Vieux Lion Rouge, Highland Lodge and The Last Samuri are among the 16 declared runners for the £145,000 Becher Chase, staged over the Grand National fences at Aintree on Saturday.
The trio filled the first three places home in last year’s renewal, with Vieux Lion Rouge coming out on top by a short-head from Highland Lodge with The Last Samuri, the 2016 Grand National runner-up, a length away in third. Highland Lodge will be running in his fourth Becher Chase having also won the race in 2015.
If either Vieux Lion Rouge or Highland Lodge win on Saturday afternoon, they would become only the third dual winner of the Becher Chase after Into The Red (1994 & 1996) and Hello Bud (2010 & 2012).
Cumbrian trainer Jimmy Moffatt reports Highland Lodge to be in great shape as he bids to repeat his triumph of 2015.
"He's in great form. He's had exactly the same preparation as last year and he's going every bit as well. I've no doubts in my mind about that whatsoever,"
"He's really come alive in the last two or three weeks and his wind-up gallop on Saturday was probably one of the best pieces of work I've seen him do.
"I couldn't be happier with him.
"This has been his long-range target so he's been in since the end of July. He's had a good long steady build-up."
David Pipe expects Vieux Lion Rouge to be all the sharper for his seasonal reappearance at Wetherby when he was fourth to Bristol De Mai in the Charlie Hall Chase.
"Obviously it is a tough ask from a 10lb higher mark than last year, but he will be still be going when others have cried enough." said Pipe.
The nine-year-old The Last Samuri was a leading fancy at Aintree in April having finished second in the 2016 Grand National, but he finished a well- beaten 16th after becoming upset in the preliminaries.
"His record over the National fences is very good and Saturday’s race will suit him. There won’t be the crowd on Saturday, so it will be much easier for him. Blaklion is the obvious danger”, said his trainer Kim Bailey.
Nigel Twiston-Davies is the most successful trainer in the history of the Becher Chase, having sent out five winners: Indian Tonic (1993), Young Hustler (1995), Aintree hero Earth Summit (1998), and dual winner Hello Bud (2010 and 2012).
This year he saddles the classy Blaklion (Gavin Sheehan, 11st 6lb), who was fourth in the 2017 Grand National and second to stable companion and subsequent Betfair Chase victor Bristol De Mai on his seasonal return in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby at the start of November.
Twiston-Davies is excited at sending Blaklion over the National fences again on Saturday.
Speaking to the media on Wednesday morning at his Naunton stables he said: "He is an exceptionally good horse. I think he is off a handy weight for the Becher and I am looking forward to it.
"He is very neat and accurate over his fences. It is sacrilege to say it but he reminds me of Red Rum. He is not very big but he is very neat over his fences and very clever.
"He has Grand National potential. He possibly went too soon last year. He didn't quite get home. But we are hoping he will go well again.”
Viva Steve, trained by Fergal O'Brien, will be making his debut over the Grand National fences. The former Mick Channon inmate won a three-mile handicap chase at Ayr last November on his debut for the stable and was last seen out finishing fourth on heavy ground in the Kerry National at Listowel in September.
Trainer Fergal O'Brien said of the none-year-old: "Viva Steve had a little break and seems in good old form.
"He ran well in the Kerry National and seems to go well fresh, so it was always the plan to head straight for the Becher after Listowel.
"We will have to wait and see how he takes to the fences, but he is a nice, straightforward horse who will handle the ground.
"Johnny Burke has done plenty of schooling on him and knows him well."
Paul Nicholls has sent out three Becher Chase winners over the years and has entered As De Mee this time. The seven-year-old scored on Becher Chase Day in 2016, when taking the Grand Sefton Chase over two miles and five furlongs of the Grand National course and was also fifth over the same trip in the Topham Chase at the Grand National meeting last April.
As De Mee is owned by Andy Stewart's family and Dame Judy Dench and is fit from three starts already this season and he has got round in all three attempts over the National fences to date.
Irish raiders have taken the Becher Chase on three previous occasions and there are four Irish-trained runners this year - the 2014 Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Lord Windermere, 2016 Irish Grand National victor Rogue Angel, also Westerner Point and Portrait King.
Colin Tizzard’s Sizing Codelco won big handicaps at both the Grand National meeting and the Punchestown Festival in the spring while other contenders include soft ground specialists Goodtoknow (Kerry Lee) and Vic De Touzaine (Venetia Williams), plus 2016 bet365 Gold Cup winner The Young Master (Neil Mulholland).
Completing the field are the recent Kelso winner Federici (Donald McCain) and Straidnahanna (Sue Smith).
This year’s Becher does not appear on paper to be quite as open as in previous years with much of the emphasis being on the leading two or three in the betting.
Undoubtedly those horses have superior ratings to the rest of the field and the chances of a long priced outsider springing a surprise look particularly slim, however the marked deterioration in the weather in the next 48 hours could turn the race into a bit of a “leveller” and backing something with big odds does not look that forlorn.
Regular Aintree visitor and veteran grey, Portrait King, is no stranger to the Grand National fences and has performed well over them. The twelve-year-old also has form on heavy going. He is a viable each-way alternative to those horses at the head of the market.