Last year’s winner Blaklion heads a fine 18-strong field for the Randox Health Becher Handicap Chase at Aintree Racecourse on Saturday.
While trainer Jimmy Moffatt is looking forward to sending another Becher hero Highland Lodge back to Merseyside along with stable newcomer Just A Par.
Blaklion won the the 3m2f contest over the Grand National fences by nine lengths last year but Nigel Twiston-Davies’ nine-year-old will have to carry 11st10lb – 2lbs less than top weight Don Poli – as he bids to emulate another dual winner of the contest Hello Bud (2010 and 2012), also from the Naunton handler’s stable.
Another stable-mate Ballyoptic, a Aintree winner over hurdles and second in the Scottish Grand National, is also among the field and is a best-priced 6-1 second favourite with Ladbrokes.
2015 Becher hero, Highland Lodge, will bid to become only the third dual winner of the contest.
He was also third last year, while the second and 2016 winner Vieux Lion Rouge and fourth home Federici – for Merseyside-born Grand National winner Donald McCain – will renew rivalries with Blaklion, who is a best-priced 9-2 favourite with Skybet.
Highland Lodge is 20-1 with Paddy Power to win again; while new recruit to Moffatt’s Cumbrian stable, Just A Par, is a best-priced 33-1 with several firms.
Now a 12-year-old, Highland Lodge has not run since being pulled up in the Grade Two Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock Park in January.
But having also been second in the Becher Chase, beaten a short-head by Vieux Lion Rouge two years ago, he clearly loves the challenge offered by the big Aintree obstacles.
Moffatt said today: “Highland Lodge has had a good summer and is very, very well in himself.
“We have aimed at the Becher Handicap Chase for the last three years and he has always performed very well.
“It does not seem like age is catching up with him because his work has been very good, particularly over the last three weeks.
“The race seems to suit him above all others and he does run very well fresh. We have geared the last four or five months around this one day.”
Just A Par, who will be ridden by Sean Quinlan and will carry 10st12lb, will be making his debut for Moffatt. He has not run since the 2017 bet365 Gold Cup, a race he won in 2015, when trained by Paul Nicholls.
Just A Par has form over over the Grand National fences having run three times. His best effort was when 14th behind One For Arthur in the 2017 Grand National.
Moffatt added: “Just A Par has not run for a while and we bought the horse at the August sales. He had been in pre-training at Di Turner’s, which is a holding yard for Cheveley Park Stud who originally owned him, and he was recommended to me by Di.
“Di said the horse had done very well and that the minor joint problem, which had kept off the track, had sorted itself out with no issues since.
“We have prepared Just A Par the same way we have prepared Highland Lodge. Although they have been working separately, they have been doing similar work, and my thinking was that if we can get one horse ready for it, there is no reason why we couldn’t get another one ready.
“If I ran Just A Par in a 0-150 chase off of his mark of 146, I am not sure he will have the legs of those horses, but I do believe that the Grand National fences poses a different angle for all horses.
“Highland Lodge is case in point as he struggles over regulation chases but over the Grand National fences he seems to be a different horse, and I am hoping Just A Par will be similar.”
The weights are topped by the Elliott-trained Don Poli, who will be having his first race since finishing third to Sizing John in the Irish Gold Cup at Punchestown in April last year.
A winner on this card three years ago over the Mildmay fences, he is a best-priced 10-1 with William Hill and Skybet.
Stable-mate Noble Endeavor will run for the first time since finishing sixth in the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse that same month.
A six-strong Irish contingent is completed by Sean Doyle’s Crosshue Boy, Ross O’Sullivan’s Call It Magic, the Paul Nolan-trained Fine Theatre and Dare To Endeavour from Pat Griffin’s yard.
Others in what looks like a really good renewal of the Becher include Colin Tizzard’s dual Topham Chase winner Ultragold; Paul Nicholls’ double Badger Ales Trophy scorer Present Man – who is 9-1 with William Hill; and Warren Greatrex’s Kim Muir victor Missed Approach, who will be ridden by six-time winner over the Aintree fences, Sam Waley-Cohen.
The other six races on the Aintree card – which includes the second contest over the Grand National fences, the Grand Sefton Chase – make their final declarations on Friday morning at 11am.
Last year’s winner Definitly Red is likely to be among the final entries for the Grade Two Many Clouds Chase and he is a best-priced 13-8 with Ladbrokes to score again.
In the Grand Sefton Shanahan’s Turn, who was second over course and distance in the Topham Chase at last season’s Grand National meeting, is the current favourite at a best-priced 7-1 with several firms including Ladbrokes, Coral and bet365.
Like last week’s Ladbrokes Trophy winner at Newbury, Sizing Tennessee, he is trained by Tizzard, is likely to be ridden by Everton FC-supporting jockey Tom Scudamore and is owned by Ann & Alan Potts Limited.
Dan Skelton’s Born Survivor is another vying for favouritism for Grand Sefton.
Gates open on Saturday at 10am.
The first race of the seven, the Try Foot Gold At Aintree Novices’ Hurdle, is due off at 11.55am. And the finale is the second race over the Grand National fences, the Grand Sefton Chase, due off at 3.15pm.
General Admission tickets cost £22 and it’s £40 in the Platinum Lounge and the same price for Princess Royal Seats and Gallery.
There are also still some hospitality packages available on 0151 522 2911.
To book tickets and for more information go to Aintree’s website at http://aintree.thejockeyclub.co.uk/events-tickets/whats-on/becher-chase-day or call the ticketing line on 0344 579 3001.
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