It's the grandest of Nationals, dear reader, is the Aintree Grand National. And, with the unveiling of the weights yesterday, there were the usual murmurings of discontent from the more chicanerous members of the training fraternity. Generally speaking though, the handicapper was lauded for a job well done. The job? Presenting an ostensible chance to the vast majority of likely runners.
Indeed, this year, no fewer than 97 of the remaining 111 declarations are in the handicap proper, assuming at least one of the triumvirate of topweights stands his ground come 10th April. And that is an assumption I intend to work with throughout this initial preview of the world's greatest race, 2010 edition.
Often referred to as a lottery, I consider that statement to be the refrain of the lazy, because there is very clear rationale about what constitutes a good or a bad bet in the race, as we'll see.
The Grand National is a unique test in the British sporting calendar and, as such, a certain type of horse tends to do well. There's no convolution to this. Rather, it's just common sense. Let's look at the facts. The Grand National:
- is four miles and four furlongs, making it the UK's longest race
- asks horse and rider to jump thirty fences, more than any other UK race (with the recent exception of the 3m7f cross country course at Cheltenham, where they jump 32 varied obstacles)
- has a maximum field of forty runners, more than any other race, which is usually fully subscribed (particularly since the addition of the reserve system for late non-runners)
Given the context of this horse race in extremis, it is hardly surprising that all recent winners had already won over 3m and more (going back as far as Gay Trip in 1970).
And nor is it surprising that all recent winners had at least ten previous steeplechase outings under their belt. (The last to defy that was Miinnehoma in 1994, and he'd been a Sun Alliance Chase winner the year before, and had nine prior outings).
With so many runners, we shouldn't be shocked to learn that all recent winners had won in a field of eleven or more, including the last fifteen gold medallists.
But the Aintree Grand National makes further distinctive, if not unique, demands of its winners. A horse has to be young enough to retain a touch of toe, and old enough to demonstrate the requisite fencing experience. The age band eight to twelve years is omnipotent.
The last horse older than a dozen years to prevail was Sergeant Murphy back in 1923, and the last seven year old victor was Bogskar in 1940. You might be interested to know that Tricky Trickster, this season's ante-post favourite is a seven year old, with just five chase runs under his belt.
In the last fifteen years, 47 horses outside the eight to twelve years bracket had a crack at winning the race, and the best finish was 6th. On six separate occasions, no horse outside that bracket even finished the race!
Over such a marathon trip, and with so many physical impediments blocking the path to glory, it is little wonder that the lighter weighted horses have been able to overpower their more greatly burdened adversaries in recent years. Although many classy (and commensurately weighted) horses have threatened to win the race, when push came to shove - as it inevitably does passing The Elbow - those giving weight also gave best.
The last horse to carry more than 11-01 was Corbiere in 1983.
Now I do appreciate that the weight carrying statement is a contentious one, what with the increasing level of class to the Aintree National line up. But, for the reason outlined above, I remain happy to take on the top weights. Anything lugging more than eleven stone has it all to do in my book.
I hope that it also stands to reason that if you're looking for a horse to win the Grand National, you want one that generally completes the course in their races. That is, if your fancy has a checkered record of pulling up or falling down, he's unlikely to multiply your money around Aintree.
In the past decade, the number of chase falls from the winner before Aintree glory was always 15% or less. And the percentage of race non-completions (i.e. adding in carried out, or pulled up to the above) was always 28% or less. In short, we're looking for a reliable beast to bet.
We should also be looking for a match fit (but not over-raced) horse. All of the last sixteen winners had between four and seven runs that season. This I believe is more than just coincidence. Many lightly raced horses go off a shortish price and get rolled over (some, unfortunately, literally).
And last, but definitely not least, the Grand National winner has previously demonstrated a decent level of class before booking his ticket to Liverpool, whilst perhaps being a little out of form at - let's say - the time the weights were released. Ten of the last twelve had already won a Graded stakes race, and the other two (Numbersixvalverde and Monty's Pass) had placed in Graded events and won a 'lesser' National. Both those latter scallywags were popping hurdles when they should have been bounding fences prior to taking the ferry across the Mersey (although not quite literally).
There's a rich seam of common sense throughout that data mine and, given that pretty much all of the recent race history supports it, it would be foolish to ignore.
So now that we know what the weight allocations are for the Spring showpiece showdown, which horses stand the test of the recent past, and present themselves as the most likely winners in the near future?
My shortlist looks like this:
Character Building showed class, stamina and guts when winning the Kim Muir at the last Cheltenham Festival. Despite just one seasonal run so far (down the field in a hurdle race), he's entered in the Racing Post Chase this weekend, and a bolder show is expected.
Trainer JJ Quinn said, "He should get a run and he'll have a nice racing weight. 'He seems in good form and all being well, he'll run at Cheltenham (Kim Muir)."
Snowy Morning has had four starts since his summer break, and looks spot on to run a big race again, having completed the full National course the last two years, including a bronze medal in 2008. The handicapper has relented a touch in recent months, and Snowy will carry nine pounds less this time than when beaten thirty lengths in the '09 renewal. His sound jumping gives him a fine each way chance.
Willie Mullins seemed happy, and announced: "Snowy Morning would be the best of mine but I don't think Ballytrim or Pomme Tiepy will get in."
Can't Buy Time is undoubtedly progressive, and has now won five of his last nine chase starts. He fell in the race last year, when still a novice, and would certainly not be the first to pick himself up off the floor and head home in front subsequently (Silver Birch did just that in 2006/7). He's won four times already over three miles plus, and looks a ready replacement for connections for the frustrating hardy perennial, Clan Royal.
Those three are all sure to get a run, if fit and well as winter turns to spring. The other two on my shortlist are more speculative, as they're currently 70th and 83rd respectively in the weight order of the entries.
However, a cautionary tone was set by trainer Jonjo O'Neill, who immediately declared, "Can't Buy Time is a nice horse, he might go for the Topham instead."
Hello Bud is the reigning Scottish National champion, and has been running better than his final places have suggested this season (excepting his uncharacteristic blunder at Chepstow last time in the Welsh version). Trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies is no stranger to Grand National success, having already saddled Earth Summit and Bindaree, and this one will be trained specifically with Aintree in mind.
'Twist and Shout' had this to say, "Razor Royal is an up-and-coming sort and I'd say he, Irish Raptor and Hello Bud are my best ones."
Finally, I'm going to lob in Charlie Swan's Oodachee. He's completed the course in the last two editions of the Topham Chase, over the National fences, and was a staying on 2nd last year. He's got a touch of class and, although unquestionably out of form in three saunters so far this season,
the last two in short trip hurdle races, it would be no big shock to see Oodachee return to form before Aintree, and run a big race on the day - if he gets a run.
Charlie Swan said of his horse, "Oodachee is probably badly handicapped but he might get into the race. Offshore Account is nicely in and ran a good race in the National last year.
'I'm happy with the weight given to those two, but for One Cool Cookie I'm a bit disappointed.
'Oodachee and Offshore are both in the Racing Post Chase. I'll just see what the entries are like. They might go there is the ground was good."
One last note of caution: do bear in mind that things can change between now and race day, as horses may meet the minimum number of runs and minimum class of performance criteria.
So there you have it. Whatever you fancy for the 'World's Greatest Race', be sure to back a proven horse: one with proven stamina, proven class, and proven experience. If you adhere to those three simple tenets, you'll have a fine chance of pulling out a winning 'lottery' ticket.