Whilst age has proved a major obstacle to success at the Cheltenham Festival, the same cannot be said when equine pensioners line up for the Grand National.
Indeed, it’s often best when punting on the world’s greatest steeplechase, to side with an old warrior rather than an upwardly mobile youngster. It shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise that a fair level of experience counts for plenty when faced with 30 fences over a marathon four-and-a-half-mile trip.
One For Arthur was just an eight-year-old when landing the major prize 12 months ago, though he’d had plenty of practice, with just shy of a dozen runs over the larger obstacles. Back in third that day was the 11-year-old Saint Are, and in fifth Gas Line Boy, also in his 11th year. That pair were 25/1 and 50/1 respectively.
The renewals of 2012, 2013 and 2014 all went to horses aged 11. The classiest of those was Neptune Collonges, who famously carried 11-6 when getting his nose in front just in time to defeat Sunnyhillboy. He was sent off a relatively unconsidered 33/1 shot.
Four of the first five home in 2013 were aged 11 or 12, with Auroras Encore coming out on top at a stonking 66/1. And in 2014 Pineau De Re won the world’s most famous race at an attractive each-way price of 25/1.
Since the 11-year-old L’Escargot defeated Red Rum in the national of 1975 (carried 11-3), there has been a further 15 Aintree heroes aged 11 and 12. Rummy himself famously returned in 1977 to land his third Grand National at the grand old age of 12. He managed to haul 11-8 to victory on that occasion. Of those successful pensioners from 1975 onwards, only L’Escargot, Red Rum and Neptune Collonges managed to carry more than 11 stone to victory.
Away from this classy winning trio, there’s been other elderly headline makers. Aldaniti provided one of the great national stories when winning the famous race in 1981. Third in the Cheltenham Gold Cup of 1979, he’d then recovered from serious injury before arriving at the start at Aintree. His jockey, Bob Champion, had himself overcome adversity in battling against testicular cancer on the road to this incredible success. Such was the nature of the victory, that the tale was told on the ‘silver screen’, with John Hurt taking the lead role in ‘Champions’.
In 1990 Kim Bailey’s Mr Frisk, at the age of 11, raced to victory in a record time of eight minutes and 47 seconds. The 12-year-old Royal Athlete became trainer Jenny Pitman’s second success in the race in 1995, and in 2004 Amberleigh House was also 12 when capturing the prestigious prize for Red Rum’s legendary trainer Ginger McCain.
And there’s plenty of contenders that will be hoping to extend that impressive record for the older generation a week on Saturday.
Gas Line Boy returns for another crack following his fifth place finish a year ago. Now 12, he is notoriously good in the mud, and his trainer, Ian Williams, will be one of the few handlers hoping that this winter’s miserable weather holds out a little longer. He was defeated by 11-year-old Buywise last time out at Sandown. The pair renew rivalry at Aintree, with the Evan Williams-trained contender looking to improve on a midfield finish in 2016. His jumping will need to hold up, but at 50/1 he’s an interesting proposition.
Milansbar is another that could outperform his odds of 50/1. An impressive winner of the Betfred Classic in January, he recently finished runner-up in the Midlands National at Uttoxeter. He’s set to be ridden by one of this season’s young stars, Bryony Frost. She was onboard the 11-year-old at Warwick and is renowned for getting a horse into a lovely rhythm over fences.
Then there’s a pair of ever youthful 13-year-olds, in Raz De Maree and Bless The Wings. The former has already landed the Welsh National this season, whilst the latter was runner-up in the Irish Grand National 12 months ago. Both are big odds, yet more than capable off their current handicap mark, of putting in an impressive performance.
Saint Are has been placed in two of the last three nationals and returns at the age of 12 for another crack. And should ground conditions improve, Noel Meade’s 11-year-old Road To Riches (if making the cut) could prove an interesting outsider having plummeted down the handicap in recent times.
One or two of the oldies are sure to be in the mix, with Gas Line Boy currently the shortest priced at 33s. There’s certainly value to be had, though as ever, finding the right one will again prove the greatest challenge of all.