Top tipster Simon Rowlands has two selections for day one of the Grand National Festival, taking on Epatante in the Aintree Hurdle.
The road that once led to Cheltenham now points towards Aintree, where, over the next three days, a subtly different challenge is posed with the prospect of disruption to the recently established order.
Cheltenham is undulating, with a significant downhill followed by a climb to the line, whereas Aintree is flatter and sharper.
The Betway Aintree Hurdle at 3:30 on Thursday is likely to be run on ground similar to that Champion Hurdle, but, the way I see it, the added distance tips the balance in favour of the Champion Hurdle third, ZANAHIYR, over the Champion Hurdle runner-up Epatante.
The latter has always looked pacey, though not as pacey as the brilliant Honeysuckle it must be said, while the former has long looked one who will benefit from an increased test.
Zanahiyr has shaped like a good horse on the few occasions his stamina has been tested at two miles but like a more ordinary one when it has not been.
I reckon it will take an improved effort from Epatante and a much-improved effort from one of the rest to deny him.
Those others include the distance specialists Brewin’upastorm and McFabulous, and the unexposed Monmiral, the last-named having shaped better than the result last time but also like one not certain to get this trip. Zanahiyr may have to do some of his own donkey-work, but that should not be a problem. Odds of 6/4 or bigger represent value.
There is no shortage of good action elsewhere on the Aintree card, but attractive bets look few and far between to me.
Pied Piper ought to win the Anniversary 4-Y-O Juvenile Hurdle at 2:20, having achieved plenty and promised even more when a staying-on third in the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham last time.
He would be a bet at 6/4 himself, but there seems little prospect of that at the time of writing. The Betway Bowl at 2:55 is an intriguing contest, in which the majority of the nine runners could plausibly win. But I had it priced up very similarly to the bookmakers, bar thinking that Conflated (a doubtful stayer if this becomes a proper test) should be at bigger odds.
If I had to pin my colours to one mast then it would be Clan des Obeaux. At his best, such as when winning this 12 months ago, he holds the strongest cards. His two defeats this season have been disappointing, but not disastrous, and blinkers on here could buck up his ideas.
I also thought the Red Rum Handicap Chase at 4:40 was very open.
My sneaking fancy for Before Midnight (who will need to avoid getting into a pace war) evaporated when I saw that he had been put in as joint-favourite.
The Manifesto Novices’ Chase at 1:45 could be a different matter, however. Those to have mixed it at this sort of level previously look beatable, and I would have ERNE RIVER no bigger than 3/1 in such company.
The seven-year-old has had his lines cast in calmer waters, winning two novice hurdles and two novice chases from just five runs in total, but he smashed up a couple of useful rivals at Wetherby last time, when the clock backed up the impressive visuals.
That was on borderline heavy ground, and much softer than should prevail here, but Erne River looks by no means a slogger and won well on genuinely good going over hurdles last year.
There is a fair chance he is the at least the equal of Pic d’Orhy, War Lord, Gin On Lime and Millers Bank (in that order), with more likely to be forthcoming.
Simon Rowlands’ selections
1:45 AINTREE – ERNE RIVER
3:30 AINTREE – ZANAHIYR