It seems fairly safe to assume after the recent furore that surrounded the announcement of the 2017 Grand National weights that Michael O’Leary and Phil Smith won’t be exchanging Christmas cards this year.
Whether or not the Ryanair and Gigginstown boss engages in such frivolous pleasantries at the best of times remains to be seen but it’s clear that the BHA’s Head of Handicapping won’t be top any list if he does.
The Gigginstown leadership took serious exception to the fact that three of the top five in the weights compiled by Smith would wear the famous maroon and white silks. So much so that O’Leary has confirmed the likes of Outlander, Don Poli and Empire Of Dirt will not be travelling to Aintree in April. Instead, the Cheltenham Festival will be the target of choice and the latest Gold Cup betting suggests Gigginstown will be ready to mount another bold bid in the Cotswolds feature event.
Of course, last year’s hero Don Cossack is now enjoying his retirement but, with the likes of Coneygree and Thistlecrack now also on the missing list from the Gold Cup, could their decision to swerve Aintree lead Gigginstown to further success in the festival showpiece?
Outlander appears best-placed to pick up the baton. Formerly trained by Willie Mullins, he’s now in the equally capable hands of last year’s Gold Cup-winning trainer Gordon Elliott. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Outlander was travelling right in contention when falling last March in the JLT Novices Chase. There remain some questions marks over his jumping, but his most recent outing saw him staying on powerfully to take Ireland’s leading Gold Cup trial, the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas.
That was perhaps a career-best effort and given the lengthening list of absentees, Outlander’s potential for Gold Cup glory is on the increase seemingly with each passing day. Don Poli also looks set to run again. Third a year ago, his speed is questionable but few possess more stamina and if it becomes attritional – as it may well do with Native River in the mix – no horse will relish the challenge more.
Perhaps Gigginstown will be looking to thank Smith for forcing their hand into playing a strong suit in the Gold Cup when the dust settles.
Of course, their decision to boycott Aintree to a degree will be music to the ears of the other leading Grand National contenders, especially given that last year’s English and Irish Nationals went the way of Gigginstown. Having impressed everyone with his attitude in winning the recent Haydock Grand National Trial, the David Pipe-trained Vieux Lion Rouge is the name on everybody’s lips now for Aintree.
Allotted a nice weight of 10st 7lb by Smith, his credentials have certainly crystalized in the days since that announcement was made. Third behind him at Haydock, Blaklion also has a perfectly acceptable 10st 10lb on his back for his potential Aintree assault. Not seen since a close-up third behind Vieux Lion Rouge at Aintree in December, last year’s runner-up The Last Samuri is also certain to be primed for action once more on April 8 off 11st 5lb.
While the ‘cold war’ between Gigginstown and Smith has turned attention elsewhere for their posse of challengers and heightened chances of a repeat Gold Cup win, the remaining Aintree contenders will be licking their lips in anticipation of getting to Merseyside with arguably less to worry about.