McGrath is the nine-year-old’s regular rider, but the pair are 9lb higher in the weights after beating the reopposing Vintage Clouds in the Ultima Handicap Chase last month.
Pulled up in the race 12 months ago, McGrath is confident Nicky Henderson’s charge is a different proposition this time around. “He was entitled to go up a good chunk for winning at Cheltenham, but I don’t think the trip will be a problem,” said McGrath. “We did have him entered in the Topham last week, but decided two-mile-five would be way too sharp for him and we’d head to Scotland instead. I think the trip will help him, especially because of the drying ground. That would be the one worry I’d have actually, I wouldn’t want it drying out too much – ideally he’d love good to soft ground. He’s lightly raced this season, he’s only had three runs, but he seems a different horse. He’s much happier, he’s moving much better and the application of blinkers has been a big help as well.”
Crosshue Boy was a winner at this meeting 12 months ago when beating Alan King’s Dingo Dollar, one of the favourites for the Ayr marathon. While his trainer Sean Doyle only has two horses in his care, he has been planning his return trip to Scotland for some time. “He won at the meeting last year and this looks a wide-open Scottish National, he’s going there with every chance,” said Doyle.
Hopes for the home team rest with Big River, trained by Lucinda Russell, fourth in the Cheltenham race won by Beware The Bear, and Sandy Thomson’s lightly-raced Geronimo ridden by Rachael McDonald, who is attempting to be the first female jockey to ride the winner of a Scottish National.
Thomson said “Obviously, the worry is he has only had eight runs. He’ll go on the ground, I think he goes on anything, and he’ll stay the trip, but it’s whether he is quick enough to keep up. We’ll find out.”
With a sell-out crowd of 18,500 set to watch the eight-race card, the main supporting contest is the CPMS Scottish Champion Hurdle in which Henderson has the top three rated – Verdana Blue, ridden by Connor Brace, Brain Power (Aidan Coleman) and Mister Fisher (Nico de Boinville).
Meanwhile, trainer Dan Skelton made it a hat-trick of wins in Ayr’s feature race of the opening day of the meeting when Born Survivor won the £50,000 Hillhouse Quarry Handicap Chase at odds of 100-30 with Dan’s brother Harry Skelton riding.
The eight year-old pulled clear to beat Sizing Granite by seven lengths. Skelton won the race with Two Taffs in 2017 and Value At Risk in 2018.
Value At Risk came in third and Skelton also won the following race when Peppay Le Pugh landed the two mile novices’ chase with Harry in the saddle again. Borders-based trainer Harriet Graham saddled Aye Right, ridden by Callum Bewley, to win the three mile handicap hurdle by three and a quarter lengths from Before Midnight.
One of the best backed horses of the day was Yeats (11-4 favourite) who won the Smart Money’s On Coral Seafield Trophy Mares’ Handicap Hurdle for Irish-based trainer Emmet Mullins.