Blaklion goes for back-to-back victories in the £150,000 G3 Becher Handicap Chase (1.30pm) over the iconic Grand National fences at Aintree on Saturday, Becher Chase Day.
A flawless round of jumping propelled Blaklion (Sam Twiston-Davies, 11st 10lb) to an impressive nine-length victory in 2017 and the nine-year-old has the chance to emulate Into The Red (1994 & 1996) and Hello Bud (2010 & 2012), who are the only multiple winners of the Becher Handicap Chase.
Blaklion on his way to winning the 2017 Becher Handicap Chase
Blaklion's trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies also saddles G3 Scottish Grand National second Ballyoptic (11st 7lb, Tom Bellamy), as he chases an unprecedented seventh victory in the three and a quarter mile highlight.
There are two other previous Becher Handicap Chase winners among the 18 runners in Vieux Lion Rouge (David Pipe/Tom Scudamore, 10st 12lb) and Highland Lodge (Moffatt/Henry Brooke, 10st 1lb).
Highland Lodge has contested the race three times since joining Cumbria trainer Jimmy Moffatt, winning in the 2015, going down by a short-head to Vieux Lion Rouge in 2016, and finishing third last year.
Now a 12-year-old, Highland Lodge has not run since being pulled up in the G2 Peter Marsh Handicap Chase at Haydock Park in January.
Just A Par (Sean Quinlan, 10st 12lb) also makes his debut for the stable, having not been since the 2017 Bet365 Gold Cup, a race he won in 2015, when trained by Paul Nicholls.
Just A Par has raced three times over the Grand National fences, with his best effort coming when 14th behind One For Arthur in the 2017 Randox Health Grand National.
Jimmy Moffatt said today: "Highland Lodge has had a good summer and is very, very well in himself.
"We have aimed at the Becher Handicap Chase for the last three years and he has always performed very well.
"It does not seem like age is catching up with him because his work has been very good, particularly over the last three weeks.
"The race seems to suit him above all others and he does run very well fresh. We have geared the last four or five months around this one day.
"Just A Par has not run for a while and we bought the horse at the August sales. He had been in pre-training at Di Turner's, which is a holding yard for Cheveley Park Stud who originally owned him, and he was recommended to me by Di.
"Di said the horse had done very well and that the minor joint problem, which had kept off the track, had sorted itself out with no issues since.
"We have prepared Just A Par the same way we have prepared Highland Lodge. Although they have been working separately, they have been doing similar work, and my thinking was that if we can get one horse ready for it, there is no reason why we couldn't get another one ready.
"If I ran Just A Par in a 0-150 chase off of his mark of 146, I am not sure he will have the legs of those horses, but I do believe that the Grand National fences poses a different angle for all horses.
"Highland Lodge is case in point as he struggles over regulation chases but over the Grand National fences he seems to be a different horse, and I am hoping Just A Par will be similar."
Highland Lodge winning the 2015 Becher Handicap Chase
The weights are headed by Gigginstown House Stud's Don Poli (Gordon Elliott IRE/Jack Kennedy, 11st 12lb), one of six Irish-trained runners. A multiple G1 winner over fences for Willie Mullins, the nine-year-old has been restricted to just three starts since joining Gordon Elliott in the autumn of 2016, the latest of which saw him finish a close third in the G1 Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown in February, 2017.
Elliott's other runner Noble Endeavour (Keith Donoghue, 11st 4lb), last seen out when sixth behind Our Duke in the 2017 Irish Grand National, is out to defy a 600-day absence.
The Irish challenge also features Crosshue Boy (Sean Doyle IRE/David Mullins, 10st 10lb), who landed a valuable novices' handicap chase at Ayr in the spring, Call It Magic (Ross O'Sullivan IRE/Mark Enright, 10st 1lb), Fine Theatre (Paul Nolan IRE/Paddy Brennan, 10st) and Dare To Endeavour (Patrick Griffin IRE/Adam Short (3), 10st).
Ultragold (Colin Tizzard/Tom O'Brien, 11st) boasts an excellent record over the Grand National fences, having captured the last two renewals of the Randox Health Topham Chase, including at odds of 50/1 in 2017.
Present Man (Paul Nicholls/Bryony Frost, 11st 3lb) and Missed Approach (Warren Greatrex/Mr Sam Waley-Cohen (3), 10st 12lb) are both aiming for another big handicap success in 2018. Present Man landed the Listed Badger Ales Trophy for the second year on the trot at Wincanton last month, while Missed Approach captured the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
Recent Cheltenham third Walk In The Mill (Robert Walford/James Best, 10st 3lb), Regal Flow (Bob Buckler/James Bowen, 10st 6lb), Mustmeetalady (Jonjo O'Neill/Richie McLernon, 10st) and Federici (Donald McCain/Brian Hughes, 10st) complete the 18 runners.
Aintree's seven-race programme also includes the £80,000 Betway Grand Sefton Handicap Chase (3.15pm, 19 runners), run over the intermediate distance of two miles and five furlongs over the Grand National fences, and the £60,000 G2 Betway Many Clouds Chase (2.05pm, 13 entries)) over three miles and a furlong on the Mildmay Course. Declarations for both races will be made tomorrow morning.
The going at Aintree is currently Soft on the Grand National course and Soft on the Mildmay course.
Becher Chase Day will include a parade of horses who have won or run well over the Grand National fences.
Those parading are as follows:
Always Waining (Topham Handicap Chase winner 2010, 2011, 2012)
Cassia Heights (Topham Handicap Chase winner 2004)
Chance Du Roy (Becher Handicap Chase winner 2013)
Dunbrody Millar (Topham Handicap Chase winner 2007)
Saint Are (Third in the 2014 Becher Handicap Chase & runner-up in the 2015 Grand National & third in the 2017 Grand National)
Scots Grey (Foxhunters' Chase winner 2007)