It is desperately disappointing that Monday’s Coral Welsh Grand National will be run behind closed doors once again, but the spectacle will not be diminished in the slightest for viewers live on Sky Sports Racing.
What a spectacle we are promised too, with previous winners Native River (2016), Elegant Escape (2018), Potters Corner (2019) and Secret Reprieve (2020) all set to feature among what is likely to be a maximum field of 20.
Welsh-trained winners of the race are not the rarity they once were, but it was very obviously – and quite rightly – a source of huge pride to Christian Williams when he won with Potters Corner and again to Evan Williams when he landed a weather-delayed running with Secret Reprieve in January.
Secret Reprieve will be the shorter priced of that pair this time, despite lacking a recent run, but a third Welshman has his eyes on the prize this year – Sam Thomas, who was born in Abergavenny and he and his family were regulars at the Welsh National when he was growing up.
Thomas did not have any luck in the race as a jockey, but he will have a leading chance of making up for it when recent Coral Welsh Grand National Trial winner Iwilldoit bids to follow in the footsteps of Secret Reprieve, who prepped successfully in the same race last year.
Thomas is really looking forward to it, and there is no mistaking how much winning the race would mean to him.
He said: “I’m from Abergavenny and I was there for many Welsh Nationals growing up, but I didn’t have a great record in it as a rider and I think I barely got round.
“It’s great to be going there now with a runner, let alone a runner with a chance, and it would be incredible if we were to win the race. It’s our nearest track, and we always like to support it.”
The Welsh National has long been on Iwilldoit’s agenda, and although Thomas would ideally have got another race into him, the eight-year-old will go there well fancied.
Thomas said: “We are delighted with him, and we’ve always seen him as a staying chaser for softer conditions.
“Last season I made the mistake of running him in the Borders National at Kelso first time out, expecting him to do pretty much what he did at Chepstow in the Trial, but for whatever reason it never really happened, and it knocked the stuffing out of him, so he went back over hurdles to get his confidence back.
“We had planned to get two runs into him before the Welsh National, both to get some more experience into him and to get his mark up, but it was too quick for him when he was pencilled in for a race at Exeter and so we had to go to Chepstow for the Trial first time out.”
He added: “Chepstow has always been one of my favourite racetracks, both as a jockey and a trainer, and it’s tailor-made for him.
“He’s quite an uncomplicated ride and he was impressive in the Trial. Stan (Sheppard) gave him a lovely ride, just leaving him to it, and he was able to show his true colours.”
The likely presence of Native River at the top of the weights will keep Iwilldoit out of the proper handicap, but that is not a big concern.
Thomas said: “If Native River is declared we’ll be 6lb ‘wrong’, even with the penalty, but it’s nice to have such a lovely low weight in a race like the Welsh National.
“The mark he’ll be running off is actually the mark the handicapper thinks he is worth now, as he put him up 10lb for winning the Trial, which was run after the weights had been published.
“It’s not ideal perhaps running in a big handicap like this after just three runs over fences, but he’s quite a wily horse and I’m sure he’ll be looking after himself, so I’m not too worried about it.
“He just loves doing his own thing, somewhere near the front, and I think the less his rider interferes with him the more he enjoys it.
“It’s another six furlongs, but I think he’d stay all day. He doesn’t have a turn of foot and wouldn’t be the best work horse, but he’d maintain his own cruising speed all day long and the forecast rain won’t be a problem for him.
“If Charlie Deutsch is unavailable I very much hope Stan will ride again, as he’s a very good rider.”
The Thomas team are set for a busy time over the festive period, and Iwilldoit could be joined at Chepstow by Al Dancer, Grey Diamond and Mario de Pail, while rising star Before Midnight will be heading across the Severn Bridge to Kempton, where he is one of only five entries for the Grade Two Ladbrokes Desert Orchid Chase.
Thomas, who is already ahead of last season’s prize money total, said: “Al Dancer is in the three-mile hurdle at Chepstow, and he’ll hopefully go there with a chance.
“He’s been a bit of a head scratcher and I think people got a bit carried away when he was fancied for the Paddy Power, as he’d lost a bit of enthusiasm for jumping the big ones.
“But he enjoyed himself back over hurdles at Sandown last time and I think he can run a nice race again.
“I’m also looking forward to seeing Before Midnight step up in class in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton the same afternoon.
“I nearly took him out when I saw Willie (Mullins) had put two in there, but then Willie took them out for some reason, and I thought we had to have a go. He’s wrong in the weights, but there might be only three or four runners and we’ll see what he can do.”