Last updated December 9th, 2014
The Grand National fences provide a unique spectacle and so Saturday’s Becher Chase is always eagerly anticipated by punters (1.30pm, Aintree). Negotiating the Liverpool fences is easier than in yesteryear and the historic emphasis on course form, while still respected, may not carry the weight it once did.
The current title holder Chance Du Roy (10/1) is fancied by many to make it two in a row. He won this race by a length on his seasonal debut off a mark of 135 in 2013. Next time out he cried enough in the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock on heavy ground and was pulled up. He went on to finish fourth beaten eight lengths in a three mile handicap chase at Ascot in February off a mark of 143 having acquired cheekpieces. We last saw this ten-year-old French-bred finishing a creditable sixth in the Grand National, nearly 20 lengths behind Pineau De Re.
Chance Du Roy has a 6lb higher mark than when winning this but Philip Hobbs’ yard is enjoying an extraordinary run of form that could help him overcome it.
Another runner with more than hope is Harry Fry’s Mendip Express (11/1). This lightly raced eight-year-old has won four of his seven lifetime starts. He was last seen romping home in a three mile one furlong novices’ hurdle at Warwick a month ago. He started as the 6/5 favourite and won like one, beating Alan King’s The Tourard Man by 14 lengths.
Last season he clocked up three victories in three mile plus chases whilst benefiting from the very capable amateur Will Biddick’s 5lb claim. They included a triumph over three miles two furlongs in a handicap at Cheltenham in January when he stayed on well on soft ground to beat Nick Williams’ Alfie Spinner by five lengths. That was off a mark of 139 which was effectively 134 thanks to Biddick. Stamina is there in abundance but Mendip Express’ tendency to make jumping errors is a significant negative. He looks progressive and will need to be to succeed off a mark of 144 with Biddick claiming 3lb here.
Alfie Spinner (25/1) meets him on more favourable terms here. This nine-year-old hasn’t won for three years but looks set to do so soon off his current mark of 128. We last saw him finishing seven lengths behind the misplaced The Young Master in the Badger Ales Trophy a month ago. He was third, beaten six lengths, on his seasonal debut suggesting whatever problem caused him to pull up twice after coming second to Mendip Express last season has been successfully addressed.
His trainer, the accountant Nick Williams is no mug and, whilst he has only two winners this season to his name, his horses are running well. Alfie Spinner looks to need soft ground to score and he will definitely get it here. Daryl Jacob, who won the 2012 Grand National on Neptune Collonges, knows what it takes to win around here and takes the ride.
Gordon Elliott’s (pictured) recent recruit Balbriggan (12/1) finished eight lengths behind Neil Mulholland’s The Young Master in a three mile plus handicap chase at Cheltenham in October. He looked slightly outpaced on the good ground and was giving the winner 4lb. He went on to win a novices’ hurdle at Sedgefield over a shorter distance on soft.
Most recently Balbriggan was seen more than repaying his £35K purchase price in the Troytown Handicap Chase at Navan on a similar surface. He was the subject of a major plunge in the betting that day, so connections knew he was a fair bit better than his handicap mark. Elliott has obviously improved this seven-year-old, choosing to run him in a tongue tie. The handicapper has taken note, raising him 10lb since his last win. Balbriggan starts off a lifetime high mark of 131 here. The soft ground will suit him and there could be more to come if he has recovered from his run two weeks ago.
A totally different proposition is Nicky Henderson’s Shakalakaboomboom (25/1) who looks favourably handicapped, starting off a mark of 132. His jockey Peter Carberry also claims a useful 3lb. This ten-year-old hasn’t won for three years and that was on his seasonal debut in December 2011 at Cheltenham in a three mile handicap chase when rated 140. He missed a season after finishing ninth in the 2012 Grand National and hasn’t been seen since he pulled up at Aintree in the National this year.
Henderson hasn’t had the number of high profile Saturday winners of some of his rivals but his 26% strike rate in chases this season merits respect. We know that Shakalakaboomboom can handle the fences and if Henderson has him right he might well defy his starting price.
Another outsider who should have no problem with the obstacles is the Waley-Cohen’s Oscar Time (25/1). He finished fourth in the Grand National in 2013 and second in 2011. Owned and trained by Sam’s father Robert, Oscar Time was going well when he blundered and unseated Sam at Cheltenham in November. Now a 13-year-old, he scored in a couple of hunters’ chases in May and will probably find a couple too quick for him here but he is not without hope of filling a place.
In contrast Jim Dreaper’s Goonyella (12/1) is on a reconnaissance mission to see how he copes with these larger obstacles. This seven-year-old finished a close second in a three runner affair on his only outing this season.
Dreaper thinks he needs a marathon distance and has the National in mind for him. Goonyella’s last win was in a three mile six furlong handicap chase on heavy ground at Punchestown in April 2013. He beat Willie Mullins’ Vesper Bell by a head when receiving over a stone from him. That was off a mark of 127. Goonyella is rated 9lb higher here but young Jonathan Burke, first rider for owners Alan and Ann Potts, takes 3lb off his back. He looks the strongest Irish challenger.
Becher Chase Betting Tip
As the market suggests this is a tough race to call, especially as many runners are having their first tilt at Aintree’s most famous fences. Chance Du Roy has obvious appeal but there is even more value offered by Alfie Spinner who could provide Nick Williams with his second big Saturday winner. We would not put anyone off an each-way wager at 25/1.
However for the Becher Chase betting tip I have to side with BALBRIGGAN, who has been on an upward curve since joining the shrewd Gordon Elliott outfit. The seven-year-old was backed as if defeat was out of the question last time in a fiercely competitive handicap chase at Navan and could be called the winner from two out that day. Balbriggan is 12/1 but needs to be backed each-way with a bookmaker offering 1/4 the odds the first five places as well as ‘best odds guaranteed’ and these bookies fit that criteria: Bet365, Betfred or William Hill.