Sue Smith’s smart staying steeplechaser Vintage Clouds is set to continue his Randox Health Grand National build-up at Haydock this weekend.
The Trevor Hemmings-owned grey is a leading contender for the Unibet Grand National Trial and the sole Yorkshire entrant for the three-and-a-half mile marathon test.
A first fence faller in last year’s National, the revitalised Vintage Clouds was a wide-margin winner of Haydock’s Peter Marsh Chase last month under Danny Cook.
And, having ruled out a return to Aintree after the horse was pulled up in the Becher Chase in December, the National is back on the agenda.
Today will see the publication of the weights for this year’s National – much focus will be on the burden handed to the diminutive Tiger Roll who has won the last two renewals of the world’s greatest steeplechase.
However the handicap’s eagerly-awaited assessment will also have a strong bearing on the rating afforded to the three Yorkshire runners in the National – Brian Ellison’s Definitly Red who was pulled up in the 2017 renewal, Phil Kirby’s Top Ville Ben who won the Rowland Meyrick Chase at Wetherby under Tommy Dowson and the aforementioned Vintage Clouds.
And Smith, who trains at High Eldwick with her husband Harvey, can head to Haydock in the knowledge that another bold show by the grey will not affect the horse’s task at Aintree on April 4.
“Vintage Clouds has been fine since the Peter Marsh Chase,” she said.
“It was a lovely performance and we were delighted with the manner in which he jumped – it was great to see him put it all together.
“He is entered for the Unibet Grand National Trial and that is the plan at the moment.
“The Grand National is now back on the agenda. We just have to decide between now and then whether he also takes in the Ultima Handicap at the Cheltenham Festival.”
David Pipe’s Ramses de Teillee could attempt to go one better having been worn down close home by Robinsfirth 12 months ago. Another grey, the horse has won twice over hurdles this season, latterly taking the River Don Hurdle at Doncaster by 25 lengths under a confident Tom Scudamore.
The 2017 Grand National hero One For Arthur also remains engaged.
Trained in Scotland by Lucinda Russell, the 11-year-old has been kept fresh since finishing a staying-on fifth in the Becher Chase when Vintage Clouds made a number of shuddering jumping errors.
Other high-profile names include Ballyoptic who won Wetherby’s Charlie Hall Chase last November for trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies and his son Sam who was in the saddle.
Kalashnikov may yet return to action this season – depending on the outcome of his impending “full MOT” at the Newmarket Equine Hospital.
Amy Murphy’s Grade One-winning chaser, who began his career at Wetherby will undergo a series of tests after breaking a blood vessel as he trailed home last of five finishers behind Altior in Saturday’s Game Spirit Chase at Newbury.
That was a second successive disappointing performance from the Jack Quinlan-ridden seven-year-old, who has previously been notably consistent.
His trainer is therefore determined to get to the bottom of the problems, and will ensure an extensive break until next season if necessary.
But Murphy is wary of calling time on Kalashnikov’s campaign just yet, in case there is a chance of him returning to Aintree in April – the track where he won a Grade One novice chase last year.
“In himself, he’s absolutely fine,” she said.
“But obviously he’s just going to need a bit of time off now.
“He’s bled twice in a short space of time, and realistically Cheltenham is going to be off the cards.”
Trainer Jonjo O’Neill believes a rejuvenated Minella Rocco deserves his place at the Cheltenham Festival.
Winner of the National Hunt Chase in 2016 and second behind Sizing John in the Gold Cup the following year, the JP McManus-owned gelding had been in the wilderness since.
As a last throw of the dice, O’Neill sent him hunter chasing and he won at the first time of asking at Warwick.
The horse was slightly fortunate in success as the leader, Bob And Co, took an extremely keen hold and was pulled up due to his jockey David Maxwell getting cramp. Next time Minella Rocco went to Wetherby for a clash with current champion Hazel Hill, winning by a length and a half as his rival jumped continuously out to his right.
“It’s great to see him do well. Obviously it’s lovely when they get their confidence back,” said O’Neill.
“Being honest, he’s been lucky twice, but he’ll go to Cheltenham now.
“He deserves it to be fair – he’s qualified and however lucky he’s been, he can only beat what’s there.”