Gruelling ground anticipated for Aintree Grand National as weather continues to decimate racing programme

Leopardstown proves an exception with no problems anticipated in advance of Sunday’s classic trials meeting

The prospects for ultra-testing conditions at next weekend’s Randox Aintree Grand National look to be increasing as racing action continues to be decimated by the weather.

Any reference to flat racing as a summer game looks a washout this weekend with Saturday’s Curragh card dependent on passing a 7.30am morning inspection, and then escaping the worst of Storm Kathleen’s high winds through the afternoon.

Sunday’s jumps action at Downpatrick must also pass a 7.30am morning inspection after 40mm of rainfall this week left parts of the course waterlogged. Even the plug on Tuesday’s Navan flat meeting has been pulled 96 hours in advance due to waterlogging.

Britain’s sole National Hunt card on Saturday at Uttoxeter needs a green light from its own 7.30am inspection or else all-weather racing will be the only cross-channel game in town at Kempton and Chelmsford.


Ryan Moore is on duty at the latter for Aidan O’Brien who sends Capulet for a mile contest, the winner of which gains entry to next month’s Kentucky Derby.

In all the uncertainty, Leopardstown’s reputation for its microclimate is underlined once again with no problems expected in advance of its classic trials programme on Sunday.

Nevertheless, the PW McGrath Ballysax Stakes, a traditional Derby prep, as well as a pair of pre-Guineas tests, are set to take place on ground usually not even on the menu for jump racing’s most famous race of all.

Just once in more than two decades has the Aintree National taken place on officially heavy going — Tiger Roll’s 2018 victory — but seemingly relentless rainfall in so many parts of these islands could change that.

On Friday, the Jockey Club’s official going for the famous National course was soft, heavy in places. Potential heavy rain is forecast for early next week with an unsettled outlook generally for the entire three-day Aintree festival which starts on Thursday.

A gruelling test is on the horizon for a maximum 34-strong field which will be numerically dominated by Irish-trained runners.

They include last year’s runner-up Vanillier whose trainer Gavin Cromwell hopes to have two other runners in the line-up.

“Vanillier doesn’t want it that soft, I know he’s slow, but he improves for a little bit of spring ground,” said Cromwell. “Limerick Lace wouldn’t want too much heavy in it either to stay that trip and Malina Girl would be in the same boat.”

Limerick Lace is part of a formidable team from owner JP McManus that also includes a trio of fancied hopes from Willie Mullins’s yard.

Champion jockey Paul Townend is waiting on McManus’s number-one rider Mark Walsh to choose his big race mount before preparing to break his own English National duck.

Last year’s Irish Grand National winner I Am Maximus, Capodanno, and McManus’s recent purchase, Meetingofthewaters, are all in the mix for Walsh.

“I would like to ride any of JP’s horses. I will be on weather watch and keeping an eye on what Mark Walsh rides but as I said I would be grateful to get on any of them,” said Townend.

“I Am Maximus won the Irish Grand National last year for me, but Jodie McGarvey won a Grade One, and then the Bobbyjo Chase the last day on him and could ride him. The ground is looking like it will be soft-to-heavy, and the slower ground will suit him. He will stay all day,” he added.

Separately, the Animal Rising organisation behind the disruption to last year’s Grand National has said it has no plans to interfere with next week’s action. More than 100 arrests were made before last year’s big race after protesters tried to glue themselves to a fence and delayed the start by 15 minutes. Aintree’s authorities said they will continue to plan for all eventualities.

A certain degree of stamina will also be necessary for Leopardstown’s trials although it’s hardly the most desirable element in any classic prospect at this stage of the new season.

Each of the Guineas trials has filled its brief in recent years with the 2021 winner Poetic Flare going on to land the 2000 at Newmarket while the fillies Homeless Songs and Joan Of Arc secured classic glory in the Irish 1000 and French Oaks respectively.

In comparison, the Ballysax’s lustre as a pointer to Derby glory has faded in recent years with Harzand in 2016 the last to proceed to Blue Riband success at Epsom.

A handful line up on Sunday and Ryan Moore’s presence on Illinois suggests he is the Ballydoyle number-one. Stable companion Ocean Of Dreams won his maiden on a bog at the course in October and looks a legitimate player too as does the Beresford winner Deepone.

Having left Ballydoyle, Seamus Heffernan is free to team up again with Natalia Lupini’s filly Kitty Rose in the 1000 trial while Atlantic Coast’s credentials for handling mud in the 2000 trial are proven after a Killuvallan success last autumn.

Joseph O’Brien is represented in Saturday’s Group Three Alleged Stakes at HQ by Maxux, owned by the Spanish international footballer Alvaro Odriozola Arzallus.

The most intriguing runner though is the 2022 Beresford winner Crypto Force. He hasn’t raced since winning that contest for Michael O’Callaghan, and having gone through the Gosden team, and George Boughey, he is back in Ireland with Adrian Murray.

How he shapes will be fascinating but those looking for a safer option will probably opt for the 2002 winner Layfayette, if the weather gods play ball.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column