The feature race at Aintree on Saturday is the extended 3m 1f Becher Chase (13:30), a Grade 3 handicap chase over the Grand National fences.
In a typically fierce and wide open renewal, previous winner Vieux Lion Rouge looks weighted to run a huge race.
Trained by David Pipe, this 10-year old won the race in 2016 when travelling well throughout before getting the better of a ding-dong tussle up the long run-in to get the better of Highland Lodge by a short head off a mark of 152.
Vieux Lion Rouge then followed-up in good style in the 2017 Grand National Trial at Haydock when beating Blaklion by 2 1/4 lengths off 14.
He then very well in the big one itself when sixth of 32 to One For Arthur off 149.
The son of Sabiango raced prominently throughout, before getting outpaced two from home to eventually be beaten 27 lengths and clearly failed to get home over the marathon 4m 2f trip.
Fine course record and yard among winners
Vieux Lion Rouge also ran very well in the Becher Chase 12 months ago when a 4 1/4 lengths second of 17 to Walk In The Mill off 146 and is now able to race off 1lb lower.
His current rating of 145 gives him a big shout from a handicapping perspective.
As Vieux Lion Rouge looked as good as ever on seasonal reappearance when scoring at Chepstow and also boasts an exceptional record over the Grand National fences – having completed on all seven career appearances over the unique obstacles – his claims cannot be ignored.
Other pluses are that he has proven on the forecast ground and hails from a yard that has been firmly among the winners of late.
Pipe’s stable is operating at a 25 per cent strike rate in the last 14 days at the time of writing.
Vieux Lion Rouge also goes tremendously well for jockey Tom Scudamore, who has a tremendous win rate of 44 per cent on him as a result of 11 victories and three places in 25 rides.
So, taking everything into account, there is nothing not to like about his profile for this.
So, at 10/1 with BetVictor who pay five places, Vieux Lion Rouge thus looks a solid each-way betting proposition.
One For Arthur primed for bold Becher Chase bid
Aforementioned 2017 Grand National hero One For Arthur, who can be backed at 9/1 with Betfair, is another that has been given a chance by the handicapper and looks sure to go well.
The Lucinda Russell trained 10-year-old won the world’s greatest steeplechase off a mark of 148 when staying on powerfully from well off the pace under a sublime ride from Derek Fox to beat Cause Of Causes by 148.
One For Arthur subsequently suffered a serious injury which resulted in him spending 609 days on the sidelines.
However, connections never lost faith and adopted a softly, softly approach to get him back on track.
It’s fair to say that their efforts seemed in vain, as his first two starts back last season resulted in One For Arthur jumping stickily and unseating his rider on both occasions.
However, the son of Milan proved that he was no back number and still a force to be reckoned with when sixth of 40 to Tiger Roll in this year’s Grand National off a mark of 154.
Given his far from ideal preparation, it was a huge performance by One For Arthur – despite being beaten 26 lengths.
He is now able to race off a reduced rating of 149 and comes into the Becher Chase on the back of an eye-catching effort on seasonal reappearance when a keeping on tenderly handled 11 1/4 lengths fourth of seven to Mysteree.
That should have put him spot on for this. Any further rain that hits the Merseyside venue will be a big plus as it will bring One For Arthur’s stamina into play over a trip which is arguably too short these days.
Market leader Mulcahys Hill worth taking on
The betting is headed by the Warren Greatrex trained Mulcahys Hill, a 13/2 shot with Unibet.
This seven-year-old was a smart hurdler, winning twice and finishing fourth to Santini in a Grade 2 at Cheltenham off an official rating of 157 when sent off favourite.
He has had just five starts over fences and there was lots to like about the way in which he opened his account over the larger obstacles around Prestbury Park last month.
That came in a decent class 2 novice contest over 3m, where Mulcahys Hill raced prominently throughout before staying on strongly on the run in to deny the 153-rated Wholestone by a neck.
The pair pulled nicely clear of the third home and, despite being in receipt of 5lb from the runner-up, there was nothing not to like about the game attitude that the son of Brian Boru showed to get the job done.
Mulcahys Hill has been allotted an opening handicap chase mark of 144 on the back of that taking success. That could well be on the lenient side.
The way in which he finished off the race also suggests that the extra couple of furlongs he tackles in the Becher Chase should be right up his street.
However, the overall profile of Mulcahys Hill is a patchy one – so it remains to be seen if he can back that up.
This is also no easy task for a novice against hardened handicappers with proven course form to their name. Hence, at the odds on offer, there is enough to suggest Mulcahys Hill is worth taking on.
Ballyoptic another with each-way Becher Chase claims
As our Becher Chase stats guide reveals, trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies is the most successful in the race having won it six times.
That makes sole representative Ballytopic another well worth considering now eased in grade. This nine-year old has some very smart form to his name.
He finished fourth to Presenting Percy in the RSA Novices’ Chase at the 2018 Cheltenham Festival and then ran a cracker when a fast-finishing nose second of 24 to Joe Farrell in the Scottish Grand National at Ayr.
Ballyoptic was also going really well in this 12 months ago when coming to grief at the 11th fence.
He went to to finish a solid sixth of 22 to Elegant Escape in the Welsh National at Chepstow.
This second crack at the Becher Chase comes after looking better than ever in winning his first two starts this season.
After winning unchallenged by nine lengths in the Native River Handicap Chase at Chepstow, Ballyoptic dug deep to follow-up and land the Grade 2 Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby where he reversed form with old rival Elegant Escape by 3 3/4 lengths.
He had Aso – runner-up to Frodon in the Ryanair Chase – a further six lengths behind in third, so the form is solid.
Ballyoptic found life too hot last time out when a well-beaten last of four to Lostintranslation in the Grade 1 Betfair Chase at Haydock and this represents a return to much calmer waters.
He does have a career-high mark of 159 to contend with, but is a classy sort whose long-term target is the 2020 Grand National.
So, at 14/1 with William Hill, who also pay five places, Ballyoptic had to feature as another potential each-way punt and thus concludes this 2019 Becher Chase preview.