Four Grade Ones,two big field handicaps and a twenty five runner Hunter Chase were the order of the day for day one of this three day jumps bonanza in Merseyside and weather wise it was a mixture of sun with a bit of cold and windy conditions when up in the stands viewing the races.
Today was Aintree Hurdle day which was transferred from Saturday to give it the centrepiece it so richly deserves and the 2013 running was a race which on paper looked as good and as strong as ever, crowd wise over 30,000 turned up and what a treat for the faithful national hunt die hards and the once a year racegoers who give this meeting their main focal point of the year.
Also today was the first day of racing with the new design of fence on the Grand National course which is a make up of the traditional spruce from the Lake District and a new plastic core which replaces the old style timber to give a more forgiving yet respectful fence that hopefully won’t cause damage to any horses or jockeys.
2.00 Matalan Anniversary Juvenile Hurdle 2m 110 yards,9 Flights
The first Grade One of the day and a useful renewal of this race albeit with no Our Connor in the line up but this year the geldings where firmly put in their place by the filly L’Unique who gave trainer Alan King his fourth runner in this race with victories in 2007,09,12 and this filly won well,sitting behind the pace set by Irish Saint and went on to hold off the very progressive Runswick Royal who ran a seasonal best on his fourth start over hurdles with Irish Saint back in third and Flaxen Flare in fourth.
The winner could well be targeting the Mares Hurdle next season providing she likes the step up in trip and Runswick Royal may well be Fighting Fifth bound in November as he is trained in Newcastle but before could have a crack at the Swinton Hurdle or maybe the Scottish Summer Champion at Perth in August and Irish Saint could be one to take in the 4yo Chases early in November at Warwick.
2.35 Betfred Bowl Chase 3m1f,19 fences
Another Grade One here and a race with many questions such as could Silviniaco Conti bounce back from his Gold Cup fall and will any Festival form hold up in what can often be a real grave yard for favourites
As it happened it was Ireland who took this years running just like last year albeit with a horse at a much shorter price in First Lieutenant who helped frank the form for Cue Card tomorrow with a battling victory by overtaking Menorah on the run in after being in second at the last fence hold on with Silviniaco Conti back in third after being held up and probably could have ran better had he been more closer to the pace.
First Lieutenant has kept good form but this was his first win since 2011 and could well be a good type for the Gold Cup next season should he be aimed but will spend most of next season in Ireland no doubt, Menorah is better at 2m4f but ran a lovely race and Silviniaco Conti has probably had enough and will be back next season at Haydock in November.
3.10 The John Smiths Aintree Hurdle 2m4f, 11 flights.
A third Grade One and this race which on paper looked a high quality renewal with horse that ran in the Champion Hurdle doing battle over further and even though only two of the nine runners had won over this trip it was a race to savour for national hunt fans.
The new kid on the block was The New One who won the 2m4f Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham and was having his first crack at dining at the top table but it he went down but not without a fight as Zarkandar fought him tooth and nail up the run in and after making almost all the running to win in what was a titanic battle up the Aintree straight and the sort of finish that makes you realise why you follow this sport in the first place.
Zarkandar had a real race here and this will be it for his season and next year could be taking them on in the 2m4f division where as The New One will probably end up Champion Hurdle bound and will certainly shake them up a bit and will not be out of place in that league.
Thousand Stars was back in third and ran is usual honest and gutsy race, he may well end up at Auteuil in May while Oscar Whisky has done enough to warrant a summer holiday,Countrywide Flame never picked up but he has plenty good races left in him and Raya Star who took a crashing fall got up safely.
3.40 The John Smiths Fox Hunters Chase, 2m5f 110 yards,18 fences.
Just the Twenty Five for this years running and the first chance to see the new fences in action as these amateur riders had their once a year spin over the big greens going at the usual good gallop from when the tapes went up.
Now normally with these big jumps festivals we speak about the battle between England and Ireland but of course nothing is normal in racing and like Foinavon and Mon Mome it was a 100-1 winner but this time over Hadrians Wall and into Scotland as the 13yo veteran and Kelso specialist Tartan Snow rallied on the run in under Jamie Hamilton to defeat Cool Friend after a photo finish for trainer Stuart Coltherd in Selkirk.
Being over the big fences their was a few events, firstly a false start which is nothing new at Aintree with four fallers and one unseated rider but sadly we did suffer the loss of the Ted Walsh trained Battlefront who was pulled up with four to jump and sadly died after suffering a heart attack but this is something that can happen at any race meeting and while it is of course such a shame it occurred and while I offer my commiserations to the owners and connections,the Walsh family themselves are real horse people and know how things like this can happen at any race meeting not just the ones over the Grand National fences.
Cool Friend was unlucky to get beat but is a useful horse albeit a bit in and out while Warner back in fourth is only nine and can do better when going back up to three miles.
Cloudy Lane ran in this as his last last race and has been retired,he was Donald McCains first ever winner at the Cheltenham Festival and deserves to put his hooves up and relax after doing his part for the McCain family.
4.15 The Matalan.co.uk Red Rum Handicap Chase,2m, 12 fences
Always a tricky race,they go fast and furious in this and with Cue Card due to line up tomorrow the Colin Tizzards yard warmed up with the veteran 11yo Oiseau de Nui who has been placed three times in this race finally got his name in the number one spot by beating another older horse in the 10yo Tanks for That as a few major players in this race all ran below par, Kie who is only five for the McCain stable was well to the fore and was running an eye catching race.
Its fair to say the winner is in the hey day of his career as is the runner up but Kie ran well up with the pace and will be better over a bit further and allowed to settle a bit more but he remains a horse with a lot more to give.
Favourite Rebel Rebellion found this race a bit to much and was pulled up but he will be back as will Silver Roque who would prefer a much more softer surface than this.
4.50 The Betfred Manifesto Novices Chase,2m4f, 16 fences
The last Grade One on the card was won by Captain Conan who resumed winning ways after his flat run at Cheltenham here and did the job well enough despite idling on the run in to give Nicky Henderson another high quality 2m4f performer for next season, he has jumped well this season with all his wins being Grade One or Two so is a high quality steeplechaser and the only problem now will be where to place him especially is Sprinter Sacre wins the Melling tomorrow afternoon but next season is a long time away and his plan of campaign will be thought out but he is one to keep an eye on next season.
Tap Night ran second and being an Ayr specialist will probably have another run in the Future Champion Novices before being put away but Lucinda Russell has a good warrior here and can fly the flag for Scotland in a lot of the big races next season.
Back in third was Changing Times who will probably end up handicapping next season so will be interesting to see how he gets treated after this.
5.25 The Silver Cross Handicap Hurdle Race, 3m 110 yards, 13 flights
Just the twenty one for this race with lots of potential horses for the future in the mix but the younger brigade were given a mighty kicking and they should all be thankful they are geldings because the way in which the winner Battle Group sluiced up if would have hurt them, this eight year old now in the care of Kevin Bishop won this race of a rating of 137 back in 2011 but was down to 131 this afternoon and the change of yard helped as this was his first start and gave Brendan Powell Jr his second winner of the day which takes him to be the top rider at the end of day one.
Jetson who was well fancied from Ireland could not live with the pace of the winner and went down by 10 lengths with First Fandango back in third.
Battle Group may go to Haydock next month for a 3m hurdle as will a few of these probably, of the rest I’d nominate Easter Day who ran on into 7th to go and be a decent novice chaser next season as he won the Sidney Banks Hurdle back in February and has a touch of class about him but probably found the extra half mile a bit too far today.
So a day which promised so much did indeed live up to its billing for day one of this wonderful festival.
The highlights for myself were walking the course before racing and taking some pictures of the fences including Bechers Brook,seeing top class jumps horses do battle and for me getting my photo with Clare Balding who is as lovely away from the camera as she is on it.
Tomorrow is Ladies Day with the main highlight being the triple bill between Sprinter Sacre,Cue Card and Flemenstar in what will be the race of the season.