THE LAST Samuri is now vying for favouritism for the Grand National after putting his rivals to the sword to win the BetBright Grimthorpe Chase at Doncaster.
Jockey David Bass told The Yorkshire Post on Saturday that the step up in trip would not be a problem for the progressive eight-year-old – and the imposing 10-length victory proved this.
Leeds-based William Hill make the victor the 12-1 co-favourite for the Crabbies Aintree marathon with dual King George winner Silviniaco Conti and defending champion Many Clouds, whose preparations were scuppered by Kelso’s unexpected abandonment due to waterlogging.
It could force trainer Oliver Sherwood to run his stable star in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, staged just three weeks before the National, or head to Aintree without a preparatory race. Neither option is particular appealing.
However, Saturday was a day that Bass will not forget in a hurry – The Last Samuri’s win was the second leg of a treble which took him to the 47-winner mark for the campaign, beating his previous best of 46 last season.
He will also be hoping that the best is still to come. His Cheltenham rides include the unbeaten Barters Hill, favourite for the Albert Bartlett Hurdle, before The Last Samuri bids for National glory.
Despite a couple of slightly sticky jumps, The Last Samuri warmed to his test on a bitterly cold afternoon. The fact that the gelding handled the snow-softened soft ground also highlighted the growing versatility of Paul and Clare Rooney’s horse before Aintree – the going on Merseyside should not be an issue for a horse which has previously needed quicker going to be seen at his best.
Third to Sue and Harvey Smith’s stable star Wakanda in Newcastle’s Rehearsal Chase before winning at Kempton at Christmas, a nine-pound hike in the handicap proved no obstacle in this three-and-a-quarter-mile race.
The fact that the Neil Mulholland-trained The Druids Nephew was a distant second also held significance – this is the horse that was leading last year’s National before parting company with Aidan Coleman at the fifth last fence.
With the Aintree weights already published, The Last Samuri’s rating will be unchanged and 10st 8lb looks a very appealing mark. “He’s improved a hell of a lot from his last run and it’s very handy the National weights can’t change, as he’d get a fair hike for that,” said Bass.
The delighted jockey said the horse’s jumping improved the further the race went and this performance should put the winner “spot on” for the National.
This view was echoed by Mat Nichols, who is assistant to winning trainer Kim Bailey, the man who masterminded Mr Frisk’s course record National triumph in 1990.
“That couldn’t have gone any better,” said Nichols.
“He did everything you would have wanted him to do. He jumped great and stayed on strongly.
“I think his last run at Kempton brought him on a lot mentally. At home, he can be a bit lively, but when you bring him racing he’s so switched off that on the first circuit, you sometimes think he’s losing interest.”
Bass, Bailey and Rooney also teamed up to win the BetBright Novices’ Hurdle on Cracked Rear View.
Earlier, Bass partnered Nicky Henderson’s Sugar Baron to victory in the handicap hurdle.
The corresponding race last year was won by stablemate Call The Cops, who subsequently won at the Cheltenham Festival, but the trainer said Sugar Baron will miss the showpiece meeting and graduate to larger obstacles next season.
Upsilon Bleu returned to form to carry top weight to victory in the opening handicap chase under North Yorkshire’s James Reveley, who is now predominantly based in France where he is attempting to become champion jockey this year.
Kim Bailey has confirmed that Harry Topper, winner of the 2013 Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby, will miss the whole season. Though the staying steeplechaser has recovered from an injury setback, Bailey says there is no point running the mudlark when underfoot conditions are drying out.