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Unibet Grand National Trial: Tom Thurgood’s runner-by-runner guide

By Tom Thurgood@tdthurgood
Fri 14 Feb 2020

The Unibet Grand National Trial is the highlight at Haydock this Saturday and eleven runners have been declared for the £100,00 showpiece, live on Racing TV at 3.15pm.

Elegant Escape, Yala Enki and One For Arthur are fairly prominent in the betting for the Randox Health Grand National in April and plenty have taken their chance here and subsequently lined up at Aintree. Since 1997, only the Ultima Handicap Chase (79) has provided more runners in the great race than this Haydock trial (63).

Expect very testing conditions at the weekend, with the ground described as heavy on Thursday morning with more showers forecast including on the day of racing.

Here’s a closer look at the contenders.

BALLYOPTIC

Trainer: Nigel Twiston-Davies. Odds: 12-1.

Ballyoptic has enjoyed big-race success already this season

This ten-year-old has enjoyed a decent campaign so far, jumping nicely out in front for a winning return at Chepstow before landing the Charlie Hall, the form of which reads well now. Prominent at Wetherby, he jumped better under more forceful tactics down the back straight and looks a better jumper at the head of affairs.

He was outclassed as the outsider of four in the Betfair Chase but perhaps paid the price for trying to keep close tabs on Bristol De Mai. He jumped quite well over the National fences in the Becher, but progressively lost his pitch when his jumping came under greater pressure.

His jumping has improved but it’s a still a slight question mark before this test and there looks to be plenty of competition for the lead. Others make more appeal further down the weights.

ELEGANT ESCAPE

Trainer: Colin Tizzard. Odds: 7-1.

Elegant Escape fared well in the Ladbrokes Trophy in November

The former Welsh National winner carries top weight from a mark of 162 and he’s been more sparingly campaigned this year before his Grand National tilt.

The eight-year-old put up two cracking efforts under big weights in the Charlie Hall and Ladbrokes Trophy on his first two starts this term before coming up a bit short in the Welsh National last time when a well-backed favourite.

Joe Tizzard told Racing TV at Tuesday’s Grand National weights lunch that this horse has had “his wind tweaked” since and you could argue this race looks his most feasible assignment this season. He will stay and handle conditions.

Elegant Escape deserves his rating and since 1997 horses carrying 11st 12lbs have an excellent record in this race. Three have won and five more have placed from 13 runners, performing 90 per cent above market expectation (1.9 A/E).

GERONIMO

Trainer: Sandy Thomson. Odds: 10-1.

Geronimo shaped well in the Peter Marsh last time out

The nine-year-old has a good career strike-rate and has finished placed ten times from 11 career starts.

He ran a decent race to finish third in the Peter Marsh at this track last time, should handle the testing conditions and has form over 3m3f on better ground. However, will he relish this test?

He did tire for third last time when looking second-best behind the runaway Vintage Clouds at the top of the straight and this keen-going type can get low at a few obstacles. He gets in at the bottom of the weights but others look more persuasive.

LORD DU MESNIL

Trainer: Richard Hobson. Odds: 6-1.

Lord Du Mensil completed a hat-trick at Haydock when a ready winner of a 3m4f handicap chase

The seven-year-old is the youngest in the line-up but has an abundance of jumping experience in France.

A 23-race maiden just three months ago, he’s thriving now after landing his last three starts and now races from 25lb higher in the handicap.

He put up a good effort to rally for victory at Newcastle at the start of the sequence and was relentless from the front in the Tommy Whittle. He could be called the winner half-way down the back straight last time, putting his rivals under real pressure from the front and he’s unbeaten in two starts at Haydock.

He gets another 10lb rise here, but he is genuinely progressive and regular jockey Paul O’Brien claims 3lb. The big question here is the competition for the lead and how he will respond.

ONE FOR ARTHUR

Trainer: Lucinda Russell. Odds: 12-1.

One For Arthur stayed on to finish fifth in the Becher Chase on his latest start

The former Grand National hero is lightly-raced since that victory three years ago but is now down to a mark of 148 – the same rating before his career highlight at Aintree.

The 11-year-old shaped quite nicely at Kelso on his reappearance and again ran on to good effect in the Becher last time after looking outpaced at half-way.

He was never really put into the race at Aintree, but with the additional distance here and the prospect of a strong pace this test could pan out nicely for this confirmed stayer.

It’s also worth noting Lucinda Russell has an excellent record in this race, albeit from a modest sample. From six runners in this contest, the trainer has saddled three winners with her representatives performing a staggering 512 percent above market expectation (6.12 A/E).

POBBLES BAY

Trainer: Evan Williams. Odds: 20-1.

Pobbles Bay has run well in plenty of staying chases in the past

The Welsh National looks a key form-line here and, while those placed prominently fought out the finish, Pobbles Bay was beaten fair and square by the likes of Yala Enki and Elegant Escape in receipt of weight.

The ten-year-old is down 4lb for that Chepstow run but looks up against it here. He was always behind in this race last year and is 2lb higher this time.

SMOOTH STEPPER

Trainer: Alex Hales. Odds: 25-1.

Watch how Smooth Stepper fared at Sandown last time out

Yet to win in six starts for his current trainer, his best effort for previous handler Sue Smith was over 3m2f on heavy ground at Kelso. Raised to a mark of 146 after that, he has not been particularly competitive since.

He ran respectably in the Veterans’ Final at Sandown last time, under pressure for most of the back straight but running on with credit for sixth.

Although this test should suit better, there is an obvious class question here and as an 11-year-old 3lb out of the weights he doesn’t look a winning proposition.

STEELY ADDITION

Trainer: Philip Hobbs. Odds: 12-1.

Steely Addition struggled at Listed level when last seen at Sandown

The lightly-raced eight-year-old has had just 12 starts under rules and contests his first handicap outside of novice company, going up over four furlongs in trip in testing conditions to boot.

His jumping can be very slick on a stride but given his profile perhaps it’s not a surprise he can be novicey at obstacles, making fairly hard work of it as a short-priced favourite at Hereford two starts ago and he didn’t really recover from one bad mistake in the back straight behind Santini on his reappearance at Sandown, finishing very tired.

He missed his engagement in the Welsh National and the ground should and run of the race should suit here. However, he doesn’t look well-treated from his mark of 147.

THE TWO AMIGOS

Trainer: Nicky Martin. Odds: 6-1.

The Two Amigos has proved he has bundles of stamina in the past

The Two Amigos was particularly progressive last season after racking up a sequence in points, he climbed from 109 to 142 in the handicap and he was going perfectly well when slithering on landing in this race last year.

Keen in the Welsh National last time, he eventually grabbed the lead and was still taking a grip at the start of the second circuit. All told he ran a lovely race in the circumstances, sticking to the task when passed by Potter’s Corner at the top of the straight and he was tired in the final furlong. He should come on for that.

Owned and trained by Nicky Martin, the Exmoor permit-holder does not warrant the same scrutiny as higher-profile operators although the yard has endured a quieter spell this season compared to previous campaigns.

VINTAGE CLOUDS

Trainer: Sue Smith. Odds: 7-1.

Danny Cook discusses Vintage Clouds' victory in the Peter Marsh

The ten-year-old had shaped with some promise this season after a really progressive spring but his overall performance was slightly underwhelming in his first three starts of this campaign.

However, he was back with a vengeance last time with a seven-length victory in the Peter Marsh where he had the race won four furlongs from home.

While he annihilated his rivals there, Sue Smith has a particularly good record in the Peter Marsh and the return to more prominent tactics might be compromised with the potential set-up of this contest. Vintage Clouds is up 9lb in handicap now and races from a career-high rating of 153.

“He’s all ready to go, looks great and came out of his last race really well,” Smith told Racing TV at Tuesday’s Grand National weights lunch.

YALA ENKI

Trainer: Paul Nicholls. Odds: 6-1.

Watch how Yala Enki got back to winning ways at Taunton

The ten-year-old knows what’s required here, hosing up in this race two years ago when trained by Venetia Williams from a mark of 146.

We know the ground and trip will suit and he’s enjoyed a good maiden campaign for Paul Nicholls, shaping with some promise in the Ladbrokes Trophy before coming out best at the weights with his third under 11st 7lb in the Welsh National last time.

He landed Taunton’s most valuable prize of the year last time and Bryony Frost again takes the ride; perhaps his chance will be best served by sitting just behind the potential leaders here though his good jumping might take him to the head of affairs sooner rather than later.

Like Elegant Escape, he deserves his rating and looks a very strong place contender at the least.

TOM THURGOOD’S BIG-RACE VERDICT:

With the ground so testing and the prospect of Vintage Clouds, Lord Du Mesnil and The Two Amigos battling for the lead – in addition to several prominent racers – the pace of the race looks fascinating here.

There’s a chance jockeys may ride with more restraint given conditions, but this will surely be a stout stamina test and the proven, hardy campaigners make most appeal even if they’re obliged to carry plenty of weight.

Yala Enki (6-1) will enjoy this test and so should Elegant Escape (7-1), though he needs to bounce back from a slightly-below par effort last time. Of the two, he’s just preferred given the likely run of the race at a slightly bigger price.

However, the one that might be genuinely over-priced here is One For Arthur (12-1). If connections persevere with deliberate waiting tactics, he should still get involved given the pace of the race and his trainer boasts a fine record in this contest.

Now allotted his Grand National weight of 10st 2lbs, this is his first start after wind surgery and One For Arthur gets the first-time cheekpieces here. He can go well at the prices.

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