Three weeks after one of the coldest Cheltenham Festivals that anyone can remember, National Hunt racing will reconvene in the north-west of England on Thursday afternoon, still in the warmest of overcoats and with the bitter wind a constant reminder that this is the winter code.
There will be nerves amid the anticipation, as the Grand National will be run in the long shadow cast by fatal injuries to runners in each of the previous two renewals, but much to enjoy, too, before the 40-runner field heads to the start on Saturday afternoon.
This will always be the Grand National meeting in the minds of many punters and racegoers but, this year more than ever, it seems to have matured into its alternative title of the Aintree Festival.
Thursday's opening card has four Grade One events among the seven races, one more than three of the four days at Cheltenham in March. And a sell-out crowd is expected for Ladies' Day on Friday, when Sprinter Sacre, whose rating already places him among the finest chasers the sports has seen, will step up to two and a half miles in a steeplechase for the first time – with his unbeaten record over fences on the line. For now, the Grand National can wait.
The action on the first two days could yet bring an added twist to the National itself, meanwhile, as despite suggestions to the contrary after Nicky Henderson took the Gold Cup with Bobs Worth, the race for the National Hunt trainers' championship is not over quite yet.
Paul Nicholls has a yawning gap of around £400,000 to bridge if he is to deny Henderson his first title for nearly three decades and the former needs an outstanding start to this meeting to stand any chance, but he has runners with leading chances on Thursday afternoon's card that could conceivably cut Henderson's lead in half.
Victories for Silviniaco Conti – the strong favourite – and Zarkandar in the two most valuable events, the BetFred Bowl and the Aintree Hurdle, would add nearly £200,000 to Nicholls's prize-money total alone, ahead of Saturday's National in which Nicholls expects to saddle three runners and even second place is worth another £200,000.
Henderson will field strong teams too across the three days, of course, though the National has always eluded him and he has just one likely runner this year – at around 33-1 – against three from the Nicholls yard, including the 18-1 chance Join Together. Oscar Whisky, the winner of the Aintree Hurdle in each of the past two seasons, leads his team for this year's race, though arrives at Liverpool on the back of a poor run when fancied for the World Hurdle at Cheltenham last month.
As always, the first riders to get a taste of the Grand National fences will be the amateurs in the Foxhunters' Chase, and the obstacles, most of which now have a new, more forgiving core, will be subject to closer scrutiny than ever. The coverage and camera angles will be of considerable interest too as 25 runners rise to the challenge, ahead of Channel 4's first broadcast of the Grand National itself this weekend.
There has been regular watering of all the courses at Aintree over the past few days, in an attempt to ensure that the ground is as safe as possible, but Andrew Tulloch, the clerk of the course, has resisted the temptation to simply turn on the taps and slow down the going as much as possible.
"We're just ticking away to provide the safest ground that we can," Tulloch said on Wednesday. "We've always said that something around good-to-soft, good in places is the optimum for the Grand National course and that's where we're aiming.
"We've been watering since last weekend, and we want to give all the horses every opportunity to race. We're looking forward to all three days, it's a great north-west festival up here and an iconic three days which is worth an awful lot to the local economy. It's about the racing, but there are plenty of other attractions as well. We have the Saturdays playing after racing on Friday, and Katherine Jenkins starts the proceedings on National day."
Two horses were scratched from the Grand National field on Wednesday, Quinz and Poker Di Sivola, but a full field of 40 is still expected when the final declarations are made on Thursday. Imperial Commander, the 2010 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, is expected to head the weights on 11st 10lb.
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