It's just hours until the 2012 Grand National and so it's high time we took a look at the field and tried to sift the wheat from the chaff.
[If you're in a rush, just head straight to the end of the post for my Grand National tips! 🙂 ]
As ever, I'll use a combination of trends, stats and form to do this, and I'll do my best to incorporate some emerging trends as well as more established profile pointers.
OK, with that in mind, let's take a look at the 2012 Grand National field. There are 59 horses still declared, which means there's a real possibility of a number less than forty contesting this year's National for the time since 1999 (excluding the non-runner in 2004). In theory, this will make finding the Grand National winner easier. If only theories were always correct...
First up, let's look at the key Aintree Grand National Trends.
Aintree Grand National 2012 Trends
Starting with the obvious, all of the last fifteen winners had won over at least three miles. This is four and a half miles, so non-stayers have nowhere to hide.
Further, seven of the last eight winners had already won over 3m2f or more.
Given that we'll need a horse to jump thirty fences to win, it's no surprise that those horses who fell, unseated or were brought down twice or less have had a monopoly on the race for the same fifteen year period.
Moreover, those with more than four non-completions of any description in chases (such as pulled up, etc) have also failed to register a win.
All of the last fifteen winners had fallen, unseated or been brought down twice or less.
French bred's have an awful win record in the race, mainly because they are bred for shorter distances. Mon Mome was the first Gallic galloper to grab a Grand National for exactly one hundred years back in 2009. And he had won a Class 1 event over 3m2f.
Ignore French-bred's unless they've won a Class 1 event at 3m2f+.
The last twelve winners had at least ten chase starts under their belts. Eight of those twelve had between ten and fourteen chase starts to their name.
Exclude horses with less than ten career chase starts.
Even if we do end up with a less than full Grand National field this year, proven ability to win in a big field is a must. All of the last nine winners had won in a field of at least 14 runners.
Those are the core Grand National trends, but there are some very interesting secondary trends as well.
Twelve of the last fifteen winners were aged nine or ten. All were aged eight to twelve.
Favour nine and ten year olds.
The last two winners had failed to win in Graded company (2010 winner Don't Push It was second in a Cheltenham Grade 3 event, and 2011 winner Ballabriggs won the Kim Muir at the Cheltenham Festival).
I'm still primarily interested in a win in Graded company, but I'll also look favourably on strong Cheltenham form, either in Graded and/or Festival company.
Fourteen of the last fifteen winners were rated 138 or higher. However, since the introduction of discretionary handicapping (where the BHA handicapper can allot more or less weight based on various factors), the last three winners were all rated at least 148.
I believe this is an important emerging trend, and that those at the foot of the weights are now unlikely to be good enough to beat their classier - and higher rated - rivals.
Look to horses rated 145 or higher.
Nine of the last twelve, and eight of the last nine Grand National winners had had at least one hurdles run that season. This is a pronounced handicap-protecting 'trick' and has become a stalwart of the National-seeking trainer.
Ballabriggs was the latest to employ this tactic, running - and winning - twice in novice hurdle company before the weights were announced. Sneaky!
Look for horses who have raced over hurdles this season.
And finally, ten of the last twelve - though not the last two - Grand National winners had already savoured a podium finish in one of the English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh or Kerry Nationals.
Mark up National-winning form from one of the major variants.
That's a lot of trends, and dealing with the 'Bankers' of distance, class, jumping and experience whittles things down nicely.
In fact, 28 horses fail one of these 'must have' tests, which leaves us with a fairly manageable 31 still in. If you think that's too casual a cut, check the stats above again, and you'll probably agree with me thereafter.
Of the more notable knock outs, I've excluded Junior, Synchronised and Burton Port, all of whom are favourite or joint favourite on at least one bookie list! Each fails on the experience count and, whilst it's close to the wire inasmuch as both BP and Synch have nine chase outings to their names, the combination of weight and a hard race in the Gold Cup for each leads me to exclude them.
Junior has only run over fences eight times, and - whilst he could win, of course - I'm prepared to side against him in favour of more experience.
So let's look to the 31 who have made the cut. I've given each a score based on various factors, which I consider important, as follows:
1 pt for each of optimum weight, rating, class, experience, jumping, field size win, and breeding.
1/2 pt for a hurdle run this year; a 1-2-3 in a National; and close to optimum rating and/or weight.
0 pts for sub-optimal weight or rating (most won't get in unless the race is under-subscribed)
-1 pt for the strikes of failing the 'must have' tests.
Horses aged seven or older than twelve score zero.
Thus, the maximum score possible is eight, which one horse did score. That horse was actually sent off the 15/2 favourite last year, and finished sixth. He is currently available at odds of 33/1, and his name is... The Midnight Club.
The Midnight Club does seem to need very soft ground to show his best, but 33/1 is probably a sight bigger than he'll be on the day. He was schooled around in the Gold Cup last time out, having previously been campaigned at trips well short of his optimum. As a consequence, he has a plum racing weight of 10-09 and, with a clear round and some juice in the ground, will give us a run.
Most bookies only pay four places, a few are paying five places... but these two will pay you a quarter the odds of your horse if he finishes sixth!
£25 Free Bet for ALL NEW Customers, and Paying SIX Places on the Grand National (click the 'open account' link top left)
Next best on my ratings, on 7.5 points, is Chicago Grey. Another Irish-trained runner, this chap has some very good staying form, including winning the four miler at Cheltenham last season, and finishing second to Rubi Light last time out in a Grade 2 over - naturally - an inadequate trip.
He's a nine year old and could only have improved his rating further if he'd won or placed in a National. He did finish eighth in the Scottish National last term, but that was probably too soon after that hard Cheltenham race.
Sensibly, he swerved Chelters this time (as nine of the last twelve winners did), and heads for Aintree a fresh horse.
He's a best priced 20/1, and that looks fair. I'm on!
Then comes a whole cluster of horses with seven points: nine of them in fact.
They are, in no particular order, Calgary Bay, Apt Approach, Seabass, Sunnyhillboy, Le Beau Bai, Planet of Sound, Western Rocker, Rare Bob, and According To Pete.
That Cheltenham stat is quite an important one, especially if a horse has had a hard race there, and I think it counts against Sunnyhillboy somewhat.
Seabass has stamina to prove, having only been left in because of a win in a point-to-point. He's likely done all his progressing already too, so I'm against him. He may also need it soft.
Planet of Sound has his chance. He's classy and in form, but I wonder about both his stamina and his propensity to make bad blunders in a round, albeit generally whilst still 'finding a leg' on the landing side.
Rare Bob also has a squeak, but I'd be surprised (and a little disappointed) if there wasn't something better than him somewhere, unless four and a half miles is what he's always been crying out for - which is, of course, possible. Alas, the way he emptied out to finish fifth of only six finishers over three and a quarter miles of the National course in the Becher Chase suggests shorter may be better.
The interesting ones for me are Le Beau Bai and According To Pete. The last named goes on any ground and is in the form of his life at age eleven. He is a pretty sound jumper as well, which gives hope that he'd get round. 40/1 is available in a place on him after two wins and a second place in his last three starts.
Le Beau Bai has been a prolific winner down the years, and has added eight placed efforts to his eleven gold medals, from 36 starts. He probably wants it on the soft side, but his Welsh National win puts him bang there with a chance. Off just 10-03, he could sluice through the mud while the heavyweights get bogged down, should the heavens open. He's also available at 40/1.
On 6.5 points are six horses: Ballabriggs, Smoking Aces, Giles Cross, Treacle, Always Waining and State Of Play.
Always Waining has as much chance of staying the National trip as I do. He's been a brilliant servant and absolutely loves Aintree. But surely he'll run in the shorter race he's won for the last two years, the Topham Chase.
State Of Play is twelve now and, in my opinion, would have won the Grand National last year if the new whip rules were in place. The three in front of him were extremely vigorously ridden, and he stayed on well under a more genteel ride from Paul Moloney. We know he'll go well fresh, and this will likely be his last hoorah, having finished third once and fourth twice in the race in the past.
Ballabriggs won last year off a rating of 150. He's been allocated 160 this time, and a weight nine pounds higher. Clearly, he's been trained specifically for this race. But it's very hard to win multiple Grand Nationals. After the death last September of trainer Donald McCain's dad, Ginger, who of course handled Red Rum so brilliantly, it would be an emotional tsunami if the boy was able to double up.
I expect Ballabriggs to run really well, but I can't see him winning off that mark.
Smoking Aces has only two beneath him in the rankings and is unlikely to get a run, which is a pity as he's not without a chance. He won a nice little handicap chase over the Irish National course and distance in December, and I'd think he'll be heading there again a week before our National for his own. He'll be one I'll be backing off a lovely weight if he does go there.
That leaves Giles Cross and Treacle.
Treacle won the Munster National back in 2009, and hasn't stood a lot of racing since then. This season, however, he's been rejuvenated, winning a little handicap chase before finishing fourth in a veteran's chase at Aintree. Since then, a silver gong at Leopardstown in a big field chase, and then a third place in the Grade 1 Hennessy Gold Cup (probably flattered in a very weak renewal).
I was surprised to note Treacle as short as 16/1 and he wouldn't be for me. Not one bit.
Giles Cross on the other hand is interesting. He looks a bit of a bridle horse, but... he has a high cruising speed, jumps well, likes to race prominently (a distinct advantage in the Grand National), stays very well, and is in great form. The other proviso with him is that he must have it on the soft side, which may or may not happen.
So there you have it.
Chicago Grey, who is the least ground dependent and has clearly been laid out by his Grand National-winning (Silver Birch in 2007) trainer, ought to go very well. If I had to choose just one horse, it'd be him, due to his turf versatility.
The Midnight Club didn't have a hard race at Cheltenham and looks booked for another clear round at Aintree. 33/1 is a perfectly fair - perhaps even mildly generous - offer from the bookie chappies and I'll have some.
If it's raining a week before the race, then I'll be backing all of Le Beau Bai, Giles Cross and According To Pete... but not until I'm sure there will be the word 'soft' (or heavy) somewhere in the going description.
Finally, here's the latest Grand National 2012 Odds. I strongly advise you to check out the two bookmakers below, who are offering each way terms on the first SIX places.
Most bookies only pay four places, some are paying five places... but these two will pay you a quarter the odds of your horse if he finishes sixth!
What's your idea of the Grand National winner, and why? Leave a comment if you've got a view.
GOOD LUCK!!! Let's hope all horses and riders come home safe and well, and plenty of us back a winner or at least a horse in the first six of the 2012 Grand National, the greatest race of them all!
p.s. if you're interested in how the horses scored on my rating system, here's a link to the spreadsheet online.