New Grand National Favourite A Feather in O’Neill’s Cap

Jonjo O'NeillCloth Cap is now as short as 6/1 with some firms in the Grand National betting after his impressive win in the listed Premier Chase at Kelso on Saturday (March 6). Jockey Tom Scudamore kept things simple, taking the lead from the start and did not need to raise his whip to finish nearly eight lengths clear of the field.

Trained by Jonjo O’Neill for Trevor Hemmings, Cloth Cap was the 100/30 third favourite but won like an odds-on shot. Venetia Williams’ Aso, the 9/4 favourite, took second ahead of Kim Bailey’s Two For Gold (5/2). Run over almost three miles on good to soft ground, Scudamore knew Cloth Cap had the stamina for further and let him bowl along at a pace that seemed to put the jumping of the others under pressure. He finished third in the Scottish National at Ayr in April 2019.

Hemmings’ other National hope Lake View Lad, finished at the rear of the field of five at Kelso, beaten 22 lengths. Trained by Nick Alexander north of the border, Brian Hughes held up this grey son of Oscar but he could not compete with the pace in the final stages and was wisely allowed to canter home.

Lake View Lad is not a National no-hoper, he was the surprise winner of the Grade 2 Many Clouds Chase at Aintree on soft ground in December. He was sent off at 16/1 and beat Nicky Henderson’s Santini a neck and had Native River and Frodon further behind him. That was his best effort, giving hope for him in April if the ground is sufficiently testing.

In contrast Cloth Cap definitely benefits from ‘good’ in the going description. It was the second time Scudamore had partnered this nine-year-old son of Beneficial out of an Old Vic mare. He rode him last time out at Newbury at the end of November in a three and a quarter mile handicap and adopted the same tactics to score by 10 lengths, beating Harriet Graham’s Aye Right. That was the first time cheekpieces were tried and front running tactics were adopted. After a number of creditable placings it was his first win for two years. His long absence since was not a result of a setback but a strategy to protect his mark for Aintree. He will shoulder a very manageable 10 stone 5 as a result and he was winning, on Saturday, off the same mark of 148 that he is on for Liverpool. Given the handicapper will rise him substantially for his latest stroll, he does look very well handicapped for the big one.

Scudamore was beaming after the race and has been booked to partner him in the National. The only fault that could be found with Cloth Cap’s fencing was his tendency to jump to the left at a couple of obstacles. Scudamore thinks he is light on his feet, precise and clever at his fences. He also believes he has the temperament to cope with a large field and the pressures of jump racing’s biggest day. It will be Cloth Cap’s first experience of Aintree’s unique fences but he seems to have the necessary skills to cope with them.

Both Hemmings and O’Neill have tasted National victory before, Hemmings owned Hedgehunter (2005), Ballabriggs (2011) and Many Clouds (2015). O’Neill successfully saddled Don’t Push It for JP McManus in 2010, giving AP McCoy his long awaited Aintree win. Scudamore has never finished better than sixth, that was on David Pipe’s Aintree specialist, Vieux Lion Rouge. His father took third on Jenny Pitman’s Corbiere but he seems to stand a decent chance of emulating his grandfather who won in 1959 on Oxo if conditions are suitable.

Tom Scudamore has gained the ride as Richie McLernon, Cloth Cap’s usual partner, is booked to steer Kimberlite Candy, the second favourite in the National for Tom Lacey and McManus. Another nine-year-old, this son of Flemensfirth will probably cope much better if the ground is soft than Cloth Cap. He has form over the National fences too, finishing second in the Becher Chase in the last two renewals.

Kimberlite Candy was last seen in the Becher in December finishing 24 lengths behind Vieux Lion Rouge, giving the winner just over a stone and having lost a front shoe somewhere over the three and a quarter miles. In January 2020 Kimberlite Candy was the joint favourite in the Eider at Newcastle but did not jump particularly well early on and did not appear to get home over the four-mile trip. He finished fifth, beaten 14 lengths but is older and stronger now and should be better organised at his fences.

Tiger Roll and Elliott Out of Aintree Running

One rival he will not have to face is the two-time winner Tiger Roll who has been withdrawn by his owner Michael O’Leary because he believes his allocated weight of 11 stone 9 is ‘unfair’. On recent form he would have been a hopeless case with 10 stone 6.

Tiger Roll’s trainer Gordon Elliott stands no chance of gaining a fourth National win. He has been banned for six months by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board after the now notorious photograph of him sitting on a dead horse appalled the racing world. The ill-fated horse was Morgan, a seven-year-old owned by O’Leary, who has said he will stand by Elliott. Cheveley Park have been less forgiving and have moved their eight horses to Willie Mullins and Henry de Bromhead who has welcomed the star performer, Envoi Allen.

The licence at Elliott’s Cullentra House yard will now be held by Denise ‘Sneezy’ Foster, a small local trainer who is known to many of Elliott’s staff and reportedly universally liked and respected. Many years and a few stone in weight ago Elliott rode for her in point-to-points. Foster has not managed a large yard before but she is a resourceful, resilient all-round horsewoman and trainer.

A qualified riding instructor, she worked with the superb Irish showjumper Eddie Macken. She was married to the international event rider and hunter chase winner Captain David Foster who was tragically killed in a cross-country fall in 1998. She saddled a point-to-point winner shortly after his death and carried on their training operation whilst bringing up three young children. She looks a safe pair of hands to front the operation. That’s the PR but Elliott will still be on hand to train them.