Paul Nicholls was the toast of the punters when he mopped up most of the big prizes at Cheltenham last week and the champion trainerâ€™s dominance of the Gold Cup continued when he saddled four of the first five horses home, the exception of course being Exotic Dancer, who currently heads the weights for next monthâ€™s Grand National.
Kauto Star and Denman rightly hogged the headlines on Saturday morning, but for those of us persistently on the look-out for future big race clues, it was the horse who came from a long way back to snatch fifth place, My Will, who rubberstamped his position as a big player in this yearâ€™s Grand National.
It was no surprise to see the punters come from the Andy Stewart-owned 9yo at the weekend and he is now no bigger than 12-1 for the Aintree showpiece, in which he is due to carry 10st 10lb, but the weights look sure to go up with top weight Exotic Dancer looking more likely to go for the Grade 1 Betfair Bowl.
The Grand National is one of the few major national hunt prizes that have so far eluded the champion trainer but My Will, who has yet to tackle the national fences but has been placed on three of his four previous runs at Aintree, looks to be his best chance yet and he will probably go off a single-figure price come the day, especially if he gets his favoured soft ground.
Roll Along ran an excellent National trial of his own in the Gold Cup, finishing just a neck behind My Will, but his trainer Carl Lewellyn has recently gone on record saying that his 9yo tends to need at least five weeks between his races, so Aintree may come too soon, while he also needs good ground to show his best form.
Just like his training counterpart Paul Nicholls, champion jockey Tony McCoy is the other big name who is desperate to get his hands on the famous trophy and trying to guess McCoyâ€™s mount from the seven strong team of JP McManus-owned challengers is a crucial factor in trying to sniff out ante-post value.
When the champion jockey does finally nail his colours to the mast, you can be sure that horseâ€™s odds will shorten dramatically and heâ€™s not short of quality options this time around. Last yearâ€™s runner-up King Johns Castle, trained by the shrewd Arthur Moore in Co Kildare, caught many an eye with the way he travelled and stayed on in a 2m3f handicap hurdle at Naas on Saturday and that should put the grey spot on for his main target, but he does have to compete off a 9lb higher mark than last year so heâ€™s going to need to be at the very peak of his powers.
The most likely scenario is the McCoy will once again partner Butlerâ€™s Cabin who was still tanking along at the head of affairs when he fell at Becherâ€™s (22nd fence) 12 months ago and Jonjo Oâ€™Neillâ€™s dour stayer showed his best form since when keeping on well for fifth in the Kim Muir last week. The ante-post favourite at around the 10-1 mark with most firms, Butlerâ€™s
Cabin could easily go off as short as half those odds on the day if the McCoy factor gathers momentum.
Stablemate Canâ€™t Buy Time looks every inch a national horse for the future and he may well be allowed to take his chance this time around, but the horse he finished behind in the 4m National Hunt Chase last week, Nine De Sivola, makes more appeal at this stage.
Ferdy Murphyâ€™s 8yo remains winless from 17 starts over fences, and that alone would be enough to put most punters off, but this is a horse who finished second in both the Scottish and Irish Nationalâ€™s in 2007 before injury sidelined him until the back end of last year. The French-bred gelding has been slow to rediscover his form since returning to action but he burst back to life in no uncertain terms when staying on strongly up the Cheltenham hill to finish third, almost snatching second. It may be that connections are keen to have another crack at the Scottish National and a mark of 134 means he needs plenty to come out if heâ€™s even going to get a run at Aintree, but if he is allowed to take his chance, he makes a fair bit of appeal off what is going to be a very light weight, especially as heâ€™ll not mind which way the ground goes.
Of the bigger price runners, Parsons Legacy makes much more appeal and the 40-1 currently available looks decent value. Philip Hobbs has taken a bit of a gamble in keeping his 11yo back for this race since December because the horse must have decent ground to show his best, and his chance is blow to pieces should the weather turn. However, Hobbs may be rewarded for his patience because, although the race is still the best part of three weeks away, the signs are good on that front and this strong stayer looks sure to have a very reasonable racing weight even if the weights go up a few pounds.
We didnâ€™t learn a great deal about 2007 winner Silver Birch on his return to action over hurdles at Navan over the weekend, where he was unsuited by the lack of a decent gallop over that 2m7f trip, but although connections think that will have put him spot on for Aintree, he is now 10lb higher than he was in 2007, so heâ€™ll need to post an even bigger effort and at the age of twelve, he might not have the scope to do that.
There are so many more we could give a mention to, not least the strong travelling Black Apalachi, who trounced Snowy Morning in the Grade 2 Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse last month. Dessie Hughesâ€™ charge was a big improver in 2008 and he proved his effectiveness over these unique fences by demolishing his field in the Becher Chase in November. The negative side of his chance is that he has done all of his winning on soft ground, so connections will be praying for rain in the build up to the race.