Grand National Festival 2017: Which horse to back on day one at Aintree as Empire of Dirt can justify praise

Charlie Atkin
Empire of Dirt will attract interest in the Betway Bowl Chase: Getty

It’s a truism that the Grand National is more than just a race and its festival is certainly much more than just one day. You’d be forgiven for forgetting so with the spotlight that Aintree’s feature is given in the context of this week, yet that would only be depriving yourself of some excellent racing.

It is unfortunate to see that the Irish have largely stayed on the Emerald Isle, as the country’s two best trainers contest a championship that promises to be close till the end. However, many of Britain’s finest will still line up in Liverpool, some seeking redemption, others to confirm their class.

The yearly dilemma for punters is deciding between those who shone at the Cheltenham Festival or those who purposefully swerved it to remain fresh for Aintree. The first race presents such a puzzle, with four of the six entered in the Manifesto Novices’ Chase having run at Prestbury Park.

Top Notch is the most significant of those, who finished a length behind the stylish Yorkhill over a similar distance. Flying Angel was hampered in that race and quietly fancied beforehand, while Cloudy Dream was another finishing behind an impressive, if not perfect, favourite in Altior.

Frodon however comes here without the gruelling experience of Cheltenham and will relish the likely quicker ground. The horse’s trainer, Paul Nicholls, has shrewdly plotted his path through this season and wouldn’t have missed the festival without good reason.

The Grade 1 action continues with the Betway Bowl Chase, where the market principles both look to put disappointing performances behind them. Cue Card was already struggling when falling in the Gold Cup, while Empire of Dirt was expected to perform much better in the Ryanair Chase. The latter should improve for the further distance and give a much truer showing of the ability that saw him finish close to the Gold Cup winner, Sizing John, back in February.

If you hadn’t had enough top drawer racing, the Betway Aintree Hurdle completes Thursday’s quartet of Grade 1s. Champion Hurdle winner Buveur D’Air will line up here, head and shoulders above the rest if repeating his festival performance. That is far from certain though over a longer trip and the energy he likely spent under a month ago. Should the pace be slow and the race turn into a sprint, Nicky Henderson’s charge will likely confirm his favouritism yet a chance is taken on outsider Rashaan. The youngest and freshest horse in the field has shaped like the step up in distance will suit and shouldn’t be ignored with ground in his favour and some smart form in the book.

There's plenty of action to follow on Thursday despite the allure of the National (Getty)

The fences that await the Grand National runners will be put through their paces on Thursday by a field of hunter chasers and amateur jockeys. In the trusty hands of Jamie Codd, On The Fringe will be hoping for a third consecutive win in the race - something he was denied at Cheltenham by Pacha Du Polder. Those two head the market but in such a competitive hurly burly, the longer price about last year’s second, Dineur, appeals. One warm up run in recent months should have him spot on to finish at least close again for each way backers.

The fact that only one handicap graces Thursday’s card is testament to the quality of its action, yet the Red Rum Handicap Chase isn’t worth forgetting with Double W’s the pick. The form of his last run at Cheltenham was strong but he just ran out of steam, and so a drop back to a shorter distance and a flatter track will suit.


13:45 – Frodon

14:50 – Empire Of Dirt

15:25 – Rashaan (each-way)

16:05 – Dineur (each-way)

16:40 – Double W's