David Pipe is hoping Vieux Lion Rouge can confirm his credentials for the Randox Health Grand National when he returns to action at Haydock on Saturday.
The eight-year-old was seventh in the Aintree spectacular last season and showed he could be an even bigger force this time round when collaring Highland Lodge close home to claim the Becher Chase over the famous obstacles at Aintree in December.
Obviously the National is the plan and this is a good stepping stone to AintreeDavid Pipe
Pipe has kept this horse under wraps since then and is now ready to unleash him in the Betfred Grand National Trial.
“Obviously the National is the plan and this is a good stepping stone to Aintree, so he should like everything and seems in good form at home,” said the Nicholashayne handler.
“We waited to run him until after the weights for the National had been announced and this will probably be his last run and then straight to Aintree.
“He has not always been the strongest finisher of his races, but he is a lot stronger this year and he really ground it out in the Becher, so we hope he can do the same in the National.
“He jumps National fences better than park fences.”
Other trainers are also using this race as a platform for the Grand National.
Nigel Twiston-Davies is keen to see if Blaklion has what it takes to be a serious force for the big one in April.
“He is a very interesting contender (for Aintree) and we will learn a lot more on Saturday,” said the Naunton handler.
“We’ve delayed running him for ages so his weight doesn’t go up. I think he is very fairly weighted. We’ve always thought he is perfect for it. He stays forever and he jumps beautifully.
“He is very different to our two previous winners (Earth Summit and Bindaree), but he is small, nimble and a really good jumper.
“Red Rum wasn’t big and this lad is clever over his fences.”
Paul Nicholls will keep an eye on the weather as he does not want rain for Vicente, who lifted the Scottish Grand National last spring.
“He’s coming along nicely. Obviously Aintree is the aim,” said the Ditcheat handler.
“I wouldn’t want any more rain. If it stays dry, we have to run somewhere.
“If the going changed we’d have to think about whether to run, but he’s in good shape at the moment. Aintree is the aim, not Saturday.”
Goodtoknow is some way off making the cut for the Grand National at this stage, but is a progressive staying chaser.
The Kerry Lee-trained nine-year-old was a clear-cut winner at Hereford last time out, after finishing second to One For Arthur in Warwick’s Classic Chase.
“He’s in very good form. He ran a very good race at Warwick. He ran another good race at Hereford to win their richest race a couple of weeks ago,” said Lee.
“It’s onwards and upwards. The National is the target with him. I don’t know whether he’ll get in or not yet.”
Tour Des Champs gave rookie trainer Sam Drinkwater a notable success when touching off Doctor Harper at Cheltenham.
“We gave him a little break after his win at Cheltenham and kept him nice and fresh for this race,” said Drinkwater.
“I’m really happy with him, he’s in top form. He’s gone up 8lb, which will make it hard, but he’s very well. I think he’ll run a nice race.
“He was fit for his last run, but feels a lot sharper and hopefully he will have come on for it and he runs well.”
Gas Line Boy is a Haydock regular and won over the course and distance in November 2014.
Trainer Ian Williams reports the 11-year-old to be in fine shape but believes he is too high in the handicap.
“The trip will suit, he’ll prefer the nice ground and he loves Haydock,” said Williams.
“He’s a little bit higher in the handicap than he has been in some of his recent good runs, but he remains in good form and I’m happy to have him there.
“He ticks a lot of boxes. I just wish he was 7lb lower in the handicap.”
Anthony Honeyball believes the step up in distance will suit Cresswell Breeze, who chased home Desert Queen over an extended two and three-quarter miles at Leicester on her latest outing.
“It’s a step up in trip, but she has been crying out for one,” said the Dorset handler.
“She can creep a little bit left in her races and she did last time out, so going left-handed will possibly help her a bit more.
“She ran well at the Punchestown Festival in a mares’ race last year and she has held her own well.
“We’ve been a bit sluggish getting going with her this season. I wish we had got more runs into her, but after Market Rasen she had an issue.
“I was really pleased with her at Leicester and she has been fine since then.
“She is a big, burly mare and she needs a bit of time to get into her race shape, but she is certainly there now.
“The ground should be nice, sensible ground and not a bog and she works in well at the bottom of the weights, so it looks a perfect opportunity to have a look at a race like this.”