The classy Elegant Escape looks a worthy favourite to land back-to-back runnings of the extended 3m 6f Welsh Grand National at Chepstow on Friday (14:50).
Trained by Colin Tizzard, this seven-year-old is a really tough and consistent sort who has won four of his 15 starts over fences and also made the frame on nine occasions.
After winning a Listed contest on reappearance last season, he stayed on well to finish a 10-length runner-up to Sizing Tennessee in the Grade 3 Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury.
Elegant Escape then enjoyed his finest hour when resuming winning ways and staying on strongly to get the better of Ramses De Teillee by 1 1/4 lengths in this staying feature off a mark of 151 when sent off a heavily-backed 5/1 favourite.
He next ran a cracker when a three-quarters of a length runner-up to subsequent Ryanair winner Frodon in the Grade 2 Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham.
The son of Dubai Destination was then far from disgraced when sixth of 16 to Al Boum Photo in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, before failing to shine at the Aintree Grand National Festival after what had been a long hard campaign.
Welsh Grand National trip and going in his favour
However, he has looked as good as ever in two starts this season and there are undoubtedly more races to be won with him.
In the first of those at Wetherby, Elegant Escape stayed on powerfully to go down by 3 3/4 lengths to Ballyoptic in the 3m Grade 2 Charlie Hall Chase off an official rating of 160.
Elegant Escape has since run a stormer when powering home at Newbury to finish a never nearer two-length third to De Rasher Counter in this year’s renewal of the Ladbrokes Trophy under the welter burden of 11st 12lb.
He has been raised 4lb for that and now races off a career high rating of 164.
That again means shouldering top weight, but this stamina test is exactly what Elegant Escape wants and underfoot conditions are in his favour. Any forecast showers in South Wales would also be to his advantage.
Elegant Escape thus looks worth a wager at 7/2 with BetVictor to retain his Welsh Grand National crown and become the first horse to do so since Bonanza Boy in 1988-89.
Truckers Lodge a major play for Nicholls
Champion trainer Paul Nicholls has had this race in mind for Truckers Lodge ever since he scored at the track last time out, so that makes the seven-year-old of obvious interest.
That success came on just his second start of the campaign over 3m, when the son of Westerner showed a really willing attitude to stay on strongly on the run-in and get the better of Johanos by half-a-length.
In doing so, Truckers Lodge was enhancing his excellent record at the Welsh Grand National venue where he has now won three times and been placed once in five starts.
The form of that race is hard to weigh-up and arguably nothing special, but it was just his third start over the larger obstacles. Truckers Lodge has bagged of untapped potential as a chaser.
That run came off an official rating of 140 and the gelding now makes his handicap debut over fences off 1lb lower, so the assessor may have taken a real chance with his opening mark.
Indeed, Truckers Lodge finished runner-up in a Grade 2 over hurdles at Doncaster back in January off 142, so he could potentially be a handicap blot in this given his lightly-raced profile.
Testing conditions also hold no fears. Another plus is Truckers Lodge has the assistance of Lorcan Williams in the saddle, who takes off another 3lb with his claim.
Williams has won twice and been placed once in three starts on him, so it looks a shrewd move by Nicholls to once again give him the leg-up.
So, taking everything into account, there is simply nothing not to like about the profile of Truckers Lodge.
He thus looks a solid each-way bet at 7/1 with Ladbrokes and rates the main danger to Elegant Escape.
Mud-loving Big River a lively outsider in Welsh Grand National
Of those at bigger odds, Big River looks capable of going well and makes plenty of each-way appeal at the 20/1 on offer with Coral.
This Lucinda Russell trained nine-year-old has won two of his 10 starts over fences.
In the the last of those successes on heavy ground at Kelso in February 2018, he came from off the pace and stayed on strongly to beat Shantou Flyer by 4 1/2 lengths in a class 2 off a rating of 140.
Big River backed that up with a solid second at Uttoxeter off 143. He later ran a cracker at the Cheltenham Festival back in March when fourth of 24 to Beware The Bear in the Grade 3 Ultima Handicap Chase off 140.
Despite making a bad mistake at the first, he responded well for pressure to be gaining all the way to the line and beaten just 6 1/2 lengths. It was a fine effort.
Big River went on to round off the campaign with similar style performance when a 17 1/4 lengths fifth of 23 to Takingrisks in the Grade 3 Scottish Grand National at Ayr off the same rating.
He is able to race in the Welsh Grand National off 3lb lower (137), so that makes him a big player at the weights on the pick of his form.
Although he failed to shine on seasonal reappearance at Cheltenham when never travelling and eventually pulled-up, Big River was in the process of running a huge race and going easily last time out when brought down at the 14th in the Scottish Borders National at Kelso.
There is undoubtedly a big staying pot to be won with him. Big River is a real mud-lover who has no stamina issues whatsoever.