THE three-day Grand National meeting kicks off on Thursday with a Cheltenham Festival winner contesting each of the first five races.

Gold Cup hero Imperial Commander and dual Ladbrokes World Hurdle winner Big Buck's headline a stellar cast in two of the three Grade 1 races. Imperial Commander is 11-10 with Coral to beat his four rivals and add the Totesport Bowl Chase to his collection of Grade 1s.

23lb clear of his rivals on official ratings, his price seems to reflect the poor record of Gold Cup winners in this race in the past. Only two favourites in the last nine years have landed the Totesport Bowl and there is a distinct lack of Gold Cup winners on the Aintree honour board, with Kauto Star and Denman just the latest to come unstuck in a race in which neither See More Business (2000) nor Desert Orchid (1988) landed during their Gold Cup-winning seasons.

The race will be run as a Grade 1 for the first time this year, and at level weights trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies is unconcerned that the statistics are against Imperical Commander. He said: "Rough Quest was second in the Gold Cup and won the National, while Kicking King and War Of Attrition both won at the Punchestown festival, so there are a lot of horses to have run well after Cheltenham. He seems in tremendous form; we wouldn't go otherwise."

The Paul Nicholls-trained Big Buck's bids to complete the Ladbrokes World Hurdle-BGC Partners Liverpool Hurdle double for the second consecutive year. Unbeaten in seven starts since his return to hurdles, a best price of 1-3 sums up his dominance in the staying division.

Big Buck's's chance has been helped by the race's newly obtained Grade 1 status that sees him defend his title without having to carry the Grade 1 penalty he did last year.

TimeFor Rupert, the horse who got closest to Big Buck's at Cheltenham, misses the race following a dirty scope, leaving course-specialist Tidal Bay as the most likely threat.

Three times a winner at Aintree, two of which came at the Aintree festival, Tidal Bay could be the one to take advantage if Big Buck's doesn't perform.

His trainer, Howard Johnson, said: "I was a bit disappointed with his run at Cheltenham because I thought he was spot-on for the race. "He got himself into a lather but ran on at the finish and was eating up the ground. On his form with Time For Rupert he should have been up there. He won't mind Aintree and he might get some place money."

Sandwiched between the reappearance of the Cheltenham champions is the Matalan Anniversary 4-Y-O Novice Hurdle, which has been a great showcase for brilliance in previous years. The last three champion hurdlers first contested the race, with Punjabi finishing second to Katchit in 2007 and Binocular successful in 2008.

Favourites have won the last five runnings of this race and this year's market leader is the impressive Fred Winter Hurdle winner Sanctuaire, a 2-1 shot.

The Paul Nicholls-trained favourite will be opposed by Barizan, Evan Williams' front-runner who put up such a brave effort in defeat in the Triumph Hurdle. Williams said: "He had a hard race last time at Cheltenham but he's very tough and hardy, so fingers crossed as he seems very well at home."

The other festival winners on the card are Baby Run, who contests the Fox Hunters' Chase over the Grand National fences while Grand Annual winner Pigeon Island runs in the Grade 3 handicap chase.

The Grade 2 Manifesto Novices' Chase sees Arkle second and fourth, Somersby and Mad Max, lock horns with Jewson second Othermix and the Paul Nicholls-trained The Nightingale, who skipped the Cheltenham Festival to run here.

SOURCE  : (Stuart Riley)