Grand National News
Unioniste's Grand National time may be now
The record books may state otherwise, but Unioniste has to be given serious consideration for the Grand National after his impressive win at Sandown on Saturday.
Always travelling well under Noel Fehily, the seven-year-old scooted clear after the last fence to win over an extended three miles by 10 lengths.
It was the type of run which certainly suggested Unioniste has to be on an early shortlist of possible Grand National bets for Aintree in April.
History is not exactly on Unioniste’s side it has to be said. No seven-year-old has won the four-and-a-half mile marathon since Bogskar in 1940.
Connections themselves are well aware that age could be a factor against a tilt at the Grand National this year.
Writing before the win at Sandown, trainer Paul Nicholls said: "I don't think it is any secret that John Hales would like to win another Grand National one day with this horse, and we possibly could try this season. We will see; remember, he is still only a 7yo."
Unioniste’s owner John Hales took the Grand National in 2012 when Neptune Collonges – also trained by Nicholls – beat Sunnyhillboy by a nose.
Neptune Collonges and Unioniste were both sired by Dom Alco, but the 2012 winner was 11 at the time of his thrilling success.
Hales, though, has long thought of Unioniste as a Grand National horse as this is what he said after a win over Aintree’s Mildmay fences in December 2013.
"His jumping is very good, exceptionally so in fact. I've no doubt he will be a National horse in time."
Unioniste was certainly thought good enough to run in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown after that Aintree win. Though his form did subsequently dip in the second half of the season, a summer breathing operation seems to have helped.
"He had his breathing tweaked in the summer and came in later than the rest of mine, so in the circumstances we were pretty pleased with his sixth in the Hennessy first time up," Nicholls also wrote in his blog. "He was beaten a fair way though, and I have been gearing his season to the spring given that he returned to training so late."
Unioniste jumped much better at Sandown than he had done at Newbury on his reappearance and Fehily feels the horse can develop into a National type.
Fehily told Channel Four: "He could definitely be that sort of horse. Hopefully the handicapper doesn’t give him too much weight. He could run well in a race like that."
How the handicapper reacts is also a concern for Hales after Unioniste won off a mark of 148 at Sandown.
Hales said: "He has just turned seven so the Grand National might be a year too early. It will depend whether the handicapper gives him a chance. Some people want me to leave it another year, but I won’t take too much notice."
Nicholls’ assistant Tom Jonason did confirm that the Grand National is the target for Unioniste this season.
The way Unioniste stayed on at Sandown suggests he will be able to cope with the Grand National. His smooth travelling style will also come in handy around Aintree.
And, with an upwardly-mobile profile, even if the handicapper does react harshly to the Sandown win, Unioniste may not have a better chance to get in the Grand National with a decent weight, even if the stats say he is too young to win.