National Hunt expert Paul Jones on the trends that can lead to Grand National profits.
RANDOX HEALTH GRAND NATIONAL TRENDS 2017
Staggeringly, 15 of the 16 finishers last season were aged in single figures. I say ‘staggeringly’ as the Grand National had previously very much been a race for horses aged in double figures having won 17 of the previous 26 runnings. In fact, four of the previous six winners were aged 11 and there have also been nine winning 12-year-olds since 1962. However, only one of last season’s 14 contenders aged 10+ (from 39 runners) completed the course - Vics Canvas who in finishing third became the first teenager to place since 1969. The last teenage winner was Sergeant Murphy in 1923 but Vics Canvas is set to return as a 14-year-old this year.
For the second year running it was a second-season chaser in Rule The World that won following on from Many Clouds, so the days of following the more experienced horses could be coming to an end as the race changes profile in line with the modifications to the fences and the shorter race distance.
Six-year-olds are no longer eligible to run but it has still been a huge struggle for horses aged seven as their last winner was Bogskar in 1940 and only 11 of their 49 contenders have completed the course since 1992. In fact, no seven-year-old has even placed in the first four since 1971. Therefore we can mark up Vieux Lion Rouge, who has subsequently won the Becher Chase over these fences and the Betfred Grand National Trial at Haydock, for finishing seventh as a seven-year-old last season. These figures are not ideal for the likes of Shantou Flyer, Alary, Le Mercurey, Double Shuffle, As De Mee and Sambremont.
Although a second-season chaser, Rule The World was officially a novice last season and winning his first chase at the fourteenth attempt when successful at 33/1, though he had finished second in the previous spring’s Irish Grand National. No novice had previously won since Mr What in 1958. The least amount of chases previously contested by a Grand National winner in the last 25 years is ten when Numbersixvalverde won in 2006 and Many Clouds in 2015.
Key Age Stat: 15 of the 16 finishers last season were aged under ten, highlighting the changing nature of the race following the modifications.
The race distance is now officially 4m 2f 74y but the Grand National remains the longest race in Britain so possessing sufficient stamina levels is clearly still a prerequisite. As barmy as it sounds, maybe even more so following the reduction of the race distance in tandem with making the fences easier to negotiate, which should lead to a faster overall gallop, so there is even less of a let up in the pace ensuring that horses have to stay extra well to win.
For example, since the race distance was shortened and changes were made to the fences, the 1-2-3-4-5 in 2013 had all finished in the first four in an Aintree, Scottish, Welsh or Irish National before underlining the stamina argument. Three years ago the winner, second and fourth had all won races over at least the best part of 3½ miles and the 2015 running saw a Hennessy winner emerge victorious with winners of the Welsh, Irish and Durham Nationals finish in the first six in addition to a horse placed in the previous year’s Grand National. As for last year, it was an Irish National runner-up that won with a Cork National winner and Bet365 Gold Cup runner-up finishing third and a Midlands National winner staying on into fifth.
Contrary to what is often quoted by ultra-positive-thinking (or deluded) connections, statistics tell us that you certainly do not “need a two-and-half miler for the Grand National”. There is no better evidence than that to scan the records and note that we have to search back to Gay Trip in 1970 for the last such winner. The very minimum requirement is that our selection should have won over at least three miles like the last 45 winners. Last year’s winner had done so in a point-to-point and finished second in an Irish Grand National.
It wasn’t so long ago in 2008 that over a quarter of the field entered the race having failed to win a race over three miles but, given the rule put in place in the autumn of 2012 that to qualify a horse must have finished in the first four in a chase of three miles or more, those numbers have dropped. This rule was actually first implemented in the late 1920s but then lapsed.
Key Stamina Stat: The last 45 winners had won over at least three miles
The modifications to the fences ahead of the 2013 renewal produced an immediate impact as all 40 horses were still racing after seven fences and only two horses fell throughout the whole contest and 33 got past half-way. Therefore it can be argued that being on a super-safe jumper is not quite the advantage it used to be. The first two winners since the safety modifications are unlikely to have got away with their jumping mistakes in years gone by.
In fact, the winner of that first running since the modifications where the fence frames were altered from wood to EasyFix plastic birch, Auroras Encore, was statistically the worst jumper to win the Grand National since Maori Venture in 1987 (who had seven previous falls/unseats) if purely judging by number of previous falls/unseats, which he had totalled six.
Sixteen of the last 20 winners had no more than two falls/unseats to their name beforehand but, that said, two of those winners came in the last five years. Pineau De Re had fallen twice earlier in his career and the last winner to have never fallen or unseated his rider before Rule The World last season was another Irish-trained Numbersixvalverde in 2006. Interestingly, before him it was two more Irish-trained winners in Papillon and Bobbyjo.
Key Jumping Stat: 16 of the last 20 winners had fallen or unseated their rider no more than twice.
LEADING RACE GUIDES
Of the last 20 Grand National winners, as many as 13 had won or finished placed in a National of one description or another. In fact, the 1-2-3-4-5 in 2013 had all finished in the first four in an Aintree, Scottish, Welsh or Irish National before so checking out the form from other Nationals is a more than worthwhile exercise. Pineau De Re, for example, won the Ulster Grand National by 23 lengths a year before winning his victory three years ago.
The previous season’s Irish Grand National is by a country mile the leading Irish guide featuring five winners in the last 18 years but it has been the previous season’s Scottish Grand National that has had most impact of late as three of the last eight Aintree heroes contested that 4m1f handicap race the previous spring where they finished ninth, sixth and second respectively. Last season’s winner, Vicente, who is now owned by Trevor Hemmings who has owned three Grand National winners (Hedgehunter, Ballabriggs and Many Clouds), is a leading contender to extend both the Scottish National and Hemmings’ impressive record.
The Welsh Grand National has cooled as a guide of late featuring just one winner since Bindaree (2002) having featured as many as eight winners between 1976-2002. The Hennessy Gold Cup used to be an excellent guide as between 1987-2005 as many as 18 of its field went on to finish in the first four, of which seven won. It went quiet for ten years until Neptune Collonges ran at Newbury four seasons ago and Many Clouds then completed the double two seasons ago. The runner-up, Carole’s Destrier, Blaklion (5th) and Vicente (fell) are its chief representatives this time.
Surprisingly, no winner of the Betfred Grand National Trial at Haydock in which Vieux Lion Rouge beat Blaklion (Vicente was further back) has won but Red Rum prepped in that trial ahead of all five of his Aintree appearances and seven Grand National winners since 1973 used that trial as a successful platform.
Key Leading Race Guides Stat: 13 of the last 20 winners had won or been placed in a National of any description before.
CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL FORM
Eight Grand National winners going back to 1991 ran at the Cheltenham Festival. However, just one Cheltenham Festival winner from the same season has followed up in the Grand National since Nicolaus Silver won in 1961. That’s the stat against the Cross Country Chase winner, Cause Of Causes.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup will appeal to many punters as the best guide and Many Clouds finished sixth before winning at Aintree two years ago. We have to go back to the Gold Cup runner-up, Rough Quest, in 1996 to find the last winner.
The Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Handicap Chase is a notable guide and the narrow runner-up, Pendra, could take his chance. Sunnyhillboy in the same ownership could not have gone any closer here five years ago when nosed out by Neptune Collonges after winning that amateur riders’ race at Cheltenham, which was also the final race contested by Mr Frisk (1990) where he finished fourth before winning the Grand National in a course record time. Greasepaint (1983) and Encore Un Peu (1996) also finished runner-up after winning and finishing second in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir. Ballabriggs (2011) did win a Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir, but that success was recorded 13 months before his Grand National triumph.
Many trainers like to use a race over hurdles to help put the final touches to their preparation and Don’t Push It (2010) and Pineau De Re (2014) both had their final start in the Pertemps Network Final where they finished pulled up and third respectively. On the subject of hurdling, nine of the last 14 winners had run over hurdles at some point earlier in the season.
Silver Birch (2007) finished third in the Cross Country Chase prior to his victory here but, a little surprisingly, only Bindaree (2002) of Grand National winners since 1991 contested the valuable Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Chase on his previous start in which The Young Master shaped well in sixth.
Key Cheltenham Festival Form Stat: Only one Cheltenham Festival winner from the same season has gone on to win since 1961, though eight horses beaten at the Cheltenham Festival have won since 1991.
Since Lord Gyllene won in 1997, only Ballabriggs of subsequent winners had won more than once earlier in the season (and those successes were in novice hurdles) until Many Clouds two years ago.
A total of 56 days had passed since Neptune Collonges (2012) had his previous start when he was narrowly beaten in the Grand National Trial at Haydock meaning that he became the first Grand National winner since Aldaniti (1981) to have been off the course for over 50 days. In the whole scheme of things six days is neither here nor there, the underlying point is that a fairly recent run is important (by fairly recent I’d say since the New Year) and it also doesn’t necessarily have to be a good one. That’s a sticking point against the narrow Becher Chase runner-up, Highland Lodge, who has not run since that fine run.
Three of the last ten winners were officially at least 5lb ‘well in’ having improved since the weights were unveiled in mid-February. In addition, Sunnyhillboy was defeated by just a nose in 2002 attempting to do likewise. This is significant as few contenders are ‘well in’ at all, let alone to the tune of 5lb+. Three years ago the best-in horse to the tune of 9lb, Balthazar King, also only found one too good, the 2015 best-in horse, The Druids Nephew (10lb), was going like a winner in many people’s eyes when he fell when leading on the second circuit and last season’s handicap blot being 12lb ‘well in’, The Last Samuri, finished second. This season’s ‘best in’ contenders are Definitly Red (10lbs), Tenor Nivernais (8lbs), Vieux Lion Rouge and Saphir Du Rheu (6lbs), Blaklion and Just A Par (4lbs), Double Shuffle (3lbs) and More Of That (2lbs).
Pineau De Re became the busiest Grand National winner for 25 years three years ago as he had raced on eight occasions since the start of August whereas all other winners since Little Polveir (1989) had run between three and six times.
Key Recent Form Stat: Only two of the last 19 winners had won more than once earlier in the season.
THE IRISH CHALLENGE
A total of 25 Irish-trained horses have won the Grand National and despite the Gigginstown exodus having been unhappy with the handicapping of some of their horses, the Irish have a strong hand again. Eight years had passed in between Silver Birch and Rule The World which had to be considered as a mini drought given that they had plundered six of the nine runnings between 1999-2007.
Interestingly, six of the last seven Irish-trained winners going back to 1999 had run over hurdles in one of their previous two races. A Grand National contender running over hurdles earlier in the season is viewed by many as being a clever way to help protect a horse’s chase handicap rating ahead of their big target but the BHA Head of Handicapping has been cuter to their plan in very recent seasons and had his say.
Willie Mullins has saddled a winner, second and third from his 32 runners and looks set to be represented by Pleasant Company, Alelchi Inois and Sambremont (if he gets in). Gordon Elliott’s main contenders look to be Ucello Conti, Cause Of Causes and Roi Des Francs. The pair are slugging it out for the Irish Trainers’ Championship and saddled no less than 12 of the 28 Cheltenham Festival winners between them.
Key Irish Challenge Stat: Responsible for seven winners going back to an including 1999, six of which ran over hurdles in one of their two starts.
PREVIOUS AINTREE EXPERIENCE
So how important is the much-discussed ‘Aintree Factor’? The recent facts are thus: five of the last 16 winners ran in the previous season’s Grand National and eight winners over the same period of time had run in any race over the Grand National course before.
If you are referring back to last year’s Grand National for clues then perhaps concentrate on horses that were not involved at the business end. Since Hallo Dandy won in 1984 having finished fourth the previous season, only Amberleigh House has won having finished in the first four 12 months earlier from as many as 19 defending title holders and 55 horses placed second, third or fourth to take their chance again. Top-four finishers from the previous year have an excellent completion record though with 48 of those returning 74 contenders safely negotiating all 30 fences again.
Key Previous Aintree Experience Stat: Only one of the last 74 top-four finishers from last season’s race to return has gone on to win.
THE BETTING MARKET
The fact that 16 of the last 26 winners were sent off in the first eight in the betting would suggest it is not as impossible as many believe. However, winner finding has undeniably been far tougher of late with seven of the last ten winners sent off at 100/1, 66/1, 33/1 (x3) and 25/1 (x2). The credit (if that is the right word as far as Form-Book students are concerned who like to concentrate on the leading fancies) for that can go to down to the BHA Handicapper who has certainly succeeded in his brief to make the race more competitive.
There have been four winning favourites or joint-favourites in the last two decades; the very well-handicapped Rough Quest (1996) having finished second in the Cheltenham Gold Cup on his previous start after the weights had been announced, Hedgehunter (2005), who fell at the final fence 12 months earlier when looking likely to finish third, Comply Or Die (2008) for David Pipe in his second season as a trainer and Don’t Push It (2010) who gave AP McCoy a famous victory.
Key Betting Market Stat: 7 of the last 10 winners started at 25/1+
The Grand National is often won by an unheralded jockey and their success will be by far and away their biggest career achievement. Ryan Mania, Liam Treadwell and Niall (Slippers) Madden would not be names to trip off the tongue outside of the horseracing industry but they have all won the world’s greatest steeplechase in the last decade. Leighton Aspell, Ruby Walsh, Richard Dunwoody and Carl Llewellyn have ridden the Grand National more than once in the last 30 years and, on both occasions Llewellyn was successful, he was picking up a spare ride.
Ruby Walsh has the best record of current jockeys having won on Papillon (2000) and Hedgehunter (2006) and he has completed the course on seven other occasions (four of which finishing second, third or fourth) from 12 rides. Barry Geraghty won on Monty’s Pass (2003) and has also ridden four other horses into a place from 16 attempts. Paul Moloney has not ridden the winner but he has remarkably reached a place for seven years consecutive years until he finish 12th last season. Richard Johnson has had most Grand National rides without winning (20) but has finished second on What’s Up Boys (2002) and Balthazar King (2014).
The last amateur rider to win was Marcus Armytage on Mr Frisk (1990) but Sam Waley-Cohen has an exceptional record over these fences having finished second, fourth and fifth in seven starts in addition to winning six other races over these fences and three other second-place finishes. He will ride The Young Master.
Key Jockey Stat: Ruby Walsh, Paul Moloney, Sam Waley-Cohen and Leighton Aspell have the strongest record over in races over the Grand National Course in recent years.
OWNERS & TRAINERS
Nigel Twiston-Davies is the only trainer currently holding a licence to have won the Grand National more than once courtesy of Earth Summit (1998) and Bindaree (2002) and his main hope is Blaklion.
Paul Nicholls’ Neptune Collonges (2012) could do what none of his previous 51 runners or 14 subsequent runners had achieved when getting up on the line to win the race’s tightest-ever finish which gave him the Trainers’ Championship edging out Nicky Henderson. His main hopes look to be Vicente and Just A Par.
Nicky Henderson has yet to win the Grand National from 39 attempts (eight departed at the first fence) of which four have placed, notably his very first runner, Zongalero (1979) who was one of two runners-up for the master of Seven Barrows. Jonjo O’Neill never completed the Grand National course in eight attempts as a jockey but one victory, two seconds and three thirds from 30 runners as a trainer is a superb return.
J P McManus may well have had owned three individual winners like Trevor Hemmings had the line come one yard earlier for Sunnyhillboy (2012) or if Clan Royal (2004 and 2005) had kept a straight line after the final fence or not been carried out when six lengths clear but Don’t Push It (2010) gave him a famous victory in between.
Key Owners & Trainers Stat: Trevor Hemmings has won three times since 2002 and J P McManus has owned a top-four finisher in 8 of the last 13 years.
The consensus view after Neptune Collonges became the first winner since Red Rum to carry over 11st 5lb five years ago (98 horses had tried and failed in the intervening 24 years) was that it was time to raise the white flag regards opposing the top weights.
Every Grand National winner between 1984-2004 had carried no more than 11st but, with four consecutive winners between 2009-2012 carrying a minimum of 11st, the tide had not just started to turn, it had seemingly fully turned. And then up popped Many Clouds to win off 11st 9lb two years ago. The more compressed nature of the handicap nowadays means that this once-critical trends factor has run its course.
Incidentally, coincidence punters might be interested to know that five winners since 2006 were originally allocated 10st 6lb. Now that is some coincidence! Horses originally allocated 10st 6lb this time are Ballnagour, Highland Lodge, Junction Fourteen, O’Faolain’s Boy, One For Arthur and Vivaldi Collonges.
Key Weight Stat: No longer relevant.
BLAKLION (20/1) would be my trends-based selection attempting to give second-season chasers a third win on the spin in what is now a different race given the modifications. Last season’s tough-as-teak RSA Chase winner is 4lb ‘well in’, was beaten in the Betfred Grand National Trial like many an Aintree winner but still ran a cracker to finish second (first two pulled well clear) after contesting an even better guide in the Hennessy, representing a dual Grand National-winning trainer and who has only fallen once in 21 starts.
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