2019 Grand National Anti-Preview, Trends, Tips
It's the biggest race in the British racing calendar, the 2019 Randox Health Grand National at Aintree, and so it is the weekend where friends, family and those people you only hear from once a year request a tip in the most impossibly deep contest of the season!
As regular readers will know, I've long dispensed with sensible approaches to trying to isolate the winner, preferring instead to go full on guerilla contrarian. Results from this approach have been mixed, but then they would be whichever approach is taken and, at least this way, we're dealing in fat-priced contenders rather than the sharp end of the market. That's important in a race where the talk often overtakes the form, as evidenced by an average SP for the top six finishers in the last five years of 27.5/1. Yum!
Indeed, in spite of the last two winners averaging only 12/1, the previous five returned 33/1, 66/1, 25/1, 25/1, and 33/1. Clearly, bravery - likely mitigated by splitting stakes between two or three (or four or even five) runners - is the route forward.
2019 Grand National Trends
This is difficult. For a long time, the Grand National trends were sacrosanct: proven stayers, proven jumpers, proven in a big field, proven touch of class, aged 8 to 12, job done.
But the race has changed. Each of a reduction in the distance, a (necessary) softening of the fences, and the encroachment of discretionary handicapping (where the official handicapper gets to allocate a unique 'Aintree' rating to a horse, which is different from its rating for all other steeplechase races) has levelled the playing field. Where ten years ago we might have a fairly confident shortlist of eight or ten horses, now it is hard to categorically rule out that many runners.
Quite simply, and on many levels this is great for the broader appeal of the sport beyond us aficionados, in my opinion it has become the lottery that many once incorrectly claimed it was.
Allow me to repeat a now annual mantra: if you find the winner of the National, you'll have been at least as lucky as you are good. Do not revel too long in the happenstance of that outcome, but wallow in the fruitful returns all the same! 🙂
Getting back to the matter at hand, as I wrote, the race has changed markedly in complexion in the past seven or eight years. Below are some ten-year trends, but mostly five-year and even three-year (top six finishers) trends. That's because the distance has been shortened and the discretionary handicapping increased during that time.
Grand National Age Trends
Let's start with age. The ten year mean average winning age is 9.5. The ten year median (ranking the winners in age order and taking the mid-point) is also 9.5.
However, the five year average is just 8.8, and the median 8. That's because the last four winners have been aged 8, 9, 8 and 8. It's a tiny sample and it could very easily be coincidence. But that sample aligns with the reduced race distance and the height of discretionary handicapping.
And it's not just winners. In the last ten years, 9 of the 20 top two finishers were aged 8 or 9; in the last five years, seven of the ten top two finishers were that age. And yet eight-year-olds accounted for just 41 of 196 horses to line up in the Nash since 2014. That's 60% of the winners from 21% of the runners; and looking at 8-9yo's, it's 53% of the runners taking in 80% of the winners and 60% of the places. In short, I believe that youth is more material in the Grand National than before and I will happily cast aside any horse older than 10.
At the other end of the spectrum, horses aged six (now ineligible for the race) and seven have failed to register a placed effort from 64 to try since 1997. Ramses de Teillee is not for me.
From a whittling perspective, that only takes out roughly a quarter of the field (down as far as The Young Master, #44) and there remains a decent chance we've ditched the winner!
Grand National Ratings Trends
An interesting route in are official ratings. In theory, if discretionary handicapping has made a material difference, we should see winners and placed horses from all over the ratings scale.
The ten year average winning rating was 149.4, with the median 149. The five year average winning rating was 149.8, and median 148. But that doesn't tell the whole story, which is this: in the last six years, horses have won the Grand National from ratings as high as 160 (the magnificent Many Clouds) and as low as 137 (Auroras Encore).
Consider that, prior to discretionary handicapping, the highest winning rating since 1997 was Lord Gyllene's 149; and since it was introduced we've seen five winners rated 150+ since 2010 (nine years).
The ratings of the top two finishers in the last five renewals have been 150-148-148-150-148-149-160-143-143-150. Nine of the ten top two finishers were within a spread of eight pounds from 150 down. Bottom weight this year will be around 143 with half of the field or so rated 151+. Should we then be looking to the lighter weights? The data say so, but I'm not so sure...
Grand National UK vs Ireland Trends
The Irish had a good record in the National. From just before the turn of the century, the likes of Bobbyjo, Papillon, Montys Pass, Hedgehunter, Numbersixvalverde and Silver Birch gave them a near stranglehold on the great race. But then came discretionary handicapping and a relative drought, which in recent times led Gigginstown Stud and Ryanair supremo, Michael O'Leary, to an acerbic outburst aimed at the capo di 'capping. Given that O'Leary's colours have been worn to victory twice in the last three years, methinks the laddy doth protest too much!
But, after Silver Birch (2007) and before Rule The World (2016), the Irish went 0 from 32 (just two places). That has changed again now, in what might be an interesting way. Look at the top six finishers from the last three renewals of the Aintree Grand National. Focus on the UK/Ire column, but also on the Going column. See anything?
There appears to be a strong correlation between the state of the turf and nation that has fared overwhelmingly better. Again, this might be no more than a confusing coincidence; but it could be material. Frustratingly, the current going forecast is right on the cusp. I'm erring towards good to soft in my own mind, but the evidence of the track and the weather 'twixt now and race time will be a far better indicator.
Let's just tease out a couple of points from the above.
The first thing to say is that in each of the last five renewals one or other side of the Irish Sea has been dominant, taking at least five of the top six spots.
When the going has been good to soft, as it has been in three of the five renewals in the that time, UK-trained horses have claimed 16 of 18 top six positions; when it has been softer, Ireland has bagged ten of the 12 top six places. It's up to you whether you believe that's relevant or just a coincidence. I tend to think there might be something in it: after all, in a typical season (not that this has been a typical season), Irish-trained horses will race on much more deep ground than their British counterparts.
It is important to contextualise such observations in terms of the horses that ran. In the soft and heavy pair of Nationals, Ireland saddled 29 runners to UK's 48. Thus, their 83% of the places came from just 38% of the runners.
In the good to soft trio of renewals, UK saddled 89 of 119 runners (one French entry, 29 Irish), which was 75% of the fields from which 89% of the top six emerged.
It might also be worth noting that when the ground has been at its softest, two 13-year-olds have snuck into the frame ramping up the average age of top six finishers to 9.7. When it's been drier, that average is just 9.2. Indeed, last year's heavy ground renewal has bumped up the overall age average notably.
Grand National Last Race Trends
Where did horses run prior to a big effort in the Grand National? Looking at the last five years and the top six placings - 30 spots - the following can be noted:
Cheltenham Festival Cross Country Chase: 1 win 2 seconds (all three won the Cross Country race)
Cheltenham Gold Cup: 1 win 1 4th
'Standard' handicap chases: 1 win, 2 2nds, 3 3rds, 2 4ths, 1 5th, 1 6th
Hurdle race: 1 win, 1 6th
Novice chase: 1 win, 1 5th (graduation chase)
Thyestes Chase: 1 2nd, 1 6th
UK or Irish Grand National Trial: 1 4th, 1 5th, 2 6ths
The Irish National, Midlands National, Ryanair, Bobbyjo and Cotswold Chases have all contributed a top six finisher in the last five years
From the above, there is absolutely no doubting the credentials of the Festival Cross Country Chase as the leading Grand National trial. Winners of that race have a superb record at Aintree.
Otherwise, the Gold Cup is a solid trial, last time hurdlers are noteworthy, and the form of more run-of-the-mill staying handicap chases should not be overlooked. The Irish and Haydock National trials have a fairly moderate record in recent times.
Grand National Last Time Finishing Position Trends
Two of the last five National winners also won last time out.
16 of the 20 top four finishers finished top six last time out.
Grand National Stamina Trends
All of the last five winners had run beyond three-and-a-quarter miles, and 18 of the 20 top four finishers had won beyond three miles.
2019 Grand National Trends Summary
Phew, and crikey. Where does all that leave us? From an identikit profiling perspective, we're looking for something like:
- A younger horse, aged eight or nine, preferably eight
- Ideally rated 150 (or so) or below
- A UK-trained runner if the going is not soft or heavy, an Irish-trained runner if it is
- May have been last seen at the Cheltenham Festival, in a hurdle race or in a 'standard' staying handicap chase
- A top six finish last time out, bonus points for winning last time
- A winner at beyond three miles that has also run beyond three-and-a-quarter miles
- A horse at a price!
Grand National 2019 Preview
Who ticks the boxes? That's the obvious next question if you're prepared to believe the above: in the Aintree land of the blind and all that...
Every horse from Jury Duty up is rated 151+. Strictly speaking then they should be eliminated, but I think I'd want to include those rated 153 or lower, which still excludes the top 16 at the five day stage, including Anibale Fly (gulp) and Tiger Roll (double gulp).
Working through the other trends leaves me with eight horses including all weights, and just four in the ratings zone, as follows and displaying their current best odds (with bookies paying at least six places):
Rated/weighted too highly?
Anibale Fly (14/1), Tiger Roll (7/2), Lake View Lad (14/1), Dounikos (33/1)
In the zone...
Jury Duty (20/1), Monbeg Notorious (66/1), Vintage Clouds (14/1), Walk In The Mill (25/1)
There is a good chance that Tiger Roll just wins. He was imperious in the Cross Country and, as the data above relating to that race show, dismissing that as a form line is reckless in the extreme. You need luck to win a National and, if Tiger Roll gets past the Chair on the first circuit, the reigning champion will take a heck of a lot of beating. Plenty will want to oppose him - he's not exactly a working woman's or househusband's price, in a spin on the dated vernacular - but he has the most solid and obvious claims of any runner in this race for many a long year. He probably merits at least a saver bet.
Anibale Fly is a horse I love. Third in the Gold Cup last year, he seemed to flatten out a little when subsequently fourth in this race; but that was heavy ground and this will be less testing. He was second in the Gold Cup this time around, is six pounds well in according to the Irish handicapper, jumps and stays well and may again be on the premises. Lovely chap is this lad (not that Tiger Roll isn't adorable also!)
Lake View Lad would be a fantastic story for Borders trainer, Nick Alexander. His staying on second in the Ultima was eye-catching, but he lacks either a standout class piece of form or an attractive enough price to justify a bet. He can still be involved in the finish, of course, he's just not for me.
I think on good to soft or better ground, Dounikos is pretty interesting. Gordon Elliott's Grand National record is superb: his 16 runners in the race have yielded two winners, a second and a third - and a winner, second and third from six runners in the last two years! Elliott has plenty entered, not least of which is the jolly, but I think this fellow is over-priced as an eight-year-old last day winner.
As we move into what might be 'the zone', I really wanted to lob Monbeg Notorious; but the memory of Rule The World, a Gigginstown horse with a quirky back story who won in 2016, made me look again. This 8yo Milan gelding won the Thyestes Chase last season, as well as finishing second in a Grade 1 novice at the Punchestown Festival, before losing his way somewhat this term. That was high class form and, if he's been aimed at this all season (ran easily his best race last time, "kept on well, never nearer") and if he gets some luck in the run, he might be Rule The World mark II. He's exactly the sort of contrarian play this article needs!
More obvious is Jury Duty, who won on his travels in America in October and who also prevailed on his sole spin since, last month in a small field nondescript rated chase. He too fits the eight year old last day winner profile of the last two National victors, and he's getting backed.
Vintage Clouds' form ties in with Lake View Lad on their running behind Beware The Bear in the Ultima Handicap Chase at the Festival last month. The Sue Smith-trained nine-year-old is more stoutly bred and has more staying form. Both are owned by Trevor Hemmings, who has tasted National success with Many Clouds, Ballabriggs and Hedgehunter since 2005. He should run a bold race.
And that leaves Walk In The Mill, trained in Dorset by Robert Walford. Though I'd love a small trainer from the county of my birth to win the most famous race in the land, I'm not sure this Walk In The Park (who else?) gelding will stay and, besides, I'll be cheering another Dorset trainer's runner: Regal Encore from the Anthony Honeyball yard.
Naturally, there are about thirty others with chances..!
Grand National 2019 Tips
Forty of 'em, running more than four miles, jumping thirty fences. Even in this mildly diluted variant of the fierce test of yore it is still a hugely demanding ask, and one which places a degree more emphasis on speed as well as abundant stamina and acceptable jumping ability.
If the ground is good to soft or quicker, I want to be with Anibale Fly, Vintage Clouds, Dounikos and Monbeg Notorious.
If the ground is soft or slower, I want to be with Vintage Clouds, Lake View Lad, Monbeg Notorious and Jury Duty.
But this is an anti-preview, so I'm just going to back the biggest priced horses from those lists and see where it gets me: Devil take the hindmost!
Grand National Betting Suggestion: Back either Monbeg Notorious (66/1) or Dounikos (40/1) with as many places as you can get. Chuck in Vintage Clouds (14/1) and/or Anibale Fly (14/1) if you want a more conventional contender.
p.s. if you want to spice up your Aintree interest, how about a bit of Colossus action? It's pool betting, with cash out, syndicates and consolations in the win pools. Check out this post to learn more about it.