Although I haven’t yet met Balthazar King, one day I hope to get the opportunity to share a carrot with a horse that epitomises the sport of National Hunt racing. Horses may all look similar, sound alike and act comparably to each other, but we know better; some of them have a controlling power over your feelings that a four-legged animal shouldn’t possess.
Your emotions are intractable every time they race, powerlessly vulnerable to their fate: whether it’s the euphoria of a gallant victory, the heartbreak at narrow defeat or the utter dread if they fall. Balthazar King’s dramatic and horrifying fall in the Grand National last year exemplifies the latter to an extent racing rarely sees.
The drama of the day was not missed by anyone; Ruby Walsh frantically waving the field around the stricken King, the desperate attempts of racecourse staff to help him walk into the horse ambulance and his eventual transportation to the University of Liverpool’s Equine Hospital. Although both his broken ribs and punctured lung were treatable, trainer Philip Hobbs revealed the life-and-death scenario they were really in: “He had a really bad infection in his lung which could have been fatal. We were preparing for the worst, but we were fortunate.”
The outpouring of love, admiration and care shown by the racing community in the aftermath of that fateful day is a metaphor within itself; we lifted The King from tragedy. We showed that this courageous, plucky battler from Somerset meant much more to us than just another horse. “It was totally amazing; he had hundreds of cards and emails” sent to him from racing fans and non-racing fans alike. Rumour has it the King responded similarly to the support that evening, determinedly humming Chumbawumba: ‘I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never going to keep me down’.
On the 16th March, The King shall return to the scene of his greatest triumphs – Cheltenham Racecourse – for the Cheltenham Festival. For four days the greatest equine stars of the season grace the grounds of Prestbury Park for the most eagerly awaited festival of the year. Few horses in history could challenge Balthazar’s supremacy at the track; from seventeen starts he’s won eight, with Philip Hobbs believing “he’s either equalled, or bettered the record for the most chase wins at Cheltenham”. His following of fervent fans didn’t simply exist; they were spiritedly earned by his tenacious resolve in defeating those that tried to pass him up the hallowed Cheltenham hill.
This year will be different. At the age of twelve, Balthazar King faces a huge challenge in returning from his injury to win over the challenging three and three-quarter miles of the Cheltenham cross-country course. Visibly, “all he’s got left now is a bit of an indentation at the back of his ribcage, which isn’t bad at all. One thing we’re not going to know is how badly that will affect his lung capacity. If it was to, I don’t believe it can affect it more than five percent – but saying that that might make a lot of difference at the end of a race.” However, current indications are positive, “When he had his first serious gallop with Cheltenham in mind, he went as well as he ever would have done”.
He won this race in 2012 and 2014, on the second occasion carrying the welter-burden of eleven stone twelve, while the horse that finished second carried over a stone less. To counteract the possible remnants of his Aintree injury, the Cheltenham Gods have seemingly spoken: the race has been transformed from a handicap to a conditions event. Balthazar will resultantly shoulder the same weight as the majority of his rivals. “At one stage it looked like he might not survive and now, in the next month… he’s probably our best chance at the Festival.”
The world watches Aintree for eight minutes in April, but last year they didn’t dare draw their eyes away from a horse they had come to recognise and adore. Nearly a year later, at Cheltenham, surrounded by the most passionate of national hunt racing fans, Balthazar King makes his historic return. Will we see what we crave most, the ultimate resolution to this roller coaster of a racing journey?
The 2016 Crabbies Grand National weights were revealed earlier this afternoon and with 126 horses entered to take their chance on 9th April, the biggest amount since 2008. For the last couple of years, the main point of interest in handicapping terms is how Phil Smith would assess those near the head of the weights including last year’s victor Many Clouds (11-10). Before the weights came out, it was evident Oliver Sherwood’s charge would carry top weight as he was the highest rated horse in England with Silvinaco Conti (11-8) having been dropped to a rating one pound lower. The only drastic changes made by Smith were lowering the marks of the top five in the weights by a pound and raising Houblon Des Obeaux (11-7) to an unrealistic mark of 160 after winning the worst renewal of the Denman Chase seen for a while last weekend.
The right place to start when going through the field is with last year’s hero Many Clouds whose chances are fairly obvious. He carried 11-9 when succeeding last year, only has a pound more to carry and most importantly; has been in excellent form despite not winning a race this season. Having needed his first run at Wetherby in the Charlie Hall, his subsequent efforts behind Don Poli over Aintree’s Mildmay fences and Smad Place in the Betbright Trial at Cheltenham have proven his well-being after such a tough season last year.
One more run at Kelso early next month should put him spot on for a repeat bid and although he carries top weight, the son of Cloudings looks to have the best chance since the owners’ Hedgehunter attempted the double back in 2006 when runner up to Numbersixvalverde carrying joint top weight. Is there any value in backing him now? Likely so. He won’t be 12/1 come the day if performing well at Kelso and with the public weight of cash with once a year punters recognising the name, he could go off one of the shortest priced favourites in recent years.
The class horse of this year’s renewal Silviniaco Conti has been dangled a tempting carrot by Phil Smith as he doesn’t carry top weight in a handicap, highly unusual for a six time Grade One winner with all of those dual successes in the Betfair Chase, King George and the Betfred Bowl. However, he doesn’t appeal in the slightest as a horse who fits the bill of a Grand National winner.
Whilst his jumping would be a huge asset over these fences, the main issues are his stamina and the fact he looked a shade of his former self in the King George when pulled up. The Ascot Chase on Saturday will tell connections what to do with him but hopefully he avoids this race and goes elsewhere. His trainer Paul Nicholls has eight other entries but none of them attract much as Grand National types.
Other contenders entered from last year’s race include runner up Saint Are (10-5), Alvarado (10-2), Shutthefrontdoor (10-11) and Royale Knight (10-1). All of them like Many Clouds will have been prepped with one day in mind and should all give a good accounts of themselves again but other competitors appeal more as ante-post propositions.
One horse who has experience over the Grand National fences that appeals plenty is the Philip Hobbs trained KRUZHLININ (10-7). Having moved from Donald McCain in the autumn to Hobbs, his only start so far this season came at Kempton in January when landing a 3m handicap chase in easy fashion despite jumping left handed. He was ninth in the 2014 Grand National when relatively inexperienced and caught the eye on that occasion when staying on well through beaten horses on the run in. This race was the plan last season but for injury to intervene and holds an entry in the Betbright Chase at Kempton which provides an opportunity for him to shorten considerably if he goes close.
The Rooneys also have The Last Samuri (10-8) and Operating (9-11) entered. The latter doesn’t appear likely to get a run but the former was also an impressive winner at Kempton over 3m at Christmas when showing a hugely likeable attitude to run down Viva Steve on a track that wouldn’t play to his strengths. Aintree will suit more than Kempton but the concern about his chance this year is a lack of experience and he looks more one to concentrate on in 2017. Similar comments apply to the real dark horse of the race Onenightinvienna (10-8) who, as a novice, has only had three starts over fences to date. Owned by Judith Luff, whose husband Peter owned Aintree legend West Tip, his jumping has been professional on the whole but like The Last Samuri; 2017 is when he will be of most interest.
Arguably The Druid’s Nephew (11-0) would have gone very close had he not fallen five out in last year’s renewal and has been aimed at this all season. Another bold bid is expected from Neil Mulholland’s charge but a horse with a similar profile who jumps off the page is THE ROMFORD PELE (10-4) for Rebecca Curtis. The yard has had a poor season in terms of form but he performed with plenty of credit when third behind Thistlecrack in the Cleeve Hurdle, a race The Druid’s Nephew used as a springboard for the Cheltenham Festival when winning the Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Chase on the first day; a potential target The Romford Pele may well take in before Aintree.
His jumping has been a cause for concern in the past and although he fell at Cheltenham in December, the ground was too soft for him on that occasion so the likely sounder surface will bring out improvement in the jumping department. With the fences not as stiff than they were in yesteryear, he should cope with the demands of Aintree and he may well even improve for the stamina test having won a John Smith’s Summer Cup at Uttoxeter over 3m2f back in 2014 easily plus he shaped eyecatchingly at the Paddy Power meeting at Cheltenham over 3m3f when a staying on seventh behind Sausalito Sunrise.
One of the major trials held at Aintree over the National course is the Becher Chase which has an excellent record in throwing up winners in Amberleigh House and Silver Birch (Earth Summit won the Becher after his National success) plus numerous placed horses including the likes of Clan Royal, Samlee and McKelvey. Highland Lodge (10-6) won this season’s renewal and looks likely to get a run with the handicapper using the Aintree factor to guarantee him a place in the line up.
The most fascinating contender to emerge from the Becher was VICS CANVAS (10-8) who wouldn’t be your typical 13 year old lining up in the race. Most 13 years old who line up in the Grand National tend to be in their twilight days and are vulnerable to improvers. However, the former Cork National winner has only had nine starts over fences due to various problems throughout his career and his best performance came when second behind Just A Par in the Bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown last April. A pipe opener in the Fixed Brush race at Haydock set him up for Aintree where he put in a highly credible effort giving weight to all those around him at the finish and jumping soundly for a horse who lacks size. The run last time in the Thyestes at Gowran can be forgiven and of those at bigger prices, he appeals most with his form over marathon trips and on the way he handled the course back in December.
Last year’s winner Many Clouds deserves to be clear favourite as he looks to have an excellent chance of becoming the seventh dual winner of the world’s greatest steeplechase but it would be wrong to put him up as an ante-post bet with there being plenty of value elsewhere. The first suggestion is KRUZHLININ who has looked an ideal National type since his run as an inexperienced seven year old back in 2014 and the move to Philip Hobbs has brought about improvement. The remnants of 33/1 will soon be gone and he could easily be prominent in the betting come the day. THE ROMFORD PELE cannot be ignored at 50’s with improvement likely for better ground in the spring key to his chances and he should relish the stamina test whilst VICS CANVAS is overpriced at 66’s on his form in staying chases. Others worthy of consideration are Gallant Oscar and Cause Of Causes, both owned by JP McManus and both looking to have had this as the sole aim all season.
Luke Elder, Calum Madell and Adam Webb return this week to preview an underwhelming Super Saturday with the main attraction being the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury with 22 runners heading to post including Modus who has looked to have been laid out with this race in mind since early in the season. Warwick also stages an interesting renewal of the Kingmaker in which L’Ami Serge bids to cement his unbeaten record over fences and book his place at the Cheltenham Festival. Good luck if you’re having a bet tomorrow!
Here is tonight’s bumper preview in which Luke Elder, Adam Webb and Calum Madell look at the Channel 4 action from Sandown featuring the Grade One Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase, Ffos Las which has the abomination that is the West Wales National, Wetherby that hosts the Grade Two Towton Novices’ Chase and the Irish Gold Cup from Leopardstown. We also talk about the other Grade One action from Leopardstown. Good luck tomorrow!