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Donn McClean: why Rathvinden has lots in his favour as a Grand National candidate

Willie Mullins’ horse made a seasonal debut at Fairyhouse on Saturday.

Looking good: Rathvinden ridden by Paul Townend. (File pic)
Looking good: Rathvinden ridden by Paul Townend. (File pic)
Image: Brian Lawless

WE HADN’T SEEN Rathvinden in a while.

We hadn’t seen him race since we saw him at Punchestown last April, when he finished fourth behind The Storyteller in the wacky race that was the Grade 1 Growise Chase. We saw Willie Mullins’ horse again at Fairyhouse on Saturday, in the Grade 3 BetVictor Bobbyjo Chase, and he looked good.

It’s late enough to be making your seasonal debut, February. But there was precedent.

Willie Mullins produced Bellshill on his seasonal debut last year to land the same Bobbyjo Chase, and he won the race in 2017 with Pleasant Company and in 2016 with Boston Bob, who were both racing for just the second time in those seasons respectively.

Actually, the champion trainer has now won the last four renewals of the Bobbyjo Chase, and nine of the last 15.

Rathvinden’s strength in the pre-race market told you that a big run was expected and, as it turned out, a big run was delivered. Paul Townend got his horse settled nicely early on, into a nice racing rhythm.

Left in third place at the first fence down the back straight when Magic Of Light departed, he stalked the two Gigginstown House horses Alpha Des Obeaux and Outlander into the home straight, picked up well to hit the front on the run to the final fence, and stayed on strongly up the run-in to post an impressive victory.

All the talk afterwards was of the Aintree Grand National, and that makes a lot of sense. The Bobbyjo Chase can be a good pointer to the Irish Grand National – last year’s Bobbyjo Chase winner Bellshill looked likely to add the Irish National to his CV at Fairyhouse last April before he got the final fence all wrong – but it can also be a good pointer to Aintree. Hedgehunter won the Bobbyjo Chase and the Aintree Grand National in 2005. Pleasant Company won the Bobbyjo Chase in 2017, and was beaten a head by Tiger Roll in the 2018 Grand National.

Also, Black Apalachi won the Bobbyjo Chase in 2009 and was travelling well in the Grand National six weeks later when he unseated at Becher’s second time, and the Dessie Hughes-trained gelding finished second in both the Bobbyjo Chase and the Grand National in 2010.

Rathvinden has lots in his favour as a Grand National candidate. We know that Ronnie Bartlett’s horse stays four miles at least, he battled on well under Patrick Mullins to win the National Hunt Chase at last year’s Cheltenham Festival, so an extra quarter of a mile should be fine. He jumps well, he has a touch of class – he is a multiple graded race winner over fences, and he wasn’t beaten far by his stable companion Faugheen in the 2014 Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham – and he goes on all types of ground.

Willie Mullins after Rathvinden won Trainer Willie Mullins. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

He is 11-years-old, but he is a relatively lightly raced 11-year-old and, anyway, the Grand National has been won by an 11-year-old three times in the last seven years.

And he is a well-handicapped horse now for the Grand National. The weights for the Aintree Grand National are set in stone. It is an unusual handicap, in that horses who run, even horses who win, after the weights have been published do not have to shoulder a penalty.

The handicapper raised Rathvinden’s handicap rating by 5lb for Saturday’s win to a mark of 159, but he will race in the Grand National off his old mark of 154. He will be 5lb well-in at Aintree. He deserves his lofty position in the Grand National market.

Angels Breath’s lofty position in the market for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle was lowered somewhat after his defeat in the Dovecote Hurdle at Kempton on Saturday.

There was mitigation. Nicky Henderson’s horse was racing for the first time since he won the Kennel Gate Hurdle at Ascot just before Christmas, and for just the second time in his life over hurdles. And four of the eight flights of hurdles were omitted in that Ascot race. He had only jumped four flights of hurdles in public before Saturday.

Also, the ground was good on Saturday. The combination of track and ground probably presented a task that was sharper than ideal. The ground should be slower and the track will be stiffer at Cheltenham.

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As well as that, the winner Southfield Stone was probably under-rated going into the race, and Angels Breath only went down by three parts of a length to him, conceding 5lb, in a race that was run in a good time. He could improve sufficiently for Saturday’s run to take him right into contention for the Festival’s curtain-raiser.

Fusil Raffles was seriously impressive in winning the Adonis Hurdle at Kempton, and it is a real shame that the injury that he sustained at the final flight has been deemed serious enough to rule him out of the Triumph Hurdle.

All For Joy was also impressive in landing the maiden hurdle at Naas on Sunday under a fine ride from Barry Browne.

Oliver McKiernan’s horse appeared to appreciate the addition of a noseband and the subtraction of a hood and a return to front-running tactics. It was an impressive performance and, now that he has managed to get his head in front under Rules, he could step forward again from this.

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