The Myth of the Title Race Moment

The 2018/19 Premier League trophy has gone the way of Manchester City despite intense and unwavering pressure from Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. It has been one of the most extraordinary title race’s as both sides have won every single one of their games as they hurtle towards the finish line. The quality and the desire are there for all to see. However, in terms of drama, its been a bit like the final lap around a Formula 1 track between the two fastest cards. Its as if Lewis Hamilton has edged ahead of Sebastian Vettel and the two have blitzed round every corner, Hamilton always holding the edge, but both clearly flying at breakneck pace before they pass the line in the same order.

Manchester City are Hamilton in this case. They’ve always maintained the edge while Liverpool’s Vettel has chased and harried without ever being able to pass. There has never been a top-flight season as beautiful in terms of a spectacle between the top two, but other race’s have involved tos and fros that perhaps encapsulated English football more tellingly.

Whichever race you qualify as the golden year, journalists and pundits alike, without fail, seek a moment during the run-in that summed up the season and swayed it in favour of the champions. Yet, this season, more than any I can think of, has possessed so many potential “moments” that could have been remembered as the ultimate. Furthermore, the moments have not only fallen City’s way, but Liverpool’s as well.

Other such title duels have seen defining moments which football fans welcome with fond recollection: Eden Hazard’s pearler to equalise against Tottenham which handed the trophy to underdogs Leicester, Sergio Aguero scoring that goal against QPR, going as far back to “Collymore closing IIIIINNNN.”

All of these deserve a folkloric, wistful re-telling every now and then. However, an alternative universe is currently pondering what might have been had Hazard not slipped, as he had all season, Balotelli not lost possession, as he had all season and if United had not, as Kevin Keegan foretold, been beaten by Middlesbrough.

In these universes, a separate moment would now be being heralded as the one that changed history forever. The title race is not, therefore, defined by just one of these moments. It is a myth that fans cling to in order to bring that extra spark of showbiz to the football world.

Below, I’ve remembered a number of the Premier League’s biggest title races and discussed how, if things had turned out just slightly differently, there would be other momentous occasions celebrated in the annals of football legend. Multiple fine margins, not just a single isolated incident, have determined our memories otherwise.

2018/19:

Champions: Manchester City

Pretenders: Liverpool

You all know the story. It’s only just concluded.

Their “moment”:

Equalising within 90 seconds on the final day against Brighton was both imperative and reflective of City as a team. However, Vincent Kompany’s wonder strike and arguable goal of the season was the sort of instant the Premier League prides itself on delivering.

Kompany is no longer the immediate first choice centre-back in a team brimming with talent most teams can only dream of. He remain, however, one of the crucial presences in their dressing room and to score his first goal from outside the box, at the 38th time of trying, in a game where City needed stardust from an unlikely position, summed up his contribution to the cause for so long.

Kompany’s goal was necessary for City, else their victory would be remembered more for the slimmest margins illustrated beautifully by goal-line technology. Liverpool were 11mm from scoring twice at the Etihad and going unbeaten, while Sergio Aguero’s winner at Burnley was just three centimetres from being cleared by Matt Lowton. Margins indeed, but multiple of them.

The challengers’ “moment”:

Where do you start?

Liverpool will go down as the unluckiest losers of the Premier League since its inception. Amassing 97 points and still falling narrowly short is crushing. Yet, if they had pipped City themselves, they may be remembered as among the most fortunate winners.

The football played by the top two teams this season has been aeons superior to the other 18. However, the luck Liverpool received, or earned depending on your point of view, was, at times, nothing short of miraculous.

A number of offside goals, a couple of Mo Salah dives (not bitter, promise!) and an incredible scarcity of injuries combined to give them a fighting chance. However, I don’t think anyone has ever seen a goal quite like Divock Origi’s winner against Everton.

Virgil Van Dijk’s wild slice that spun back off the crossbar, having escaped the palms of Jordan Pickford, was followed in by the Belgian striker for the most bizarre goal most must have witnessed. The fact that it came in the 96th minute, against their bitter rivals, to break the deadlock and remain at the top of the league grants it unequalled status as the luckiest moment of the season.

2015/16:

Champions: Leicester City

Pretenders: Arsenal, Tottenham

It is bafflingly brilliant that Manchester City’s centurion tally is only the second most extraordinary title-winning achievement in the last three years. Leicester’s success emphasised the weight of momentum and the power of joy. Every player revelled in the implausible, nay impossible, things their team were doing on the football pitch. They benefitted a touch from circumstance with none of Liverpool, Manchester City or Manchester United threatening and Chelsea reeling from the original Mourinho meltdown.

Their “moment”:

The goal that won them the title is largely credited as the glorious climax to an unthinkable season. Not only was it superbly elevated beyond Hugo Lloris by Eden Hazard, but it was the Belgian’s first Premier League goal from open play that season such was his turmoil. It was also a game that, ultimately, Spurs probably deserved to win and their complete breakdown by the game’s end was metaphoric of the season. The established order had crumbled, paving the way for a deep blue wave from the Midlands to power away.

However, this moment devalues what Leicester demonstrated that season. If anything, the game we should all recall came at White Hart Lane, where Robert Huth’s towering header gave the Foxes a 1-0 win. The BBC reported this as a crucial win “over top-four rivals Spurs” at the time despite the fact that it drew Leicester level on points at the top with Arsenal. Without Huth’s goal, Leicester would have gone four games in a row without scoring, making a decline seemingly inevitable. The steely grit they showed thereafter was nothing short of exceptional.

The challengers’ “moment”:

Danny Welbeck is leaving Arsenal at the end of this season and it seems unlikely he’ll receive a testimonial. However, in another world beyond our eyes, Arsenal will have cancelled their Europa League final with Chelsea to pay homage to the man who’s crucial 95th minute winner over plucky underdogs and oh-so-nearly men Leicester, put the Gunners on the way back to the top.

Welbeck’s goal, to give Arsenal a 2-1 win over Ranieri’s ten men, looked to have turned the title tide. It closed them to within two points of the summit, adjoined to North London rivals Spurs, with a dozen games still to play. Surely Spurs would be unready for the fight and Leicester? Well, don’t be ridiculous.

Instead, it was to be the last challenge of the Arsene Wenger reign and it would end with a whimper. Leicester would fail to lose another game while Arsenal were beaten in their next two, by a severely weakened Manchester United and at home to strugglers Swansea. They ran on for second, but Welbeck’s goal only has the relevance of enhancing the Leicester legend.

2013/14:

Champions: Manchester City

Pretenders: Liverpool

Manuel Pellegrini’s reign as Manchester City manager is one of the most forgotten, yet surprisingly successful spells in Premier League history. He delivered their second title in three years off the back of five straight wins to close out the season and this in his first full campaign in charge. However, it is Brendan Rogers’ Liverpool side, and their late collapse, that make 20313/14 a vintage top-flight season. It is a sign of how far English football has come in the least five years that the principle managers this year are now in charge of West Ham and Leicester having had spells in China and Scotland in between. Food for thought.

Their “moment”:

As mentioned above, City won their last five games to triumph, so you’d imagine those matches would be rife with “momentous” potential. However, the only vaguely memorable game of those five came at Goodison Park, but that fails to deliver the desired knockout blow. No, unfortunately, this was a season not won by the champions, but lost by the runners-up.

That slip is obviously historic and made for marvellous headlines at the time. Steven Gerrard had recently led a rousing chorus of “We do not let this f***ing slip” after his side had defeated Manchester City 3-2 at Anfield. Cue a loss of footing, presenting Demba Ba with a free hit that he so desperately tried to put straight at Simon Mignolet. Fortunately for him his shot snuck through the goalkeeper’s legs and Chelsea held out to put the title back in City’s hands.

This represents only half of the drama plaguing Liverpool’s final few weeks. In the penultimate tie, they travelled to Selhurst Park and led 3-0 with 20 minutes left, seeking to tear into City’s goal difference advantage. Dwight Gayle’s second of the night, before stoppage time had even dawned, capped a watershed night that saw Crystal Palace recover and snatch a 3-3 draw, enabling City the opportunity to draw on the final day. Gayle’s goal, a simple route-one affair, summed up the season’s final chapter as Liverpool’s vast attacking threat gave way to defensive calamity and top-level ignorance. Gerrard’s slip was the frontispiece, but Palace’s comeback should be remembered as definitively.

The challengers’ “moment”:

With five games left, Liverpool held a narrow lead of two points from Chelsea that could evaporate with defeat at Anfield. City were four back, but with two games in hand, knowing that any result would keep the title in their hands.

Liverpool’s busy swarm of attacking “S’s” charged at the City backline from the off, giving Liverpool a 2-0 lead without pausing for breath. Once they did, City fought back, absorbing the deficit.

Kompany’s screamer against Leicester has granted him Premier league immortality, but he almost earned it for the wrong reasons. HIs sliced attempt at a clearance fell at the feet of Phillipe Coutinho, then a hero of Reds supporters. He found the bottom corner of Joe Hart’s net and Liverpool were clear in the hunt for their first Premier League trophy.

Had they achieved even one title in the preceding 20 years, it is likely Rodgers’ outfit would have skipped into the sunset with Coutinho on the shortlist for a statue outside Anfield. Fortunately for City’s captain, Liverpool’s own trumped him.

2011/12:

Champions: Manchester City

Pretenders: Manchester United

Never will a Premier League season ever be defined more by a single touch of a football than in 2011/12. This title race had everything. First United led by 8 points. Then City had it on goal difference, beating United at the Etihad, meaning they required only a win against a QPR side still fighting relegation.

It was beyond the realms of possibility that City would drop points. Yet, they were losing in stoppage time. All QPR had to do, was concede once. And of course…

Their “moment”:

Phonetically, Sergio Aguero’s name is perfect for a Martin Tyler scream of ecstasy. Fate smiled on this linguistic coincidence as the Argentine’s 94th minute winner gave Manchester City their first Premier League title to the dismay (I’m still not over it, nor will I ever be) of the Red Devils.

This is the only moment I will allow to define a Premier League season, for there can be no other. Forget the other 68,399 minutes (plus stoppage time). This was the only one that mattered.

2007/08:

Champions: Manchester United

Pretenders: Chelsea

Manchester City and Liverpool are the undisputed juggernauts dominating English football right now. The last time two teams were so dominant was around a decade ago, when Manchester United and Chelsea sparred it out.

Chelsea’s oil-rich honeymoon ended in 2007 when United wrestled the title back to the north. The following season was set for a showdown between the two. Perhaps Chelsea had grown complacent a year earlier and would simply march back to the top.

Arsenal looked like potential party poopers for a while, much like Spurs this season. But by the season’s end, there were only two in camera shot and United, buoyed by a veteran on the verge of making club history, retained their title.

Their “moment”:

Say what you like about Ryan Giggs’ off-field activities, his service to Manchester United on it is unparalleled among the big clubs. He spent two entire decades in the first-team and adapted his game where others would have dearly struggled.

On the final day of the 2007/08 season, United and Chelsea were level on points, though United’s vastly superior goal difference gave them the edge. Chelsea hosted Bolton, while United travelled to Wigan.

The “moment” arrived ten minutes from time. Both teams were 1-0 up, either knowing that a single second’s complacency would send the trophy to their rivals. Giggs, equalling Sir Bobby Charlton’s appearance record that day, intelligently found a yard’s space at the border of the Wigan penalty area. His control and finish beyond Chris Kirkland supplied United with an unassailable 2-0 advantage. news evidently reached Stamford Bridge as the subdued atmosphere worsened with a Bolton equaliser.

In his latter years, Giggs was hardly prolific. Yet, the wealth of experience in his possession was encapsulated in this decisive goal.

United, however, could point to previous games as holding the key. Carlos Tevez scored late equalisers at both Tottenham and Blackburn while in the home tie against the former, Nani’s wonder strike gave United a first win of the season at the fourth attempt. Giggs’ moment was only the summation of a 38-game slog to success

The challengers’ “moment”:

With three games remaining, United journeyed to Stamford Bridge with a three-point lead. Chelsea were still in the midst of their 84 game unbeaten streak at home in the Premier League so the thought of United winning to effectively seal the deal that day was off the table. A draw, however, and the Red Devils would only need one more victory from their final day due to their goal difference advantage.

In hindsight, Chelsea’s “moment” could have been a significant one had United failed at Wigan or against West Ham. With fewer than ten minutes remaining, the game was locked at 1-1 when Michael Carrick was adjudged to have handled a cross from wide. Michael Ballack scored the resulting penalty to draw Chelsea level and retain some hope of regaining their crown.

With the momentum of the title, United held their nerve to beat Chelsea on penalties in the Champions League final. However, football has a funny way of working things out and if Chelsea had emerged triumphant domestically, whose to say John Terry wouldn’t have hit the post.

1998/99:

Champions: Manchester United

Pretenders: Arsenal

Every club will always seek to defend their own achievements. Arsenal fans wax lyrical about their “Invincibles”, City fans’ eyes will always grow foggy remembering their “Centurions”. For United supporters, however, the Treble winners of 1999 remain unsurpassable.

They may have only earned 79 points on their way to the title this season, but no English club, before or since, has won the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League in the same season. Not only did they rack up the trophies, but they also vanquished an Arsenal side hungry for more success having won the domestic double the season before.

Their “moment”:

This was another season that plunged to the wire. Arsenal had lost at Leeds on the penultimate day giving United the chance to go three points clear against Blackburn. They could only draw, ensuring that they would need to beat Tottenham at Old Trafford to make sure of the title.

2011/12 aside, this was the only final day in which the lead looked set to change hands. United fell behind to Les Ferdinand while Arsenal went a goal up and remained in charge for the whole 90 minutes. United struggled until David Beckham’s equaliser shortly before half-time.

Then, came their “moment”, in the league at least. Andy Cole brought down a ball from Gary Neville that bounced uncomfortably beside him. However, he had spotted goalkeeper Ian Walker off his line and lobbed a delicate half-volley over him that dropped anchor just below the crossbar. Few title-winning goals were as classy as Cole’s and it started United along a ten day road to the promised land.

Cole’s winner against Spurs wasn’t his only vital intervention. he scored an 89th minute winner at Charlton, while as iconic a moment occurred when United travelled to Nottingham. 4-1 up with ten minutes to go, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was introduced and scored four more of his own. The 8-1 scoreline remains the biggest ever away win in the Premier League.

The challengers’ “moment”:

Far from coming on the final day, Arsenal may well have had their moment back in February when drawing 1-1 at Old Trafford.

United and Arsenal had met twice previously that season, both in London and both resulting in 3-0 wins for the Gunners (one was in the Charity Shield). Arsenal had dominated both encounters, riding the high of dual success in 1998.

However, at Old Trafford, it was United who played the superior game. Yet, despite their chances, Arsenal went ahead through Nicholas Anelka. Then came the nearly “moment”.

United won a penalty and Dwight Yorke, their most irrepressible goalscorer that season, stepped up to inevitably equalise with United on top. Instead, he put his penalty wide of David Seaman’s left-hand post. Andy Cole would eventually bring United level, but it was very much a case of a point gained for Arsenal and two lost for United.

Arsenal dropped just seven points in their remaining 13 games, but United clung on. Had Arsenal dropped just two points fewer, they would have denied United’s triple-headed destiny and gone back-to-back. Yorke’s miss fades into statistics in comparison to what United did next.

1995/96:

Champions: Manchester United

Pretenders: Newcastle United, Liverpool

Liverpool’s ten-point lead over Manchester City this season was always a false dawn. However, Newcastle’s 12-point advantage over Manchester United, among others, in January 1996 remains the greatest loss of superiority since the Premier League’s inception. Liverpool’s immense points tally this season will inevitably sting, but as Newcastle have failed to lift the title since, they retain their “nearly men” status.

Their “moment”:

United’s charge in the second-half of the season blitzed others into submission and eventually wore down the Geordie parade. However, it was far from a convincing performance that saw their “moment” come about.

Newcastle were four clear going into the game and even had a game in hand to bolster their chances further. Victory, and the slight concerns beginning to creep into supporters’ minds would have evaporated once more without second thought.

Instead, they pummelled United’s defence, which held out mostly thanks to an imperious goalkeeping display by Peter Schmeichel. The hammer blow was landed at the start of the second half when Cantona struck low, hard and true. It typified the player: a classy first touch to bring it under control and a lethal finish befitting a true poacher.

This result, combined with the “game of the century”, swung the race in United’s favour.

The challengers’ “moment”:

Liverpool 4-3 Newcastle. There have been plenty of other matches whose scoreline is the same, but none with as much impact.

Newcastle still held a slim lead in the title race after this game, but the crushing blow of Collymore’s strike in stoppage time, in a game in which Newcastle had led twice, saw momentum shift away from the Toon.

The goal, immortalised in Sky’s coverage of the game, saw Martin Tyler react in a similar way to the Aguero goal. Liverpool were probing, Newcastle were out on their feet and then Collymore struck the final blow.

Kevin Keegan slumped forward in the Newcastle dugout. It was an image that told its own story.

This was the ultimate acid test of Newcastle’s bottle which is why I have chosen this as their “moment”. They’d already faced the minor heartbreak of being beaten by United undeservedly. Now was their chance to bounce back.

Ultimately, they proved that the task was beyond them and Keegan’s infamous “love it” rant defines him as a manager. With a bit of nerve and a touch less aggression, Newcastle would have a Premier League title in spite of this game. In fact, with the aforementioned traits, this game may even have been seen as the catalyst.

*******************

Enough moments combined to swing this season’s Premier League title in Manchester City’s favour. However, just as many may easily have brought a first title to Anfield. Trophies hinge on the seconds it takes for the net to ripple, but the idea that every title race could have been settled by a single moment within 38 games worth of drama.

If any result had shifted slightly in an alternate direction in any of the race’s highlighted above, other moments will have been heralded. For the scrapbook and the season review’s moments hook you into history.

But the Premier League is bigger than that.

1000 Guineas Preview

Its the fillies’ turn to make their Classic debuts. Despite future Group One winners Laurens and Wild Illusion taking their chance in this race last season, Billesdon Brook caused an almighty 66/1 shock for Sean Levey and Richard Hannon. As it stands, no runner in the field is as high a price for the 2019 running, so we may best placed to look back among the principles. All 15 runners for tomorrow’s race are previewed below:

  1. Angel’s Hideaway: Hasn’t been the easiest to place so far during her career. At her best, she’s very smart having easily won an Ascot Group Three, but has also been readily beaten on two occasions by Fairyland who re-opposes here. Has also had a tendency of late to miss the break which she cannot do here. However, if you have faith that she won’t repeat that trick, she’d likely have gotten a lot closer to the race’s favourite, Qabala, in the Nell Gwyn. Nine starts means she’s exposed, but has kept on well over seven furlongs the last twice. A strong pace and she might place. 3/5
  2. Dandhu: Took her time to get going, but was a battling winner of the Fred Darling from Iconic Choice on her re-appearance suggesting she’s improved from her two-year-old days. That shouldn’t be too surprising as she was a progressive juvenile, finishing runner-up to Just Wonderful on her final start last season. Ultimately, she has to progress a fair bit again to be involved here and though there’s almost certainly more to come, this should come too soon for her. 2/5
  3. Fairyland: The first of the O’Brien fillies and the most prolific winner with an 80% strike rate. She’s done all of her racing over six furlongs, culminating in a second successive, narrow defeat of The Mackem Bullet in the Group One Cheveley Park. Neither of those wins was emphatic, but her ability to dig out victory and apply herself in a finish will stand her in good stead in terms of lasting home. There remains a question mark over her stamina, but she’s a useful and speedy filly who could go close. 4/5
  4. Fleeting: Showed a fitting fleet of foot to storm home in Doncaster’s May Hill at the backend of last season. She had previously found six furlongs too hot for her, but was a respectable third to Just Wonderful at the Curragh elsewhere as a two-year-old and she clearly found another gear in the Doncaster contest. She’s a guaranteed stayer with a turn of foot and is a crazy price compared to some of these. That is representative of the O’Brien jockey bookings, but if this horse can handle a sharp gallop and keep tabs on the leaders then expect her to run on late and challenge. Chance. 4/5
  5. Garrel Glen: After this race, her shortest starting price in three starts will have been 16/1. That was her price when winning a novice race over seven furlongs of the Rowley Mile and while that was surprisingly straightforward, this step up in class is enormous. Connections are understandably tilting at windmills given what happened last year, but lightning rarely strikes twice. Given she was 100/1 on debut, Garrel Glen has already exceeded expectations and is unlikely to feature here. 1/5
  6. Hermosa: Takes her name from the Spanish for beautiful, which is certainly what her punters will think of her if she returns victorious. That scenario is possible, if unlikely, as she has finished placed in three Group Ones already in her short career. However, it is a worrying trend that at any level beyond Group Three, she has always found at least one too good and she has form to reverse with a few of the principles. The third O’Brien string on paper, but on potential she could prove the weakest of her stablemates. 2/5
  7. Iconic Choice: Was short-headed by Dandhu in the Fred Darling, but Tom Dascombe’s filly has done nothing but improve since making her debut. Could finish only third off a mark of 75 on her fourth start at Hamilton, but won four of her next five, including a Listed Newbury contest back in October. Her re-appearance saw her come on another level once more and she is a likelier stayer than her conqueror that day. Even with all of her progression to date, she’d still require the propensity to find more gears today, but it isn’t out of the question. 3/5
  8. Iridessa: Victory in the Fillies Mile came somewhat out of the left field, though there is no denying the quality of that performance. Her seasonal debut came over an inconveniently short trip and she was only beaten by another of the Guineas principles in Lady Kaya. However, the Fillies Mile form doesn’t look as strong as it could be and although Joseph O’Brien will inevitably find improvement from her last run, Iridessa’s future looks to be over further. 2/5
  9. Just Wonderful: Aidan O’Brien has long held this filly in the highest regard and those words should always be taken into consideration in terms of a Classic prospect. Nevertheless, her wins-to-runs ratio is not the most inspiring (3/7) and her two starts in Group One company have seen her beaten by a combined 18 lengths. Did win the Rockfel Stakes at Newmarket from Dandhu and showed a worthy change of pace, but signs so far suggest she needs more. Ryan Moore rides and he usually chooses the right one, but it’s the other stables who should be the worry. 3/5
  10. Lady Kaya: Has kept good company throughout her career to date without ever being disgraced. Beat the Oaks favourite Pink Dogwood ten lengths on just her second start and was placed in the Group One Moyglare Stud Stakes thereafter. Her return to action was very encouraging, though against the highest quality she’s faced to date, she hasn’t always finished off her seven furlongs that effectively. As such, the mile trip would be a slight concern and she’s unlikely to dominate as she did last time. Could spring a shock if others underperform. 3/5
  11. Look Around: Brings in the only rating below 100 to affairs. Started her Pattern career well with victory in a Sandown Listed contest, but has been found wanting at Group Three level the last twice, never landing a blow behind Qabala latest. The step up to a mile should bring about something extra and the fourth in last season’s Nell Gwyn, the place Look Around filled this year, went on to win this race. If you’re a follower of that sort of superstition, then 40/1 is value. For almost everyone else, she has a mountain to climb. 1/5
  12. Mot Juste: Looked decidedly green when losing her opening two juvenile starts, but has rapidly picked up since, winning her final start of last year in a Group Three. Confirmed that form with Angel’s Hideaway when second to stablemate and favourite Qabala, but there doesn’t look too much hope of her overturning that form. Pedigree and performances to date mean stamina shouldn’t be an issue and will be honest enough to compete. However, she is an unlikely winner. 2/5
  13. Qabala: The gamble on Roger Varian’s filly prior to the off in the Nell Gwyn told you all you need to know about the events to come. Qabala waltzed home with something to spare with the promise of more to come in the future. There is, for me, a big question mark over the strength of that form (she’d need more today anyway), as the third missed the break considerably and was still only beaten two lengths. She should be one of the principles if developing as expected and the mile trip poses fewer problems to her than most. Even then, her price is too skinny for what she has achieved to date. 3/5
  14. Skitter Scatter: Transferred to John Oxx from Kevin Prendergast over the winter, but by all accounts the transition between the two has been seemless. Skitter Scatter has already developed into a top class performer. Even before her improvement, she beat Sergei Prokofiev over five furlongs, demonstrating her guts and innate speed. However, her best was saved for the end of the season, where she beat a number of re-opposing fillies in the Moyglare Stud in taking fashion, doing her best work come the line. That is easily the best form in the race and it baffles me that she is available at around 6/1. Looks to have many attributes befitting a Classic heroine. Hopefully top notch. 5/5
  15. Star Terms: Yard won this last year and it is arguable that Star Terms would provide as implausible a victor as Billesdon Brook. Was beaten just a neck in a Longchamp Grade One, however, the form of tht race is muddling and continent Pattern races often see more condensed finishes than in Britain or Ireland. She has otherwise been beaten soundly enough by both Fleeting and Dandhu with the form of both of those runs leaving her with much to find on just those two let alone the rest of the field. You can never rule out a shock with Richard Hannon anymore though. 2/5

Qabala and Just Wonderful represent potential and stable power respectively, but on form to date they have a lot to find with SKITTER SCATTER (nap). She is already a Group One winner having done so in tremendous style and she should prove that to be no fluke. Two other Aidan O’Brien inmates may provide the danger with Fairyland’s win record showing her in a good light while Fleeting may be flashing home late to challenge.

  1. Skitter Scatter
  2. Fairyland
  3. Fleeting

2000 Guineas Preview: Every Runner Rated

Eight months on from Kew Gardens’ victory in the St Leger and it’s Classic time again on the flat. The 2000 Guineas has a bumper field of 19 this year, representative of a hugely open contest with initial favourites Too Darn Hot and Persian King absent. Below, I have scored every runner out of 5, with one, as ever, standing out above the rest.

  1. Advertise: Should arguably be shorter in the market for what he has achieved so far. Has won three of his five starts, including the Group One Phoenix Stakes on a venture to Ireland and has only been beaten by Calyx and Too Darn Hot to date. Both of those are potential superstars, so there’s no shame at all in that form and his honest temperament and application would give him a fair shot of staying a mile. As others have fallen away, he is now the mount of Frankie Dettori too. 4/5
  2. Al Hilalee: When a horse is supplemented for a big race, it always piques the interest and especially if connections are as powerful as Al Hilalee’s. He’s already a winner at Newmarket having defied greenness in some fashion on debut, but only just scraped home in a Listed race at Deauville on his only other start. He has the potential to do far better than that, though he will have to and even with many of these having their first runs of the season here, his is the longest break to return from. He is around 14/1 at the moment, but it’s difficult to tell if that’s value or not. 3/5
  3. Azano: It would have seemed unlikely that Azano would end up as John Gosden’s second string for the 2000 Guineas and yet here we are. Has only won a Yarmouth novice event in four starts and though his peak form saw him in the places in a Group Three, he was cosily beaten in the Free Handicap last month while getting weight from the winner. A mile might suit better, but Shine So Bright, the aforementioned winner, remains an outsider for this, so realistically, this fellow has no hope. 1/5
  4. Dark Vision: Started his career in immensely promising style, rattling off three wins, the last of which saw him power home for victory in a Goodwood Group Two. He has since flopped in the Champagne Stakes when last of six and could only manage third on the all-weather on his re-appearance although he was slightly hampered at the start. Should improve back on turf though and did initially look very useful, but he has a bit to prove, including over this trip. 2/5
  5. Emaraaty Ana: Though he was only fifth of eight to Ten Sovereigns in the Middle Park, Kevin Ryan’s charge has some hope on the rest of his form and pedigree. He was a ready winner on debut, which bodes well for his chances first time out here, and won the Group Two Gimcrack from the front at York. His breeding suggests a mile is within reach, though it would represent a two furlong step up in trip and he did fade late on when behind Ten Sovereigns. If you take that performance as him running out of gas then he stands no chance, but other factors certainly give him a sniff. 3/5
  6. Great Scot: Tom Dascombe and Richard Kingscote are best known in recent times for teaming up with the speedball that is Kachy. Great Scot might not possess the same firepower as his stablemate, but his form has been consistent to date. He was third behind Al Hilalee in the Listed Deauville contest, but has subsequently been successful at that level at Haydock and was a touch unlucky behind Magna Grecia in the Futurity Stakes. His re-appearance behind Mohaather was encouraging given the way he finished the race and he is ground-versatile. Suspicions abound, however, that there will be one or two too good. 4/5
  7. Kick On: Did kick on from his two-year-old form when triumphing in the Listed Fielden Stakes on Guineas trials day. However, that suggested the need for further and he was quoted as “never threatening” when sixth in the Futurity Stakes. If he can get to the front and force a breath-taking pace, then he may wear them down, but that’s the only scenario likely to see him win. And it isn’t a likely one. 2/5
  8. King Of Change: Bizarrely for a Guineas entry, this race will offer up the shortest trip King Of Change has ever run over. He was a maiden until breaking his duck in a Nottingham novice event three weeks ago, but this will be far sharper and he’ll likely be taken off his feet. Trainer-jockey combo did win the 1000 Guineas with a 66/1 shot last season, but as with most sporting shocks, that looks a one-off. 1/5
  9. Madhmoon: It was a largely underwhelming re-appearance by Madhmoon at Leopardstown, yet he’s still my idea of the winner. He was pipped by the much-improved Never No More that day when stepped back to seven furlongs on soft ground. However, on a quicker surface, he has excelled, easily disposing of two quality O’Brien inmates over a mile, the second time in a Group Two. He has often sat just off the pace before putting the race to bed with a sweet turn-of-foot. I expect him to do that again. 5/5
  10. Magna Grecia: Aidan and his son Donnacha combine this year with Saxon Warrior Lite. Magna Grecia has performed much the same as last year’s Guineas hero, winning the Futurity Stakes on his way here, and has also been ignored in favour of a naturally speedier stablemate by Ryan Moore. However, to my eyes, he is the stable’s number one and pushed Persian King all the way in their match here last season. Showed he handled the dip that day and is a powerful specimen. Might lack a tiny bit for pace, however and that could be his undoing. 4/5
  11. Momkin: In an era where Ballydoyle dish out powerful names even to their weakest juveniles it would be somewhat ironic for the dorky Momkin to emerge triumphant. Took part in his first Group contest in the Craven Stakes and ran Skardu to a neck when inconvenienced on two occasions. That was a mighty effort, but the winner looks open to more improvement than Roger Charlton’s horse and it wasn’t the strongest of trials. Has also been beaten at 1/7 in the past so there’s a chance he’s not the most genuine. Ran a career best last time and needs to outdo that here. And then some. 2/5
  12. Name The Wind: Comes in as one of just four unbeaten horses in the race and easily the least fancied of that quartet. That’s because they’ve been tight-margin all-weather novices at Kempton. The second was a decent race and James Tate is a shrewd young trainer, but he’ll have to have worked miracles his horse to win. 1/5
  13. Royal Marine: There was a buzz about Royal Marine’s Guineas chances after a facile success from the useful Turgenev on just his second start and that only increased when he took Group One Jean-Luc Lagardere at Longchamp from subsequent Ballysax winner Broome. If he hadn’t run since, he’d be a far shorter price. Instead, he has and while his Meydan run can easily be forgiven, his fourth behind Skardu, when perhaps not given the most inspiring ride by Christophe Soumillon, leaves him a lot to find. Should be bigger than 11/1 and is partially priced on his two-year-old form, which makes him unappealing even at each0way. 2/5
  14. Set Piece: Two wins on the all-weather suggested this horse had a bright future ahead of him. Connections were evidently under-enamoured when he was only third in the Craven and so a tongue-tie is tried to get more out of him. It may well be there, but he was weak at the finish behind the more promising Skardu which suggests this Set Piece will be taken from the halfway line rather than the penalty spot. 2/5
  15. Shine So Bright: Admirably consistent as a two-year-old with three successive thirds rounding out his season, but stepped up on that markedly to take the Free Handicap in smart style. Others finished off that seven-furlong contest better, but the races was won a long way out and a mile could bring out better. Alternatively it may not and while he may provide an emotional win for King Power, winners of the Free Handicap have a terrible record in the Guineas. 2/5
  16. Skardu: Has clearly defied expectations given he was 33/1 on debut. He won easily that day and was more authoritative than the winning margin suggested in the Craven in April. Both his wins have been at Newmarket which is very promising and if he is still improving, then he’ll be very dangerous. That said, though there have been a few places, the conversion rate between the Craven and Guineas is poor (even Masar, who won it by nine lengths and then won the Derby, couldn’t capitalise). The booking of James Doyle is another positive. 4/5
  17. Sporting Chance: Is one of just two horses with the dreaded 0 in their form book and has had more starts than any in the field (11). However, that is because he has been campaigned in Dubai throughout the winter so there’ll be no fitness excuses and Tip Two Win proved that unorthodox overseas preparations can pay dividends in this race. However, he has only won four of his starts and hasn’t finished in the top four of any of his starts at Group Two level, the highest at which he has raced. Far too exposed to suggest a big run will come out of nowhere. 1/5
  18. Ten Sovereigns: Aidan O’Brien’s horses usually need a run before performing. Ten Sovereigns didn’t. He scooted home by seven lengths at the Curragh on debut before routing a Group Three field over the same course and distance second time out. He showed he was no one trick pony when winning the Middle Park next time out and Ryan Moore clearly has faith he’ll stay. I’m less convinced and while he’s clearly talented and has pace to burn, the field size will surely necessitate a galloping blitz from the start. That will strain every sinew of his stamina and others look safer stayers. 3/5
  19. Urban Icon: Two easy victories as a two-year-old at Windsor and Salisbury gave Urban Icon his chance at Group level in Newbury’s Greenham Stakes. He was third to Mohaather that day and shaped promisingly for much of the journey. However, he was far from the strongest at the finish and the seven furlongs that day seemed plenty. He will need to come on from that run significantly to feature, but a bit more patience in running may see some improvement. 2/5

Both Magna Grecia and MADHMOON have the outstanding form at a mile and it has paid to have experience over this trip in recent seasons. The latter is preferred as he had excuses on his re-appearance, but had looked high class on quicker ground. The big dangers otherwise may be Advertise if he gets the trip, the admirable Great Scot and the unexposed Skardu.

Earlier in the card, POWER OF DARKNESS looks able to defy a small penalty for his recent second having met trouble in running that day. Elsewhere, JUDICIAL was a fine second in the Palace House a year ago and has a swing at the weights this time around with Mabs Cross and CORONET (nap) is by far the safest bet in the Jockey Club Stakes having gone close in a Group One at the end of last season.

Punchestown: A Story of One who Has Retired and Two who Haven’t

Punchestown’s end-of-season spectacular regularly appeals as an afterthought for British trainers. Nicky Henderson has sent over his biggest army for a while and can already boast a winner in O O Seven, yet compared to the squads assembled by Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott for Cheltenham, the numbers are paltry. Given the drama that has unfolded so far, it would be no surprise if some were not ruing their own absence.

Retirement is often a theme that pops up a seasons draw to a climax. Ruby Walsh stunned even those who had expected his career was winding towards its end by retiring on the spot after a pulsating Punchestown Gold Cup triumph.

Having only become truly besotted with racing after A.P. McCoy’s retirement, Ruby has been the superstar of the weighing room for me. Anytime his name appeared on a racecard would always sway me towards his chosen mount. His ride aboard Kemboy exemplified everything that Walsh did best: guiding his horse round quietly, saving energy for the final sprint and driving with life and limb towards the finish line. That he wanted to retire after such a performance is no surprise.

There are three horses that immediately come to mind when I think of Ruby in the saddle. The first is Hedgehunter. As a boy, the Grand National was the sporting event that most gripped me and I remember being distinctly puzzled by the finish of the 2005 Grand National. For an unaware boy, I’d always assumed in my fleeting glances of racing that when a horse comes off the bridle that that was when he would start doing his best work and ultimately, sprint. Yet, Walsh was motionless on Hedgehunter until the elbow. Only in hindsight did I realise that, although he was on the best horse on the day, he was saving every inch of stamina Hedgehunter had left.

The second is the incomparable Vautour, who transformed into perhaps the most fluent jumper of a fence I’ve ever seen. I don’t think there’s ever been a better exhibition of fencing than when he won the JLT in 2015 with Walsh putting him in the ideal position for take off at every obstacle. His 2016 Ryanair win was no mean performance either.

The third and last is the recalcitrant, yet oddly loveable Yorkhill. Twice, despite surely being one of the least willing racehorses of all time, Walsh galvanised him to victory at the Cheltenham Festival. In the first of those he guided Yorkhill round the inside of the Neptune field (2016) without his partner realising the race had even started while the pair overcame a stumble up the Cheltenham hill to win the 2017 JLT. In both cases, it is arguable that a lesser jockey would never have achieved either victory.

Walsh retires on a deserved high, but two horses who may have been pensioned off long before this week have also made the headlines.

Un De Sceaux may translate most accurately as “one of the seals.” He may not be that, but he’s certainly one-of-a-kind. Only once in Great Britain and Ireland has he finished outside the top two when completing (and that in the incredibly strong renewal of this season’s Ryanair). Now aged 11, that is a remarkable statistic and he continues to race up to a superequine standard for a horse who should be on the decline.

He pushed Altior every inch in the Tingle Creek and on Tuesday delivered a masterclass in front-running speed chasing when dishing out defeat to runaway Aintree scorer and stablemate Min. He’s a scruffy, scrawny horse, but looks in the racing world, certainly aren’t everything.

The other old boy to return to the Grade One winners enclosure is Unowhatimeanharry. He won his second Punchestown Stayers Hurdle in battling fashion. Though that is likely to be proven a weak race of the highest class, he overcame Cheltenham form in some style with Bapaume and made an unremarkable race into another fairytale. Harry Fry was evidently ecstatic with the performance with Unowhatimeanharry being one of his early flagbearers.

It has been a glorious festival to witness so far and the week will only get better with the  Guineas weekend ahead (expect a full preview here in the next 24 hours). However, it is worth reflecting on events of days just past. Racing sometimes has a way of leaving us thinking what might have been. This week, instead, has given us three examples of competitors bowing out or ploughing on at just the right time.

 

Everton 4-0 United: Football’s Relentless Immediacy Could Curse Solskjaer’s Project

It’s difficult to see positives when your side loses 4-0 to a side relishing the battle for seventh. Nevertheless, this result and the near-inevitability of missing out on the top four, could yet be a long-term godsend.

This wasn’t Mourinho football, nor was it Van Gaalish or Moyesian. Bad football is just bad regardless of the manager and this performance was undoubtedly one of the worst this campaign. Whoever you’re a fan of in the dressing room, there wasn’t a single player who can claim to have performed above a 5/10.

The workaholics Fred and Dalot were sloppy in possession, Pogba and Martial (not for the first time) looked like they would rather be anywhere else but Goodison Park and Smalling, Lindelöf and Jones were at their slippery, sloppy worst.

From this performance alone, it would be difficult to decipher the puzzle as to who is worth keeping.

One player who should be a certainty to depart is Alexis Sanchez and 15 months on from his arrival, the inner workings of certain squad members’ agencies can be blamed upon the absurd wages dedicated to the Chilean. The main fault lies not with his performances, dire as they have been at times, but with those responsible for allowing him to receive £500,000 per week.

Pogba, Rashford and Herrera are among many who have been so alienated by their teammate’s heady income that contract negotiations have stalled with the latest named already booked on a one-way flight to Paris.

It is sickening that money has become the determining factor on a player’s decision to remain a Manchester United player. It is only ten years since we were officially the best football club in the country and yet the shirt means virtually nothing, even to those who have been raised by the club.

The football played at the beginning of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign convinces me that he should be given a project. Some will argue that there were performances under previous post-Ferguson regimes that matched those during Solskjaer’s baptism. Scorelines maybe, but football wise there is no comparison.

So let him release or sell who he likes. I firmly believe that football’s economic market has become so inflated that money is of little importance anymore. If a player is in the final year of his contract and is showing no signs of renewing let him go a la Herrera.

Sanchez is a no-brainer as the wage bill must be cut to bring back some amount of harmony. Those who were unhappy beforehand may not be satiated by this and if so, then a decision must be made. I would be disappointed, but not upset to see the back of Pogba, whose talent is undeniable, but whose application as soon as danger lurks is futile. He’ll be a star for a few games at Barcelona or Real Madrid and maybe he’ll maintain his form. However, it is clear that a scenario will never arise at United where he can be relied upon.

Rashford and Martial should be kept if possible. Both have the talent and potential to adapt to a new regime and unless they push for a move this summer, could be made the spearheads of the new team.

De Gea and Lukaku are the other big names who should be passed on. The former is still brilliant, but his world-class days are becoming fewer and further between while Lukaku is not a good enough footballer to be the sole no.9 of a top team. Harsh as it may sound, it could be why Belgium keep falling just short at major tournaments in spite of their vast wealth of talent.

Ultimately, whether I have the names correct or not, there needs to be a reshuffle. Greedy or lazy players only serve to heighten uncomfortable atmospheres and though Solskjaer may have disguised it in the short term, the friction evidently remains.

Football’s unrelenting immediacy, driven by owners desperate for rapid success, harms the chances of any club looking to build for a sustained era of dominance. Manchester City were unparalleled in their brilliance last season, but their squad was built by gold not graft. It’s why they have a challenger for the title this season and why they have failed in Europe thus far.

This immediacy may harm Solskjaer’s chances of succeeding at United. I would love to give him three years to unload the deadwood, sign only who is necessary and blood any youth deemed fit for the club’s purpose. Manchester United will not be winning a Premier League title within three years and that’s generous.

Ed Woodward will want to believe that United can and will be under pressure from the Glazers to run the club as such. It seems likely that we will buy players, potentially high-profile, to fill gaps with expectations far beyond their station. That wouldn’t be fair on them nor on Solskjaer.

If he is allowed to build his own project, there is a chance United could rebuild and challenge again within five seasons. If not, a worrying spell of trophyless starvation may beckon.

 

Grand National Day 2019: Look to the Clouds among the many stars

Four years ago there were Many Clouds in the Aintree winners’ enclosure. Now its time for a spot of Vintage.

Sue Smith’s grey has consistently run up to standard in staying handicaps for three seasons now. He has been fourth in the Welsh National, third in a Scottish and handles all types of going. His yard won the 2013 edition of this race with Aurora’s Encore and he is my pick to get the better of the 39 others in the line-up.

Though the fences have relinquished their previous demand, winning the Grand National is no mean feat. It will be a pleasure, yet again, to revel in the spectacle, but not before more drama unfolds in the five races prior.

Gaskells Handicap:

Sire Du Berlais landed an enormous gamble in the Pertemps when Barry Geraghty drove him to the front late in the day. He always looked likely to get there, but an 8lb rise looks harsh and he’s very opposable at the prices. Aux Ptits Soins ran no race in the Cleeve Hurdle, but was impressive in a handicap prior to that while the mare, Mia’s Storm, skipped Cheltenham and chases a hat-trick. Burrows Park was successful at Kelso over further and will hope for a test of stamina while Coole Cody was very well beaten in the Pertemps. Slightly closer behind was THECLOCKISTICKING, who represents the value bet for Stuart Edmunds. He was sixth to Sire Du Berlais, beaten nine lengths, but gets a 9lb pull at the weights dropped 1lb in the handicap. Nadaitak as a wide-margin winner on his penultimate start but showed nothing at Cheltenham while Keeper Hill often pops up when you least expect him to. Tommy Rapper has been consistent this season, but of most appeal at a price is Red Indian back over hurdles.

1. Theclockisticking
2. Aux Ptits Soins
3. Burrows Park

Mersey Novices:

Brewinupastorm is due a big victory having chased Champ and City Island home in two Grade Ones as well as having fallen at the last at Cheltenham in January. However, he faces a few fearsome opponents, in particular ANGELS BREATH who is stepped up in trip. He never featured in the Supreme, but did make some headway towards the end and with pace at less of a premium here, he could showcase his talent. One For Rosie is on an upward curve and tanked a huge weight close in a Grade Three novices’ handicap last time out. Kateson finished ahead of Brewinupastorm in the Challow, but was very disappointing latest. Chosen Mate has won three times in Ireland and challengers from across the sea have been hugely dangerous this week while the progressive Reserve Tank isn’t entirely discounted. Quite an open contest.

1. Angels Breath
2. Chosen Mate
3. Brewinupastorm

Maghull:

Slight preference is for US AND THEM, who ran on, despite being outpaced, in the Arkle. This is sharper, so may be uncomfortable viewing as far as Joseph O’Brien’s charge is concerned, but with four front-runners in the field, it should set up for a horse to come from the back. Clondaw Castle was the only horse matching Duc Des Genievres until the home stretch in the Arkle, but faded badly up the run in while Knocknanuss didn’t appreciate the ground that day although this isn’t much better. Ornua fell in the Arkle so will have to bounce back as will Lalor, though that looks highly likely as he has won at this meeting the last two years. Destrier is on the up, unlike Caid Du Lin, who is exposed.

1. Us And Them
2. Lalor
3. Ornua

Stayers:

It takes a leap of faith to support Apples Jade after she bombed at Cheltenham. It may just be that she hates Prestbury Park and was taken out of her comfort zone early in that contest. Even so, there’s a chance that more complications abound with her and she can be taken on. SAM SPINNER bounced right back to his best when second to Paisley Park in the Stayers and a repeat performance would make him a worthy rival to the favourite and tough to beat for the rest. His jumping was much better that day and looks more reliable than earlier this season. The Worlds End reverts from chasing, where he’s been disappointing of late while all of Agrapart, Clyne and Unowhatimeanharry have seen better days. If The Cap Fits is likely a danger getting his first chance at this trip and he should be well suited by it. Kilbricken Storm, Nautical Nitwit and West Approach were all well beaten in the Stayers so Roksana looks a greater danger as, though she was fortunate to win the Mares hurdle, that 2m4f trip was on the sharp side for her and this trip looks preferable. Lord Napier and William Henry step up from handicaps though both look up against it.

1. Sam Spinner
2. If The Cap Fits
3. Roksana

Betway Handicap:

A staying handicap before the ultimate staying handicap. Debece and Amaulino come in chasing hat-tricks having found form at the right time while Kildisart was a good fourth in the JLT, with both Mengli Khan and Lostintranslation having franked that form since. Touch Kick made mistakes in the Kim Muir, but travelled strongly so could be dangerous if jumping better. Springtown Lake was one of a number routed by A Plus Tard in the Close Brothers, but stayed on to the line. The extra half mile should suit. Polydora and Theatre Territory find it difficult to win, but in a race where nobody can be discounted, OLDGRANGEWOOD may have a chance of returning to form. He hasn’t got close for a while, but he was ninth in the Ultima at Cheltenham and has been dropped 3lb as a result. He’s now 9lb lower than when fourth last year and has not gone off the boil just yet.

1. Oldgrangewood
2. Kildisart
3. Theatre Territory

Grand National:

No one would begrudge the hugely popular Tiger Roll making history by becoming the first horse since Red Rum to win this race twice. If anything, he’s a much better horse than when victorious 12 months ago having hacked up in the Boyne Hurdle and X Country Chase at the Festival. A 9lb rise isn’t too harsh for a National winner, but he has struggled carrying weight in the past in big handicaps. Rathvinden’s trainer Willie Mullins has had three incredibly facile winners this week already and his charge’s victory in the Bobbyjo Chase was a perfect trial. However, he’s a sketchy enough jumper to have faith in here. Anibale Fly is the class act and though giving 4lb and more all round, he has an admirable record in big races. The two Trevor Hemmings greys, VINTAGE CLOUDS (nap) and Lake View Lad, filled second and third in the Ultima with preference for the former in this. He’s been fourth in a Welsh National and third in the Scottish equivalent with a recent wind operation looking to have revivified him. He’s 5lb well in, stays all day and is likely to be on the front end. If he gets into a rhythm, he’ll be a formidable opponent to pass under such a light weight and can defy the poor record of greys in this race. Joe Farrell won the aforementioned Scottish National, but would ideally like a sounder surface and ran just two weeks ago while Rock The Kasbah, if jumping at his best, should make a bold bid for Richard Johnson. Others of serious note are Pleasant Company, runner-up having jumped superbly last year and laid out for this with a 2lb reverse with Tiger Roll, Ramses De Teillee, another grey and another with stamina in abundance, Ultragold, a two-time course winner and One For Arthur, who could prove the forgotten horse in the race having taken the spoils two years ago.

1. Vintage Clouds
2. Pleasant Company
3. Ramses De Teillee
4. Anibale Fly

My Guide to the 2019 Grand National

As any racing blogger worth their salt should be doing at this time of the year, I’ve pored over stats, replays and quotes to come up with a detailed guide to every runner in the 2019 Grand National. All 40 are previewed below, their chances evaluated and given a mark out of 5. The system is as follows.

5 – Yes. Just yes.

4 – Maybe. Just maybe.

3 – OK. Just OK.

2 – About. Just about.

1 – No. Just no.

Here we go then. And feel free to ignore me, this has almost certainly been a useless exercise.

1. Anibale Fly: Carries top-weight as he’s the class horse in the field by some way. Third and second in the previous two runnings of the Gold Cup and fourth in this last year. In all three of those races, he’s stayed on at the finish. Under this burden it’s possible that he’ll lack a little tactical pace at a crucial time for all that he’s very talented. He has only 1lb more than a year ago and the softened conditions could prove in his favour, but may just find one or two too good again. 4/5

2. Valtor: French import who hacked up on his first start in this country for Nicky Henderson. Was found out at a higher level next time at Cheltenham and though that race may have gone against him from an early stage, it takes a huge leap of faith to suggest he’s capable off this mark in such a deep field. Trainer’s only hope in the race and his winless run looks set to go on for at least a year longer. 1/5

3. Tiger Roll: For all his performances this season have been staggering in their versatility and ease, something tells me this remains a big ask. Has the best chance of any Grand National winner since Hedgehunter (and probably since Red Rum) of winning this twice as he’s only up 9lb on ratings and carries just 6lb more weight. Nevertheless, I still feel he could be a liability due to his height and this looks too competitive a Nash otherwise to back a 4/1 shot. For all this, he is the likeliest winner but there’s enough evidence against him. 4/5

4. Outlander: Unlike most racehorses, Outlander, a triple Grade One hero in his pomp, has soured with age. Looks to have fallen out of love with the game and its been 18 months since he returned victorious anywhere. If for some reason he takes to Aintree, his weight could prove generous on just his second handicap start, but its far more probable that he’ll sulk once again. One of Gigginstown’s least likely winners. 1/5

5. Don Poli: An anagram of “I Plod On” and that is all he really does nowadays. Very good at his peak, as evidenced by his third to fellow Don Cossack in the 2016 Gold Cup and the one guarantee is he’ll stay (would ideally want 8 miles instead of 4). Injuries, however, have curtailed his carer since. Was beaten a long way by Jury Duty last time out in receipt of 10lb. Now concedes weight to that rival. You do the maths. 2/5

6. Go Conquer: Has become a winner of good-quality handicaps in the last two seasons, including Doncaster’s SkyBet Chase in January. He’s only up 6lb for that, but this is his career-high mark by some distance and he’s never tackled a trip beyond three miles. Has jumped very well on all three starts since joining Nigel Twiston-Davies and may yet find more for stepping up in trip, however, he should lack the class to be able to shoulder his weight allowance. 2/5

7. Mala Beach: Has never races in England before so this will be somewhat of a baptism of fire for the 11-year-old. Ran a solid trial behind Jury Duty at Down Royal a few weeks ago but he is 7lb higher than his most recent winning handicap mark. Likely not as good as he once was and would struggle to make Gordon Elliott’s top ten let alone this race’s. 1/5

8. Minella Rocco: Would have been top-weight last season which shows you the strength of this horse in his prime (second in the 2017 Gold Cup). However, he’s gone right off the boil this season and though he’s only nine, he would appear to be on a steep decline. Won the four-miler, beating Native River, at Cheltenham in 2016 so does stay and a spark isn’t out of the question, but he’s also a haphazard jumper. Not the McManus no.1 2/5

9. Lake View Lad: Nick Alexander’s first runner in the race. Trainer’s having their first runner rarely stand a chance, nor do greys win this often (one in 57 years prior to this year’s renewal). However, having run on into third off top-weight in the Ultima at Cheltenham there’s no guarantee that Lake View Lad won’t continue to impress. Nevertheless, the trip is an unknown and the handicapper will have done his best to prove a step ahead of him. This field, naturally, is much deeper than the Prestbury Park handicap though he certainly looks set to give a good account. 3/5

10. Pleasant Company: Last year’s runner-up, although he arrives this year 3lb worse off with the handicapper than he should be. He has been laid off for this though, arriving in virtually identical form to last year, and the recent rain is a plus. 2lb better off with Tiger Roll 12 months on, though that rival has taken his game to a different level, whereas Paul Townend’s ride is now aged 11. Jumped beautifully last year though and if he can get into that sort of rhythm again, other factors may pale into insignificance. 4/5

11. Ballyoptic: This time last year, he was fourth to Presenting Percy in the RSA and hasn’t lacked or ability at times over fences. Beat Elegant Escape at the beginning of last season and was a nose second to Joe Farrell in last season’s Scottish National. Will relish the trip, but has been hugely disappointing in the last twelve months and fell on his only journey to the Grand National course in December’s Becher Chase. That’s a huge worry. 2/5

12. Dounikos: Had done absolutely nothing for over a year before winning the Punchestown Grand National Trial in February when doing all his best work at the end. Had failed to complete on four of his six starts prior to that, including falling on his penultimate start, and now races off his highest mark (3lb than when pulling up in the 2018 Irish National). Opposable enough. 2/5

13. Rathvinden: Has a spookily identical profile to Tiger Roll of last season. Winner of the previous season’s National Hunt Chase, small in stature and carrying no.13. Won decisively on his sole start in 2018/19 from a good yardstick, but his jumping has left quite a bit to be desired in the past. He is the Mullins no.1 as Ruby Walsh takes the mount and he’s been laid out to challenge though he’s never run in a handicap. With holes to be picked in his best form and the aforementioned jumping issues, he can be avoided. 2/5

14. One For Arthur: The forgotten horse in many respects as he also chases a Red Rum-like double. Is only 6lb higher than his victory two years back, but he hasn’t completed a race since. Injury put paid to last season though two unseats in as many starts this season is a massive worry confidence-wise. He’d have to be at the top of his game to feature and while I think his jumping should stand the test again, he could be overwhelmed for fitness. Has endured the test before though and you can never rule out a previous winner. 3/5

15. Rock The Kasbah: Richard Johnson has never won the Grand National and may not get too many better chances for the rest of his career than with Rock The Kasbah. Won a three-and-a-half miler at Cheltenham in November and was second in last year’s Bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown over a similar trip. Won’t have massively appreciated the recent rain and despite those runs, its not certain he wants any further let alone 4 miles and the rest. Weighted to the hilt too. 2/5

16. Warriors Tale: The second of three Trevor Hemmings runners, but the least likely by some way. Pulled up in this last year after walking from Valentine’s and has never raced beyond three miles otherwise. Did win the Grand Sefton over these fences in December so traversing the course should prove less dangerous for him than many other, but impossible to fancy trip wise. Would need to show something he hasn’t before. 1/5

17. Regal Encore: Horrible to follow as he blows extremes of hot and cold. Was eighth two years ago when picking off a few late on and was an eleventh-hour absence 12 months later. 2lb higher than in 2017 and though he ran creditably in his prep race, this looks his toughest assignment for some time. Would not be the most surprising winner in the field, but I’d back him to pull up quicker than each-way. 2/5

18. Magic Of Light: The only mare in the field and was a decent seventh at Cheltenham latest. However, she’s prone to a blunder and unseated on her penultimate start. Was greatly improved beforehand and is imposing so though she’s never raced beyond 3m1f, she’s not an unlikely stayer. That said, she’s not done enough to suggest she can get near winning, but could finish mid-division. 2/5

19. A Toi Phil: Hasn’t run in a three-mile chase since 2017 and never suggested at the time that distance chasing was his game. Did run creditably in the Pertemps Final over hurdles last month, but faded a little on the run-in. Two-and-a-half milers used to have a decent record in this race though as they can be switched off and make ground late. Lively enough at his price given ground conditions will suit and his best form could see him run well for a long way. 3/5

20. Jury Duty: Jay Trump won the American National before winning this in the sixties and Jury Duty looks to do likewise. Had a couple of those above him in the weights behind him when conceding 10lb to them so the numbers read well. That was over a significant enough trip though there’d be some concern that he took a tired fall when beaten by Rathvinden in the 2017 National Hunt Chase. As such, you couldn’t say with confidence that he’s going to last. 2/5

21. Noble Endeavor: Had 20 months off before re-appearing in the Becher Chase. Got round, which is a positive, in ninth, which isn’t. Beaten into mid-division by Beware the Bear at Cheltenham though that run could put him right for this. Was sixth in the Irish National before his lay-off and has won a big-field handicap in the past off 7lb lower. Could outrun his odds and creep into contention. 3/5

22. Monbeg Notorious: Grade Two winning novice and won the Thyestes at Gowran Park in 2018. No wins this season and failed distinctly to repeat his Thyestes triumph in January. Faded well out of contention behind Dounikos in the Punchestown National Trial so everything points against him staying. 1/5

23. Ramses De Teillee: The record of seven-year-olds in the race gets a nice run out every time the National comes around: no winners since 1940. This horse relishes a marathon (second in the Welsh National and Haydock National trial this season) and the more rain the better. Has never fallen, but his style is economical which can be risky at Aintree. 5lb well-in and stable are riding the crest of a wave. Close. 4/5

24. Tea For Two: Grade One winner at his peak, but those days are a distant memory now. Unseated in the X-Country and is tending towards incompletions rather than victories. Lizzie Kelly has a great rapport with this horse, but even at his best, his jumping made the heart flutter. I’ve got more chance. 1/5

25. Just A Par: Takes the place of the injured Mall Dini in the line-up, but is actually the bottom-weight in this. Bet365 Gold Cup was his hunting ground in 2015 and 2016 where he finished first and second (beaten a short-head). He’s only had one win in four years though and was a never nearer 14th in this two years ago. Seventh in the Becher after a long lay-off back in December on his first start for James Moffatt and could fill a similar position here. That is probably the best connections can hope for. 2/5

26. Step Back: Bradstock and de Boinville represented the little man when taking the 2015 Gold Cup with Coneygree. Rapidly improved at the end of last season with a wide-margin novice victory at Fakenham before taking Sandown’s Bet365 Gold Cup in devastating style. 12lb higher as a result and a touch disappointing this term. Looks set to appreciate every yard, but his mark demands more than he’s shown. 3/5

27. Ultragold: I’m hopeful that course form plays a part because I think this horse could run a massive race. Pulled up in the X-Country at Cheltenham, but that race is notoriously difficult to run well in first time out. Has taken the last two runnings of the Topham and while that’s over much shorter, he was third in the Becher Chase in December off 1lb higher when running on at the end. He clearly loves it round here and if patiently ridden, he could make his presence felt. 4/5

28. Blow By Blow: Looked promising at the beginning of the season, but form since of Pulled Up-Last-Pulled Up isn’t particularly encouraging. Has looked like a selling plater in those and should be twice the price. And he’s already 100/1. 1/5

29. Up For Review: Made a costly error when cruising at Cheltenham last time out. The fact he can throw in a jump like that would be a concern as would the fact he went out like a light afterwards. However, there’s no telling how much that mistake took out of him and his previous form would make him intriguing and not without a hope of staying. Worth a second look for those searching for some value. 3/5

30. Singlefarmpayment: Won’t win because that’s not what he does. Has lost narrowly on so many occasions although he didn’t most recently. That’s because he lost convincingly so at least he’s bucking some trends. Usually more consistent than that so his form is a big concern and won’t be desperately in love with the ground. Lots to prove, but he’s quirky so could stick a middle finger up to a number of people. 2/5

31. Vieux Lion Rouge: Has never shaped like he can stay this, but he’s only ten so the Pipe team can continue to pretend otherwise for a couple more years yet. In fairness, he was a fast finishing runner-up to Walk In The Mill in the Becher this season though the wheels have flown off since with two incompletions in rear. Could jump this course with his eyes closed and backers may believe for a while if he can get near the pace. That doesn’t seem likely though and if he does, he won’t stay there. 2/5

32. Valseur Lido: Hugely admirable horse who was top class at his best. Hasn’t shown any form for quite some time though, but there is a glimmer here. Ran off 12lb higher in this race last year when still in contention across the Melling Road and may have done too much too soon. Jumped like a buck and ground conditions this season could lend him a better chance of lasting home. Could equally be pulled up before halfway, but a similar performance makes this 100/1 the best each-way bet of the outsiders. 3/5

33. Vintage Clouds: There’s been Many Clouds victorious in the National before. Now its time for some Vintage. Burst back from a wind op in fine style when second at Cheltenham last time. He sprinted up the hill on soft ground that day and could be a better horse than prior to his operation. He was good enough the too, as evidenced by his third place in last season’s Scottish National. Receives a pull in the weights with both horses that finished ahead of him that day and 10-4 is a very generous weight for this thorough stayer to carry. If he gets on the front end and into a rhythm, he may take some pulling back. 5/5

34. General Principle: it seems foolish to rule out an Irish National winner in this. However, he won a truly bizarre running of that race last season and has since looked shaky in terms of staying. Consistent prior to pulling up at Cheltenham and only 5lb higher than his Irish National triumph, but this looks beyond him. 2/5

35. Livelovelaugh: Like Children’s List last year, Mullins and Ricci send us a left-field National contender and another with no realistic chance. Well beaten in the Kim Muir when fading late on and that was his only start beyond three miles. Has some decent handicap form over shorter, but nothing to suggest a big run here is in the offing. 1/5

36. Walk In The Mill: Has been campaigned for this since winning the Becher Chase with Robert Walford keeping him over hurdles. Up 7lb for that success, but he took to the course thoroughly impressively. May not have a whole lot left up his sleeve, however, for all he can be ridden to stay given his supposed aptitude for the track. Becher winners haven’t the best record in this either. Each way play, but unlikely winner. 2/5

37. Folsom Blue: If Don Poli wants 8 miles, this horse wants 12. If he’s still going after the third last, be sure he’ll run on past a couple. Was fourth in last season’s attritional Irish National and eighth and sixth in the Welsh and Midlands National this season. He’s consistent in marathons and will be finishing much faster than anything else. He’ll probably be a fence behind by that point though. 2/5

38. Captain Redbeard: Beat Definitly Red in a match race, which is very creditable, but didn’t back that up next time out. Unseated early in this last season and has been well beaten in two editions of the Grand Sefton as well. Could stay as he’s not fully exposed beyond 3m2f (which he has run well over), but others will take to the test better than him. 2/5

39. Bless The Wings: Call me mad, but don’t completely rule the veteran out. He’s now 14 and has been well behind Tiger Roll on his last two starts. Nevertheless, he’s off the same mark as when third last year and this race suits him better than any other has this season. Years obviously against him and may have lost any ability he clung onto a year ago, but if any remains, no horse relishes tests like this more. 3/5

40. Joe Farrell: Scottish National hero last term and gets in at the foot of the weights. Encouraging second at Newbury two weeks ago when staying on at the finish and that suggests this mark is manageable for Rebecca Curtis’ charge. However, this will be his third race in a month and he’s better on ground sounder than soft. He is a stayer, but fitness-wise he may have a bit more on his plate than other well-fancied types. If fully fit, he is a danger. 3/5