The 2018 Randox Health Grand National Festival commences at Aintree in tremendous style on Grand National Thursday, with four Grade 1 contests headed by the £250,000 Betway Aintree Hurdle (3.25pm) over two and a half miles.
Star hurdler Buveur D’Air (Nicky Henderson) headlines the 16 entries after bravely defending his Unibet Champion Hurdle crown at Cheltenham in March, when he repelled Melon by a neck in a thrilling finish.
Buveur D’Air rounded off last season with a five-length victory over stable mate My Tent Or Yours, now 11, in the 2017 Betway Aintree Hurdle and has the chance to join horses such as Monksfield and Morley Street as back-to-back winners of the race.
Supasundae (Jessica Harrington), winner of the Grade 1 Irish Champion Hurdle in February, is set to drop back in distance after beating all bar Penhill in the three-mile Grade 1 Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.
There are two other entries from Ireland in the shape of the mercurial Yorkhill (Willie Mullins) and Identity Thief (Henry de Bromhead), while Auteuil Grade 3 scorer Izzo could line up for France-based handler Carina Fey.
Popular 10-year-old hurdler The New One (Nigel Twiston-Davies) won the 2014 running of the Betway Aintree Hurdle and is entered again.
Might Bite (Nicky Henderson), runner-up to Native River in last month’s Grade 1 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, is on course for a mouth-watering clash with impressive Grade 1 Ryanair Chase victor Balko Des Flos (Henry de Bromhead) in the £190,000 Grade 1 Betway Bowl Chase (2.50pm, 11 entries) over three miles and a furlong of the Mildmay Course.
Last year’s gutsy winner Tea For Two (Nick Williams) has Aintree in his sights again and could become just the third back-to-back winner of the Betway Bowl, following Docklands Express (1993 & 1994) and Silviniaco Conti (2014 & 2015).
Tea For Two’s regular pilot Lizzie Kelly became the first female rider to win a Grade 1 chase when the pair captured the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton Park in December 2015.
Jane Williams, part-owner and assistant trainer of Tea For Two, said: “Tea For Two has come out of Cheltenham absolutely fine [after finishing seventh in Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup].
“He got round in the Gold Cup, which is all we were expecting, and we were happy enough with that. I would be much happier next week if the ground is faster, as he seemed to enjoy the better ground when he won the Betway Bowl last year.
“I think it is only the ground that could catch him out, but we will give it our best shot.”
Double Shuffle (Tom George) has a length to find with Might Bite after the pair finished first and second in the Grade 1 32Red King George VI Chase at Kempton Park over Christmas.
Impressive Grade 1 Betfair Chase victor Bristol De Mai (Nigel Twiston-Davies) and Definitly Red (Brian Ellison), a dual Grade 2 winner this season including the over course and distance in the Many Clouds Chase, are also set to line up.
The top-class seven-race card on Grand National Thursday starts with the £100,000 Grade 1 Big Buck’s Celebration Manifesto Novices’ Chase (1.45pm, 15 entries) over two and a half miles of the Mildmay Course.
The race is named in honour of the retired Big Buck’s by owner Andy Stewart. Big Buck’s won a record 18 consecutive races over hurdles between January 2009 and December 2012. No less than 10 of those victories came at Grade 1 level.
His wins included a record four consecutive successes at Aintree in the race now known as the Ryanair Stayers’ Hurdle (2009 to 2012 inclusive – a Grade 1 contest from 2010 onwards). Big Buck’s was also successful over fences at Aintree earlier in his career, landing the Grade 2 Mildmay Novices’ Chase in 2008. The horse retired from racing in 2014 with 23 wins from 40 starts and prize money earnings of £1.3m.
Owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede have the two form contenders in the Big Buck’s Celebration Manifesto Novices’ Chase the impressive Grade 1 Racing Post Arkle hero Footpad (Willie Mullins) and fellow Grade 1 scorer Terrefort (Nicky Henderson), who finished second in the Grade 1 JLT Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham, but they will not have things all their own way.
Black Corton (Paul Nicholls), an eight-time winner this season who has helped propel his rider Bryony Frost into the limelight and is part-owned by Jeremy Kyle, is entered as are his talented stable companions Cyrname and Modus. Other entries include Brain Power (Nicky Henderson), runner-up to Footpad at Cheltenham, and Finian’s Oscar (Colin Tizzard).
The Grade 1 action is completed by the £100,000 Doom Bar Anniversary 4-Y-O Juvenile Hurdle (2.20pm, 14 entries), in which Grade 1 JCB Triumph Hurdle disappointments Apple’s Shakira (Nicky Henderson) and Redicean (Alan King) could reoppose.
Henderson and the Munir/Souede partnership have We Have A Dream, who is unbeaten in four starts in Britain.
The Grand National fences will be in use for the £45,000 Randox Health Foxhunters’ Chase (4.05pm, 25 entries), the highlight of the meeting for amateur riders.
Amputee and former soldier, Guy Disney, is set to become the first amputee jockey to ride in a race over the famous Grand National fences.
Disney rides with a prosthetic lower right leg after the vehicle in which he was travelling in Afghanistan was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in July 2009.
Disney’s ride in the Randox Health Foxhunters’ Chase comes after he assembled a syndicate, Somerset Racing GD, to buy Gallery Exhibition, trained by Grand National-winning trainer, Kim Bailey. The horse was purchased with the explicit aim of running in the Aintree race for amateur riders.
Balnaslow (Graham McKeever) was the fast-finishing second 12 months ago, before going on to capture the Champion Hunters Chase at the Punchestown Festival.
Others to note include the Paul Nicholls-trained pair of Wonderful Charm and Unioniste, plus Wells De Lune who represents last year’s winning trainer Mickey Bowen and Irish stalwart On The Fringe (Enda Bolger), successful in 2015 and 2016, who is due to be ridden by Nina Carberry.
The final two races of the day are the £90,000 Grade 3 Red Rum Handicap Chase, which could feature 2017 scorer Double W’s (Ruth Jefferson), and the concluding £45,000 Grade 2 Goffs Nickel Coin Mares’ National Hunt Flat Race (5.15pm), both of which have 35 entries.