Earlier this week, I was lucky enough to be at the unveiling of the Crabbie’s Grand National Weights Luncheon, held on the 35th floor of London’s “Cheesegrater” building. It was a spectacular affair, attended by anyone who’s anyone in National Hunt racing with the pleasant addition of live singing from super soprano Laura Wright, and rightly whetted the appetite for what is indisputably the greatest single race in the entire world.
On Saturday, April 9, this year we will pour into the Media Centre at Aintree racecourse (pictured), buzzing about our business, and most likely we will fail to find time to stop and reflect on the renaming of said media centre. For at the lunch, attended by two of Alan Lee’s children, we received the excellent news that the hub of press activity will be renamed in perpetuity as the Alan Lee Media Centre. It’s a fitting tribute to the much missed and much loved Times racing correspondent, who was the first to arrive and the last to leave in Liverpool every April.
Sir Anthony McCoy, as we are now encouraged to call the recently retired knight of the realm, was on sparkling form at the SkyTower function in London and was asked for his views on the National this year. His pick is Holywell for the Aintree marathon, currently round about the 33/1 mark but sure to go off shorter if punters take heed of the former champion jockey’s counsel.
McCoy pointed to the horse’s workable weight, the class of recent seasons and hinted at rumours that the Jonjo O’Neill-trained Cheltenham Festival winner could be showing signs of resurgence . McCoy was looking a little bit fuller in the face, a little bit healthier and an awful lot more relaxed than he ever was during his unparalleled riding career.
He could still just about ride the top weight in the National, he admitted, but if he returns next year – on current trajectories – he’d be odds-against to make riding weight but very much odds-on to keep a devoted audience laughing long into the afternoon.
With Cheltenham still the best part of five weeks away, it seems a little perverse to look ahead to Aintree, but given it’s the biggest race of the year, I’m going to use the next couple of months whittling my Grand National shortlist down to 30 or so possible.
Kruzhlinin is the first one I’m going to put on record: the likely mount of Richard Johnson is 33/1 with the bookies and was a terrific recent winner at Kempton for Richard Hobbs. He’ll gallop forever and connections could barely disguise their confidence. If they ever discover your correspondent has backed him, said confidence ought to evaporate instantly.
Clues for the big Cheltenham races are beginning to become harder to find but this weekend we have a feast of racing from Ascot, Wincanton and Haydock to provide us with some more, final clues to factor into our Festival reckoning.
I’m not yet sure where I’ll go but would love to convince the wife that a trip to Wincanton makes the most sense: it’s one of my favourite tracks in the country and the Kingwell Hurdle this weekend has long been one of my favourite races of the season, ever since Binocular (financially, probably my favourite Champion Hurdler) skipped round to convince me he could threaten Hurricane Fly the following year. I was wrong, of course, but Wincanton in February is well worth the journey.
Nearer to (my) home at Ascot, Silviniaco Conti can remind us all that there’s more to life than Prestbury Park. The former Gold Cup favourite enjoys Cheltenham as much as I enjoy lashing rain but on a flat track over a steady 3 miles this weekend he can stamp his class on a decent, but unspectacular looking field.