As always, the Betfred Becher Handicap Chase looks a fiercely competitive affair.
Twenty-four runners go to post and you could easily make an argument for each of them. That being said, the Gordon Elliott trained Ucello Conti progressed nicely throughout last season and there is every possibility that there is more improvement to follow. Previously trained in France by Guillaume Macaire, the eight-year-old failed to fulfil his early promise over there, but rekindled his old spark under Elliott’s tutelage last season. From only five starts for the Cullentra House handler, he has already been placed in two high-grade handicaps in Ireland, i.e. the Paddy Paddy at Leoparstown’s Christmas Meeting and the Thyestes at Gowran Park respectively, and ran a blinder when sixth in the Grand National.
In the Paddy Power, he just came out the wrong side of a titanic duel with Minella Foru on the run-in and was probably a shade unlucky when third in the Thyestes. In the Thyestes, his rider, Jaques Ricou took a wide berth throughout in search of better ground. In hindsight, he probably took it to an extreme and considering how much ground he surrendered, it was fair performance from him to finish as close as he did. However, it was his run in last years’ Grand National that offers us the most insight into his chances here. There, he travelled beautifully and bar one mistake on the second circuit, his jumping was top notch. Turning for home, he still appeared to be travelling nicely, but seemed to lack the stamina reserves at the depth to challenge the leaders. Despite that, it was still a fine performance and he showed a clear appreciation for the Aintree fences. Today’s three mile two furlong trip should be ideal. He has been campaigned specifically for this race and his seasonal reappearance in the Lismullen Hurdle at Navan last month will have ensured that he is fully prepared for battle. He is also running off a lovely racing weight of 11st 1lb and is carrying a pound less than he did in the Grand National. He is also representing a bang in form stable that saddled a remarkable six-timer at Navan last weekend.
All in all, he ticks a lot of boxes. Under Elliott, he has proven himself to be a tough, consistent sort and I would be surprised if he wasn’t in contention at the finish. As such, I am rather keen to get on him each-way here [5 places] at 10/1.
Another runner that I like is the Fergal O’Brien trained, Alvarado. On his best form, he looks thrown in off a mark of 135, carrying only 10st 2lbs. His two previous attempts over the Aintree fences resulted in him finishing fourth in two Grand Nationals (in 2014 and 2015), a repeat of those efforts alone would have to see him go close here. He missed the cut for this year's Grand National which ultimately resulted in his participation in the Scottish equivalent where he flew home to finish second. As the Grand National is his main aim again this season, connections will be keen to get his mark up so as to avoid a similar fate again this season.
Although he is eleven turning twelve, he hasn’t that many miles clocked up and his seasonal reappearance at Cheltenham last month, when sixth to Viconte du Noyer, confirmed that he is still well capable of performing to this level. More importantly, though, it should also have him in rude health ahead of this afternoon’s test. Admittedly the trip may be a tad short of his optimum, but there are enough frontrunners in the line up to suggest that there will be a strong early gallop.
Everything else is in his favour though. He acts on the track, will appreciate the better ground, hails from an in-form stable and is ridiculously well handicapped on his best form. As such, I am also happy to put him up here each-way [5 places] at 10/1.
Aintree - 13.35
Back Ucello Conti EW @ 10/1 (Look for Bookies paying out 5 places)
Aintree - 13.35
Back Alvarado EW @ 10/1 (Look for Bookies paying out 5 places)