As millions tune in for the showpiece that is the Grand National, many forget the race is just the showpiece of an entire weekend, with plenty of action often getting overlooked. Indeed, last year was the first time a full-capacity crowd had returned to Aintree since 2019 due to the coronavirus pandemic, and you felt as if the atmosphere was cranked up a few notches, with those assessing the horse racing betting odds showing an appreciation for the full day, soaking in the occasion with each race.
As well as the Saturday festivities there is also the Opening Day as well as Ladies Day which includes plenty of races carrying their own history. While the Grand National takes centre stage, it’s important to preview the other races in the build-up to one of the biggest races on the horse racing calendar. There are still scores to settle and prize money to be won across the rest of the Festival, and with that in mind, read on as we take a look at the key races to watch at the Grand National Festival.
The Aintree Bowl
There is plenty of anticipation surrounding this year’s Aintree Bowl, serving as a great curtain-raiser for the Grand National Festival. Coming on the opening day, this has all the makings of a classic and after Clan Des Obeaux won the last two occasions for Harry Cobden, injury means his chances of making it an Aintree hat-trick are thin. It provides Nicky Henderson an opportunity with Shishkin stepping up to three miles, and the trainer believes he can snatch victory in a competitive race which also includes Cheltenham regulars Bravemansgame and A Plus Tard.
“The Bowl is going to be some race because everyone’s threatening to run,” he said. “It won’t be a re-run of the Gold Cup because I can’t see the Gold Cup winner coming (Galopin Des Champs), but I can see the rest of them coming. So he’s going to have join in with them. It could easily be the best race of the year.”
Next up is the feature of Ladies Day — the Marsh Steeple Chase, otherwise known as The Melling. This Grade One race has been tradition at Aintree since 1991, with some prestigious horses winning the two-mile, four-furlong slog including Direct Route and Moscow Flyer.
Like the Aintree Bowl, the last two races have been won by the same horse, with Fakir D’oudairies dominant in successive years, and favourite with antepost betting for a third. The Joseph O’Brien-trained eight-year-old faces competition from Captain Guinness, second in the Champions Chase at Cheltenham behind Energumene, as well as exciting French breed Pic D’Orhy.
After Sire Du Berlais won last year’s Liverpool Hurdle, many thought he would go on to do big things despite peaking later than usual, especially with the experience of Gordon Elliott as trainer. Fortunately, the now 11-year-old has made up for lost time with victory in the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham. It means there is more pressure on the horse to win for a second successive year, despite plenty of competition.
Indeed, the likes of Teahupoo, Champ and Flooring Porter all come in as favourites, but it’s exactly the type of starter course that will have spectators in Aintree licking their lips on Saturday in anticipation for the main event of the National.