Matt Tombs / Wednesday 8th April 2015 / 11:25
At the 5 day stage there were 65 left in the Grand National and we've got a pretty good idea what will get a run now, (plus the comfort of most layers going NRNB.) With a warm, dry week forecast, watering is likely to keep the ground on the slow side of good.
The last two Nationals have featured the brush-through style, plastic-core fences. They are much less of a jumping test, so horses go quicker. Since the drops on the landing side, which were much steeper on the inside of the course, were levelled – there’s more of an incentive to go the shortest route down the inner. The result has been they go much quicker earlier on to get a position.
It's worth noting that fence building is an art and how stiff you make a fence is not easily measured. The fences were softened during the media firestorm a couple of years ago, but it's possible they will be quietly stiffened up again over time, if that firestorm continues to subside.
Rather than jumping being the key attribute, the ‘new National’ looks to require 2 main qualities from a horse. Firstly, they need to have the tactical speed to hold a position - it's proving even harder to come from off the pace now. The other quality is an abundance of stamina. Given the speed they go over the first couple of miles these days, this is far more of a test of stamina than any other race in the calendar, (ignoring the impact caused by different ground.) Even some out and out stayers haven't been getting home.
It's obviously a very small pool of winners to draw conclusions from, but in terms of basic speed, it's noteworthy that both Auroras Encore and Pineau De Re were considered good enough to contest graded novice hurdles. Auroras Encore ran in the Grade 2 River Don at Doncaster over an extended 3m and Pineau De Re was 2nd in the Grade 1 Royal Bond at Fairyhouse over 2m. It doesn't need to be graded novice hurdle form, but you want some evidence that your selection has the basic toe not to get left behind by the early gallop.
You’d expect plenty of those at the top of the weights to have contested a Grade 1 or 2 novice hurdle and 10 of the first 18 have done so. 5 others who are guaranteed a run that have contested a Grade 1 or 2 novice hurdle are Saint Are, Tranquil Sea, Super Duty, Owega Star and Ely Brown.
A less obvious point is how experienced the winners are. Pineau De Re was having his 34th start when winning last year and his 15th over fences. Aurora’s Encore was having his 43rd start and 24th over fences – both were 11.
In stark contrast to the championship races at Cheltenham and so many of the big handicaps, old horses with lots of experience have been winning. Since 2002, the youngest winner has been aged 9 and the last 5 have all been 10 or 11.
The reality is that the National is a complete lottery now because the speed they go early on, (and consequent extreme stamina requirement,) makes it so different from any other race in the calendar. That’s borne out by the SPs of the last 3 winners - Pineau De Re (25/1), Aurora’s Encore (66/1) & Neptune Collonges (33/1) – and its only 6 years since Mon Mome won at 100/1.
I think it’ll be pretty rare that horses shorter than 20/1 will represent good value. Understandably the worst value of all is 8 year old Shutthefrontdoor (7/1) who could give the great AP McCoy a fairytale last ride before retirement. He’s clearly been trained for this since his narrow Irish National win off 142 last year, but he’s 11lb higher here and has had just 6 chase starts.
Of those at the front of the market I think Rocky Creek (10/1) is the most likely winner. He’s looked as if he might be a Grade 1 horse and is 9lb well in off 154, following his win in the big 3m handicap chase at Kempton in February. He was a decent 5th in this last season and looks to be seeing out his races better now, which gives him a better chance of getting home.
Balthazar King (11/1) bypassed the likely easy pickings off the Festival cross-country for another crack at the National having been 2nd last year. He’s 3lb higher than when outstayed last season and I think he’s vulnerable again, for all he’s likely to run a solid race.
It’s a long time since a horse won at the Festival and followed up here, though the likes of Pineau De Re and Silver Birch have run fine races in defeat at Cheltenham before winning this. The Druids Nephew (14/1) looked to win the open 3m handicap chase with a bit in hand off 146 and is officially 10lb well in. Even with an extra week between the meetings this year, I think this is a tough ask after that.
It’s 20/1 bar which brings in the first horse I like at the prices, Godsmejudge. He won the Scottish National two years ago off 139 and looks to have been brought along with this in mind since, (runs off 145). In a race where so few get the trip, he looks one of the most likely stayers. The concern is whether he can hold a position in the first half of the race.
Auroras Encore had been beaten 53l, 46l, 24l and 68l in the 4 of his previous 7 runs where he’d got round. Across The Bay (50/1) has a similar profile in that he’s got no closer than 60l to the winner in his last 6 races. He was going great guns out in front last year when carried out going out on the 2nd circuit. He’s 5lb lower off 143 this time and if he doesn’t go too much of a cut-throat gallop, he’s just the sort to cause a surprise.
Alvarado (20/1) has been well supported in recent days. He stayed on from miles back last season to finish 4th. Normally I’d think with a more positive ride, he’d be just the right type – but amazingly Paul Moloney has now been placed in the last 6 runnings of this. Each of the 6 have been owned by the Ruckers and ridden miles off the pace, and stayed on to win big slugs of place prize money. Whether that’s tactical or they just can’t go the gallop - I can see Alvarado continuing the trend, without threatening to win.
There are a couple of rank outsiders I give a chance to. Super Duty (80/1) looked a top prospect when chasing home Simonsig in a Grade 2 novice hurdle at this meeting 3 years ago. He was a decent novice chaser the following season earning a rating of 138. Injury intervened in late 2013 and he was one of the owner’s horses switched from Donald McCain to Ian Williams this season, (new yard going well). He blew the cobwebs away after a year off over hurdles in January and was then a distant 7th in the Grimthorpe. He may be a shadow of the horse he once was, but if he retains his ability and has been primed for this, he’s well handicapped off 141.
The other is Portrait King (66/1) who’s been an unlucky horse this season, getting hampered in both the Eider and the Paddy Power at Leopardstown. He won well off 127 at Punchestown, (off 140 here,) and is one of the more likely stayers – he could be underestimated for his small yard. The concern is that he doesn’t travel that well in his races and might get too far behind. He might be one for in-running players if he can hold a position on the first circuit.
The one to be on though is Saint Are (33/1). He won the Grade 1 Sefton novice hurdle over 3m at the meeting 4 years ago, and a 3m1f handicap chase off 137 at the 2012 meeting. He loves the spring, Aintree and good ground. He has the toe to go the early pace but stays really well, so looks to have the right credentials.
Switched from Tim Vaughan to Tom George this season, he was 3rd on his first three runs, before bolting up off 129 at Catterick last time, (3rd Sixty Something was clear in the Kim Muir when tipping up 4 out). That win got him a run here and, whilst he’s gone up a stone to 143, he’s still well handicapped on his old form.
The second of those three 3rds was in the Becher over 3m2f. He took well to the fences there and stayed on powerfully to be beaten just 3¾l – shaping as if he’d have won granted a stiffer test of stamina. He’s coming to the boil at the right time and looks too big a price.
1pt Saint Are to win the Grand National @ 33/1 NRNB