is pretty straightforward. Rocky Creek has always been a class act. Just lacking the gears to be a Gold Cup horse, he ran too aggressively in last year's National and failed to get home, having led for the entire final circuit until the last fence. His sweeping victory in the Betbright Chase at Kempton last time demonstrated a horse at the peak of its powers. That win, coupled with the fact he avoided a rise in the weights (now officially 9lb higher) and the fact he has been geared towards the race all season by Paul Nicholls means that, ridden with more restraint, Rocky Creek must have a serious chance.

Verdict:

1st Rocky Creek

2nd First Lieutenant

3rd Saint Are

4th Pineau de Re

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