Grand National 2021: Why you should trust Bristol de Mai to buck grey trend in big race
Yet, glance over the National record books and grey winners are few and far between, and backing them in the world's greatest steeplechase often just a way to swell bookmakers' coffers. Only three have won the race since it was first run in 1839: The Lamb (1868 and 1871), Nicolaus Silver (1961) and Neptune Collonges (2012).
On Saturday, though, they could be joined by a fourth – Bristol De Mai.
The ten-year-old, trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies at his Grange Farm Stables in Gloucestershire, would have run in the National last season but for its cancellation as the pandemic took hold in Britain. This time, the horse has been specifically aimed at Aintree, missing the Cheltenham Gold Cup to keep him fresh for the big day. The move might just pay off.
Bristol De Mai is top weight, carrying 11st 10lb, on the basis of his five Grade 1 wins and his third place in the 2019 Cheltenham Gold Cup. That may appear a daunting task, but the weight is only 4lb more than Neptune Collonges carried to victory in 2012, and the similarities between the two horses are not lost on Daryl Jacob, Bristol De Mai’s jockey, who also steered Neptune to his Aintree glory nine years ago.
Jacob, who has ridden Bristol De Mai 31 times since first partnering him in 2014, is the horse’s biggest cheerleader. "The last horse of Bristol's calibre I rode in the race was Neptune Collonges. He was placed in a Gold Cup and won Grade 1s and Bristol De Mai has the same sort of profile. I cannot wait to ride Bristol, to be honest. He's a horse of a lifetime, really. A very, very special horse. I certainly wouldn't ride any other horse in the race. "
Bristol De Mai has never run over the National's marathon distance, but Jacob, speaking on a Sporting Life Youtube video, has little doubt he will see out the trip. "It’s all about getting him into a rhythm he’s comfortable with. He's a good galloper. He's never really felt like he's tying up on me over three miles. He gets three miles well, and in the National you also need a bit of speed. He's got that speed, so I think he ticks all the boxes."
There also appears to be little concern over the good/good to soft ground expected at Aintree for a horse perceived as a mud-lover. "I'm glad it won’t be heavy as he's carrying top weight and that would turn the race into an extreme stamina test," said Jacob. "No, I'm fine with good/good to soft, as he's run some mighty races on that surface in the past."
Twiston-Davies, who has won two Nationals previously with Earth Summit (1998) and Bindaree (2002), shares Jacob's optimism over the grey's prospects, and constructed National-style fences at his yard in preparation for the race. Bristol De Mai's schooling over them has gone well.
"I was going to run him in last year's National and while that never happened, he's been trained specifically for the race this time. We decided to give the Gold Cup a miss, and take him fresh to Aintree,” said Twiston-Davies.
"He's a very good jumper and Daryl was delighted with the way he schooled over a couple of dressed up fences here. He had two goes and greatly enjoyed himself."
Bristol De Mai’s form this season would also indicate that, at ten, he still retains all his old verve for the game. He won the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November – his third victory in the race in four years – finishing two lengths ahead of Paul Nicholls’ Clan Des Obeaux, and, in February, finished a creditable second to Native River in the Cotswold Chase at Sandown.
Jacob is in no doubt that Bristol will be ready for the race. “The horse is in the prime of his life. He was very good in the Betfair and equally as good in the Cotswold Chase. I’m sure the horse is in the best possible shape he can be in.”
Given the optimism behind him, Bristol De Mai’s odds – 25-1 at the time of writing – appear generous, and he certainly represents a solid each-way chance in a race dominated by the Jonjo O'Neill-trained Cloth Cap.
The race favourite, named after the signature attire of his billionaire owner Trevor Hemmings, must be on any shortlist, given that he could be a Gold Cup-standard horse carrying only 10st 5lb – but, at odds of around 4-1, many will look elsewhere for value.
Besides Bristol De Mai, others that could fit that bill are two from Ireland, and only the foolhardy would discount any runner from the Emerald Isle after their recent dominance at the Cheltenham Festival.
Jessica Harrington’s Magic of Life, second behind Tiger Roll at Aintree in 2019, has every chance again, while Tony Martin’s Anibale Fly, fourth and fifth in the last two Nationals, is well weighted should he return to something like his old form. Of the home contingent, Colin Tizzard’s Mister Malarkey and Nicky Richards’ Takingrisks also appeal at big odds.
Of course, there will be countless cases made for others on Saturday, but Bristol De Mai stands out. After a grey and depressing year, it might just take a grey horse to help lift the clouds.