The Grand National Festival at Aintree gets underway this Thursday with four Grade 1s on a superb card, and the feature chase on the Mildmay course is the Grade 1 Betway Bowl (14:50).
A classy field of six line-up on Merseyside and, on official figures, there is nothing to separate dual Betfair Chase winner Bristol De Mai and King George hero Clan Des Obeaux.
The former is best known as a course specialist at nearby Haydock Park, but chased home the enigmatic Might Bite in this race 12 months ago and is 3/1 with Ladbrokes to go one better.
In three encounters which both have completed, Bristol De Mai has beaten Clan Des Obeaux every time. That includes last time out over an extended 3m 2f in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Bristol De Mai ran a fine race in third for trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies and owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, with Clan Des Obeaux a fading fifth up the famous hill.
The drop back in trip to 3m 1f and return to a flatter track may suit Paul Nicholls’ runner, however. Aintree is far less testing than Cheltenham and Clan Des Obeaux is a year younger than Bristol De Mai, so retains further scope for progress as a staying chaser.
Elegant Escape completes the British contingent in the Betway Bowl this year, but has had a tough campaign. Like Clan Des Obeaux, there looks to be more to come from the Colin Tizzard trained seven-year-old, yet he ran a tired sixth in the Gold Cup.
After finishing runner-up in the Ladbrokes Trophy, then winning the Welsh Grand National and coming second to Cheltenham Festival hero Frodon in the Cotswold Chase, this definitely looks one race too many for Elegant Escape.
Kemboy pick of Irish trio
There are also three raiders from the Emerald Isle engaged and the return to a sounder surface is sure to suit Kemboy, who is out for compensation.
Although trainer Willie Mullins finally won the Gold Cup with Al Boum Photo, this seven-year-old was one of three others sent to Cheltenham and an early casualty.
Kemboy seemed to take a bad step when landing awkwardly over the first fence and unseating his rider. Prior to that mishap, however, he was on a seriously upward curve and progressed from novice handicap company to a Grade 1 winner at Leopardstown over Christmas.
The son of Voix Du Nord is still very unexposed as a staying chaser after just four starts at 3m or further. Kemboy thus looks the one most likely of the Irish trio to have a say in the finish at 5/2 with 888Sport.
Balko Des Flos, meanwhile, has been unable to replicate his fine form of last season this term. He is not an attractive betting proposition for Henry De Bromhead and owners Gigginstown House Stud have another iron in the fire.
That is dual 3m Grade 1 winner Road To Respect, who comes back up in trip after finishing third to Frodon in the Ryanair Chase last time out.
Noel Meade’s charge has something to find on Kemboy from the Savills Chase, but did stumble at a key stage when short of room and is sure to go better here.
Road To Respect was also unlucky to get chinned close home in the Irish Gold Cup when going down all guns blazing by a short-head to Bellshill.
Clan Des Obeaux heads the market at 5/2 with Betfred, and it looks between him, Bristol De Mai and Kemboy for the places.
Is La Bague Au Roi on the Manifesto?
This massive meeting at Aintree opens with the 2m 4f Grade 1 Manifesto Novices’ Chase (13:45), which has cut-up. Dual Cheltenham Festival winner and JLT hero Defi Du Seuil misses this with a setback, while others go in the Mildmay Novices’ Chase instead.
One who does somewhat surprisingly line-up in this instead of that staying test is La Bague Au Roi, who drops down in distance despite her top form being over further.
Warren Greatrex’s mare has landed Grade 1 events over 2m 5f and 3m on her last two starts. La Bague Au Roi is unbeaten over fences, gets the customary 7lb sex allowance all-round and has leading form claims, so she’s therefore entitled to head the betting at 2/1 with Betfair.
She also missed the Cheltenham Festival and comes to Aintree a fresh horse. La Bague Au Roi is shaping as though further than this suits now and has a poor record at this meeting, so may be opposable.
Glen Forsa was one of two high-profile Arkle contenders to crash out early in that race, so trainer Mick Channon and connections bring the versatile seven-year-old here in search of compensation.
He has won minor events over 3m and the rough trip of this, before landing the rearranged Grade 2 Kingmaker at Sandown over the minimum distance. The question is what is Glen Forsa’s optimum distance?
That runaway victory at the Esher venue came at the expense of Kalashnikov, who re-opposes after also failed to complete in the Arkle.
Amy Murphy’s stable star hasn’t looked himself in recent outings despite showing early promise over fences.
Mengli Khan an each-way alternative
Given both Glen Forsa and Kalashnikov step up in distance here and each have something to prove, they look plenty short enough at 7/2 with Paddy Power and 9/2 with BetVictor respectively.
Five of the last six winners have been six-year-olds and that makes JLT third Mengli Khan a very interesting runner.
He fits that recent age profile of Manifesto winners and trainer Gordon Elliott believes a flatter track will suit him better.
While Mengli Khan does have hurdles form with Kalashnikov to reverse from last season’s Supreme at Cheltenham, he has ran some solid races in defeat including that.
As he was well-beaten by Le Richebourg twice over shorter trips, Mengli Khan improved for the step up to 2m 4f in the JLT when beaten less than 10 lengths.
At 8/1 with BetVictor, he is one to consider each-way ahead, while dual Grade 2 scorer Bags Groove is another that missed Cheltenham.
Although those big wins have been over roughly this trip, the pedigree of Harry Frys horse also suggests further may be better.
The Dan Skelton trained Spiritofthegames can’t totally be discounted either in this small but select field of six. He has run some solid races in defeat after winning a Listed contest earlier in the campaign.
Band Of Outlaws the Anniversary bet
Juveniles get their chance to shine in the Grade 1 Anniversary 4-Y-O Hurdle (14:20). Surprise Triumph Hurdle victor Pentland Hills heads the betting at 15/8 with Betfair to follow-up in this.
Trainer Nicky Henderson has won this twice before including last year with the ill-fated We Have A Dream. He also has Adjali engaged, who is not fancied.
The shock factor is no longer there with Pentland Hills either and he now faces a horse that didn’t go in the Triumph in Fred Winter winner Band Of Outlaws.
It was an inspired decision from bright young trainer Joseph O’Brien to go for that ultra-competitive juvenile handicap despite a welter burden.
Band Of Outlaws has won his last three starts in the manner of an improving prospect. Another step up from previous runs is needed, but his progressive profile suggests Grade 1 company holds no fears.
At 15/8 with Paddy Power, Band Of Outlaws appeals more than Pentland Hills. O’Brien also has Fakir D’oudairies running for JP McManus and those connections are out for compensation after losing the highly promising Sir Erec to a fatal injury at Cheltenham.
His wide-margin Grade 2 win in one of the Triumph Hurdle trials was very taking. Fakir D’oudairies was then a fine fourth when pitched in against his elders in the Supreme.
Now back against fellow four-year-olds, he cannot be discounted either at 6/1 with BetVictor, though preference is for stable companion Band Of Outlaws.
Paul Nicholls has Christopher Wood, who is unbeaten in two starts for the Ditcheat handler. Of those at bigger odds, however, Fanfan Du Seuil may be the best each-way value at 20/1 with William Hill for Tom George.