Finding the winner of the World’s most famous steeplechase is no easy task. But I wouldn’t be doing this job if I didn’t like a challenge, so let’s have a crack at uncovering this year’s Grand National hero.
It’s important to reflect on recent renewals when attempting to solve the Aintree puzzle, though a quick peek over the last decade or so, does nothing to settle my nerves for the task ahead. Last year’s winner, Rule The World, was a 33/1 shot who had failed to win any of his previous starts over fences. In 2015 and 2014 we had winners priced at 25/1, and in 2013 a 66/1 shot caused a mighty upset. Add to those a further pair at 33s and a 100/1 rank outsider, and you begin to appreciate the size of the task.
With a field of 40 going to post, I must first attempt to cull the no-hopers from the possible contenders. We have to go back to 1940 for the last seven-year-old winner, suggesting that the younger chasers probably lack both the mental and physical constitution for this marathon event.
There’s also a case to dismiss the chances of 12-year-olds, with only one in the last 20 years successful. But it’s likely we’ll have two in the field, and both have the perfect winning profile. Raz De Maree and Bless The Wings have excelled in similar staying chases, with the former runner-up in the Welsh National in December, and the latter filling the same position in the Irish National just 12 months ago. Of course, both have plenty of miles on the clock, but their recent form suggests they both retain plenty of ability.
So, with 37 horses still on my ‘contenders’ list, I now turn my attention to chasing experience. It’s no surprise that winners of the great race have been competing in all the usual trials, gaining that vital experience that will enable them to cope in a 40-runner marathon, with 30 fences to conquer.
Over the past decade, seven winners had run between 10 and 14 times over the larger obstacles. Rule The World, though a novice and a maiden over fences, had at least gained enough chasing experience, including a second-place finish in the Irish National. Many Clouds had just 10 outings over the larger obstacles before his famous win in 2015, but had won the Hennessy at Newbury several months earlier.
If I’m stringent in applying the ‘experience trend’, I am successful in excluding half a dozen or so from my ‘contenders’ list. Unfortunately, this application highlights the difficulty this year in reducing the number of potential winners. Definitly Red, Vieux Lion Rouge and Pleasant Company all fall short of the ideal level of chasing experience, and as such I should put a line through the trio. Yet all three are strongly fancied to go well, with Vieux Lion having experience in the right kind of races to go well tomorrow.
For many years, I would have no hesitation in putting a line through those carrying more than 11 stone. Hedgehunter carried a pound more when winning in 2005, though he was an exception at the time. However, in recent years, a combination of factors has resulted in horses winning despite carrying huge weights. The standard of competitors has certainly improved, with the handicaps from top to bottom becoming compressed. Doctor Harper on 10-6 and rated at 143, is likely to be at the bottom of the weights tomorrow. Hedgehunter was rated 144 when winning in 2005, yet carried a lofty 11-1.
Three of the last seven winners have carried 11-5 or more, though only Gilgamboa (fourth) carried more than 11 stone to a top ten finish last year. And though Many Clouds lumped 11-9 to victory, only one other carried more than 11 stone to a top dozen finish behind him. It therefore follows that we should still be safe in putting an upper-limit at around 11 stone for the likely winner.
If I ruthlessly draw a line just above those carrying 11-1, I can start to focus on the 20 plus contenders that remain on my list.
I’m keen on Blaklion for Nigel Twiston-Davies. Last year’s RSA winner has failed to progress to the top-table, but he looks the ideal sort for this. He finished a creditable fifth in the Hennessy Gold Cup, off a mark of 154 back in November. He then ran arguably a career best at Haydock in the Grand National trial, off top weight, when trying to give Vieux Lion Rouge 6lbs. It’s a lack of gears that stops this fella from reaching the top. But he has a touch of class, and looks a thorough stayer. He should go close.
Vieux Lion Rouge has done little wrong this winter, and clearly holds strong claims. Both trainer and jockey are adamant that he has strengthened since last year’s seventh-place finish, when beaten a mile by Rule The World. That may be true, and he certainly wasn’t stopping at Haydock last time. He finished with a rattle to win the Becher, and certainly looks a more resolute character this year. It’s right that he’s towards the head of the betting.
I’m less convinced by Definitly Red, though he did run well in the Grimthorpe last time at Doncaster. His jumping can be a little patchy, and though he beat Blaklion at Wetherby in December, he was receiving a ton of weight on that occasion. He looks a horse that enjoys a smaller field, and I’d fancy he’ll be harassed into errors tomorrow.
One For Arthur looks a thorough stayer and could run into a place. He ran well in the Becher Chase and then stayed on well to take the Betfred Classic at Warwick. He lacks a prep-run, and the stats show that this is certainly a negative. Nevertheless, I think he’ll go well, though he probably lacks the class to win.
Paul Nicholls will be desperate for success, as he attempts to cling to his trainers’ crown. Vicente looked a promising sort last year, and ran a cracker to win the Scottish National. But he’s proved a major disappointment this winter, despite conditions often being in his favour. Nevertheless, I find myself drawn to him, as was owner Trevor Hemmings, who bought him in March. He’s worth a few quid at around 25/1.
Having discounted those above 11-1, I wish to give a mention to Paul Nicholls’ other leading hope, Saphir Du Rheu. He ran a cracker in the Gold Cup, and is without doubt a classy sort. He’s high enough in the handicap for me, and his jumping has proved an issue in the past. Nevertheless, if he gets into a decent rhythm, he could certainly run into a place.
Finally, a horse from left field that could run a huge race at a huge price. I was on Lord Windermere at 33s when he took the Gold Cup in 2014, and I’m unable to pass on the opportunity of backing him at 50s for this. He’s hopeless on soft ground, but is a different beast with conditions suit. His seasonal debut showed promise, and he has the ideal partner in two-time Grand National winner Leighton Aspell.
No doubt many of us will be scratching our heads as the winner crosses the line, but you need to be in-it to win-it. I’m all-over Blaklion for the win, and will be taking a punt at Lord Windermere each-way at 50s, and Vicente at 25s. Best of luck to all.