Chicago takes the National express
WHILE almost all the focus is on the Cheltenham Festival, some trainers are looking further ahead to the Aintree Grand National.
A generous 29-day interval this year means that perspectives on the National could be radically altered by the Cheltenham Gold Cup, though that contest is not on the agenda of the majority of contenders.
For instance, Gordon Elliott's 2011 Cheltenham winner Chicago Grey will head straight to the National after delighting connections in his final run before the Aintree spectacular.
The nine-year-old made eye-catching late progress to take second place behind leading Ryanair Chase fancy Rubi Light over two and a half miles in the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park earlier this month.
Chicago Grey will bypass next month's Festival, where he won the four-mile National Hunt Chase last season, and be prepared for the National on April 14.
Elliott knows what it takes to win the big race on Merseyside, having tasted glory with Silver Birch in 2007, although no grey has been successful since Nicolaus Silver in 1961.
"He's good and will go straight to the National now," said the Co Meath handler. "We were very happy with his run at Gowran. The two and a half miles was way too short for him."
Chicago Grey, which has 10st 13lb in the National, is a top-priced 25/1.
On Saturday, all eyes will be on Ballabriggs when he makes his first appearance since winning the Grand National last year.
Donald McCain's intention has long been to run Ballabriggs in a conditions race at Kelso -- just as he did last year prior to his Aintree win. But he has covered all bases by also entering him for handicap chases at Doncaster and Newbury the same afternoon.
The William Hill Grimthorpe Chase, at Doncaster, has also lured two of the other leading British fancies in West End Rocker and Junior. But the latter, already well backed for Aintree before resurfacing for a spin over hurdles at Newbury 11 days ago, is more likely to wait to warm up in the Gold Cup.
Tim Palin, racing manager to his Junior's owners Middleham Park Racing, said: "We're having a look at Doncaster, but don't want to give him a hard race under a big weight on softish ground, and this weekend would only be 15 days since his first run of the season."
As for West End Rocker, Alan King will not run unless there is significant rain. "I don't want to risk him on quick ground. If we don't find a suitable race then we'll take him away for a racecourse gallop," he said.
Raiders on this side of the Irish Sea have an exceptional hand in the National, two more candidates having thrown down the gauntlet over the weekend in Prince De Beauchene and Seabass -- respectively the likely mounts of Ruby Walsh and his sister Katie.
Yesterday Coral, who are quoting Junior at 12/1 and Ballabriggs at 16/1, laid Prince De Beauchene into 8/1 favouritism from 10/1.
At Plumpton yesterday, the former Jim Bolger-trainer Duaiseoir made a successful debut for the Venetia Williams yard in the opening maiden hurdle. Bought out of the Coolcullen yard, he had been off the track for 612 days, but was certainly not lacking in fitness.
Duaiseoir hurdled fluently throughout for Aidan Coleman and arrived going ominously well at the third-last. The 16/1 winner was eventually pushed out to beat the eye-catching Winning Spark by four and a half lengths.
James Pollard foiled an almighty gamble on On Khee in the two-mile handicap hurdle. On just his fourth time over hurdles, the David Pipe-trained On Khee was backed from 9/2 in the morning and sent off the 11/10 favourite.
With Tom Scudamore aboard, the mare was three lengths clear jumping the last. However, James Pollard was staying on stoutly for amateur rider Robert Williams and as On Khee's stamina ebbed away, the 16/1 chance pulled four lengths clear.
Tony McCoy struck just once aboard Schism (9/2) for Jonjo O'Neill in the closing mares handicap hurdle.