And the winner of the 2014 Grand National is…

It’s that time of year again, when everyone who knows I work in the betting industry asks me ‘any tips for the National?’

It’s as though they conveniently overlook the fact that it’s a 40 runner handicap and expect an inside line about who is going to win the Aintree spectacle. To be honest though, most of those asking wouldn’t know what a handicap was, let alone the fact that 40 runners in one race is unique to the Grand National and is about four times bigger than average field-size of races I bet on.

However, failing to provide a pick for the National is bordering on fraudulent for anyone who pays an iota of interest in National Hunt racing, let alone someone who carves a living from the sport. Therefore, I always have a couple of National selections on hand for those who expect me to know the winner like some equine clairvoyant.

I actually enjoy the annual battle with the Racing Post website as I try to untangle the Grand National and whilst finding the winner is a colossal task, I do approach it in a totally different way than I would any other race and I’m sharing that process on the blog this year.

I do consider trends when looking at any race but since I prefer to bet in non-handicaps, I tend to find that assessing ability of a horse in terms of its rating along with consideration of the other core variables such as distance, going and breeding is the most sustainable way of finding winners. However, when there’s 40 runners to consider and an infinite amount of measurables, something has to give and therefore, I reduce the Grand National field based on trends and this year I have chosen to illustrate the process of elimination I use that has seen me make the Grand National a 12 runner race (click the spreadsheet link or image below to view the full data).

Taking 12 factors that each of the last 10 National winners have all shared going in to the race, I produced the spreadsheet below. The 12 criteria are as follows – every winner of the Grand National since Amberleigh House in 2004;

  • Was aged between 8 and 12
  • Carried 11 stone 6lb or less
  • Had won a chase over at least 25f (3 1f)
  • Had placed in a race over 26f (3m 2f)
  • Had won a chase worth at least £29,000
  • Had at least three prep runs during the season
  • Had won at least three times over fences
  • Had raced at least eight time over fences
  • Had an official rating between 136 and 157
  • Had run during the 53 days prior to lining up in the Grand National
  • Had either won or been placed in chase that featured 15 or more runners

National Runners Spreadsheet 2014

National Trends

Collectively, I think these 12 commonalities constitute a strong profile for a Grand National winner and eight of this year’s entries satisfy all 12 criteria, they are:

Balthazar King
Teaforthree
Godsmejudge
Lion Na Bearnai
Monbeg Dude
Burton Port
Chance Du Roy
Raz De Maree

There are also 12 who meet 11 criteria and of those, I’m happy to consider the one’s who miss out on either ‘days since last run’  or ‘number of prep runs’, two criteria that I think can be overlooked. I wouldn’t ignore question marks about ability to stay the trip, jumping and big field experience or value of races won but if they are a couple of weeks short on days since last run or have two runs for the season, I’m happy to include and they are:

Prince De Beauchene
Big Shu
Mountainous
The Rainbow Hunter

So there you have it, the Grand National looks a much more manageable 12 runner race, they question now is which of the earmarked dozen is capable of finishing ahead of the rest?  Of those 12, I am happy to draw a line through Mountainous straight away as he is a horse that has only ever won on ground with the word soft or heavy in the going. Unless the heavens open over Merseyside over the next week I can’t see him featuring, if he runs at all. For similar reasons, I am happy to dismiss the chances of Raz De Maree, who has done all his winning on rain soaked ground.

I should point out that one that missed out on inclusion on my short-list having ticked 11 boxes was Hennessy winner, Triolo D’Alene, who is arguably a top class prospect in the making and the only negative is that he is seven-year-old and not horse younger than eight has won the National since Bogskar in 1940! There’s also the question about how much the Gold Cup took out of him but I like him and think he provides Nicky Henderson with the best chance of ending his wait for Grand National glory.

From a value perspective alone, Lion Na Bearnai (50/1), Chance Du Roy (40/1) and Big Shu (40/1)  are the biggest priced runners of these who make the cut and for little more reason than they meet all criteria and are big prices, all merit each-way consideration on the grounds of value.

Of the others, I really like Balthazar King, who is just one pound higher than last year and heads to Aintree on the crest of four consecutive wins this season, the most recent of which came in the Cross Country at Cheltenham, however, he ran out of fuel in last year’s race after leading after the 16th fence before the light went out and I can’t see him staying the distance again this time around.

I also like Godsmejudge, winner of the Scottish Grand National last year and off a mark of 148 he looks well treated on that form but his last two runs leave a lot to be desired having been pulled up on both occasions and whilst the Alan King yard may have always had one eye on a tilt at the National I’d like to have seen more since that win at Ayr.

It can’t go unnoticed that the ante post favourite, Teaforthree, also ticks all the boxes and whilst I could make a solid argument for the Rebecca Curtis runner going one better than when third twelve months ago, especially now 5lb lighter, I simply can’t have the favourite for a 40 runner race  on the grounds of value alone but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the 10-year-old win and if you think 9/1 is value, go ahead and take that price.

Former Welsh National winner, Monbeg Dude, is another that makes plenty of appeal but there is just one too many below par runs in his form for me to get excited and I think that Teaforthree will easily reverse Welsh National placings with just three pounds between the pair at Aintree instead of the 16lb difference that saw the Michael Scudamore runner get the better of the pair by half a length at Chepstow last year.

The one for me though is Burton Port, who is a best price 33/1 shot and whilst he’s not won in over three years, he has finished second on four of the ten runs since that last victory, including the Grade One Betfred Bowl at Aintree’s Grand National meeting two years ago. Three weeks prior to that, he had finished fourth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup behind Synchronised and those two runs saw him rated 166, some 21lb greater than his current mark of 145!

This is a horse full of ability, there’s no doubt about it and at 10-years-old, he should have more than enough left in the tank to see that ability exploit the 10 stone 8lb he is set to shoulder on Saturday, 5th April. He has had five runs this season following an 18 month lay-off and whilst none of those have suggested he is anywhere near the Grade One winner he threatened earlier in his chasing career, he did finish second at Newbury last time out on heavy ground and that was enough for me to think he is far from finished, especially after a recent breathing operation should also see him improve some more on that latest run. Add to the equation that he is trained by Jonjo O’Neil and owned by Sir Trevor Hemmings, neither of whom are strangers to Grand National success, Burton Port is my pick to win the 2014 Grand National at odds of 33/1.

At the end of the day, it’s a lottery as several big price winners have shown in recent years and whilst I’m anything but confident, I do think the selection satisfies the objective of finding a horse that has a profile that matches the last 10 winners of the Grand National together with the proven ability to potentially exploit his handicap mark.

There’s bound to be a few changes over the next week and I’ll aim to update the spreadsheet at the 48 hour decs but if you find it useful, please let me know.

Good luck!

2014 Grand National Pick – Burton Port @ 33/1

What We Learnt Following Cheltenham Trials Day

When Sam Twiston-Davies glanced behind him as he eased Big Buck’s to the front turning for home in the Cleeve Hurdle on Cheltenham’s Trials Day at the weekend, it appeared that the staying sensation was going to record a victory on his return to racing following a near fourteen month absence and a 19th consecutive win. However, the four-times Ladbrokes World Hurdle winner was swamped by 66/1 outsider Knockara Beau in the final furlong in what was one of the biggest shocks seen at the Gloucestershire track in recent years as Big Buck’s slipped back into third place up the hill.

Although a deathly silence spread around Prestbury Park following the defeat of the Ditcheat stable star, it was Paul Nicholls who was first to announce his joy of Big Buck’s run and that he would return considerably fitter for a tilt at a fifth World Hurdle title when he’s next seen in March and the 11-year-old is certainly the one to beat on day three of the Festival according to the bookmakers with the reaction following Saturday’s result just a slight negative market move with Big Buck’s odds of winning the World Hurdle pushed out to 9/4 from 2/1.

Whilst that could prove to be a massive price about one of the best runners the sport has ever seen come the Festival, he will have his work cut out to regain the Championship crown based on the latest form with At Fishers Cross, who finished second in the race, produced his best display of the season under a superb ride from AP McCoy and last year’s Albert Bartlett winner has to be given respect as he excels around the undulations of Cheltenham and should be thereabouts and won’t be short of backers at 7/1.

There’s also Annie Power to consider in the World Hurdle picture. The Willie Mullins trained mare recorded her third straight victory of the season with a 15 length demolition job in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle at Doncaster. The ante post value has long about the six-year-old, who is now a 3/1 chance to upset the boys in the old Stayers Hurdle but in receipt of 7lbs from her male counterparts and seemingly of a rapid upwards curve, she’s going to be hard to beat if Mullins does opt to run her in the three mile contest and given he’d be cannibalising his and his connections chances was he to run her in the Champion Hurdle or David Nicholson, the World Hurdle looks the logical choice and for my money, Annie Power is definitely the one to be on at this stage.

Elsewhere at Cheltenham, Paul Nicholls went in to the meeting with an embarrassment of riches but the former champion trainer was forced to take a back seat as he was unable to kick the day off in winning fashion as 11/10 favourite, Vicenzo Mio, was comfortably beaten by Nick Williams’s Le Rocher in the JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial and the winner is now a best price 12/1 chance with Ladbrokes for the Friday curtain-raiser in March. However, I’ll be holding off having an ante post bet in that race until the Adonis Hurdle at Kempton at the end of February, which is my favourite trial for Triumph Hurdle clues.

Another Nicholls runner in the form of Rocky Creek was also sent off the favourite, a 6/4 chance to win the Argento Chase, but eight-year-old was out-sprinted by The Giant Bolster in the closing stages to finish seven lengths back in second and Nicholls is now set to try and head for the Grand National in April and at 25/1 in the latest betting for the Aintree spectacle, Rocky Creek could be worth a speculative bet ahead of the weights being announced for the race in a couple of weeks time.

David Pipe’s Red Sherlock was already a name etched into punter’s notebooks after a couple of eye-catching successes in lower company, but the Pond House inmate emerged as a genuine Neptune Novices’ Hurdle challenger as he held off a spirited effort from Willie Mullins’s Rathvinden in the Classic Novices’ Hurdle and is available at 8/1 with Betfred for the Neptun, whilst the Co. Carlow runner-up is on offer at 20/1 but it is another Mullins runner in Faugheen who looks the one to beat in the opening race of day two in just six weeks time.

On a weekend that also saw Hurricane Fly land his fourth Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown, there were festival clues aplenty in the UK & Ireland, but the major positive to emerge from some terrific National Hunt action is that Big Buck’s is back and will be bidding for a fifth World Hurdle and that can only be great news for the sport of jumps racing.

Auroras Encore Bids To Compelte Aintree and Scottish National Double

Champagne corks would not have just been popping at Sue Smith’s Bingley yard after Auroras Encore’s shock 66/1 victory but the BHA and all concerned with improving the welfare of horses in the race would have breathed a  huge sigh of relief as the 2013 Grand National produced a magnificent spectacle with all 40 horses and jockeys returning from the four mile four furlong marathon trip safely.

Aintree have prided themselves on introducing safety measures over the last 12 months after two horses, including 2012 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Synchronised, suffered fatal injuries in the world’s greatest steeplechase last year, and the Merseyside venue would’ve been triumphing over the positive impact their changes made to what was still a highlight of not only National Hunt racing but of the UK sporting calendar.

Witticisms were flying in ten to the dozen in the lead-up to the race with some in the racing ranks referring to the race as a potential glorified hurdle race, but the 4m 3f 110y marathon lost none of its glitz and glamour as the 40-strong field went careering to the first fence.

The obstacles have certainly become a lot less taxing on the horses, as they are now able to brush through the top of the fences with more ease, but the view of watching these 40 equine superstars jumping round the idiosyncratic course still created a buzz around the millions that were watching the race around the world.

Going into the race all eyes had been on Katie Walsh, as her mount Seabass was backed off the boards, but as he did 12 months ago, the Ted Walsh-trained raider failed to see out the closing stages, whilst the fellow Irish raiders Colbert Station and On His Own had both failed to make it around the course after falling in the middle part of the contest.

Meanwhile at the head of affairs Nick Scholfield was gaining a real tune out of Teaforthree, but the petrol tank was plummeting in the red as a tired jump at the last handed the initiative to Ryan Mania on board Auroras Encore and the 2012 Scottish National runner-up and the pair duly sprinted clear to send the bookmakers into raptures and a new name catapulted into the newspapers.

Mania was a name only known in racing quarters, but no doubt editors across the land enjoyed compiling their punchy headings utilising the Scotsman’s surname, but his fall the following day at Hexham, where he was airlifted to hospital just brought home to the nation the ups and downs with the national hunt world.

After being discharged from hospital, Mania will have to spend some time on the sidelines, but he will desperate to be back in the plate for Auroras Encore’s next race, which looks set to be in the Scottish National at Ayr on April 20, where he tries to emulate the legendary Red Rum by notching up the Grand National and Scottish National double and he is currently around the 12/1 market in the latest betting to secure victory north of the border.

Grand National Contenders Emerge As Race Nears

We have seen the build-up to the 2013 Grand National crank up a notch over the last week with the announcement of the weights coupled with one or two contenders staking their claims following trials. The handicapper has tried his best to level the field of entries for this year’s race and as usual, which has signalled the start of ‘National season’. Trainers and owners in Britain and Ireland are now finalising plans for their Aintree hopefuls with the race fast approaching.

One horse who has impressed recently is Cappa Bleu, who had his final run before Aintree at Ascot last weekend. The Evan Williams trained 11 year old ran a blinder to finish second in the Weatherbys Insurance Chase Limited Handicap over three miles and connections have now decided to send the horse straight to the National. Cappa Bleu seemed in great order as he jumped with style around Ascot before staying on well through the line to pick up a hard fought second place.

Last year, Cappa Bleu ran a great race in the Grand National to finish fourth and with that experience behind him and a fair weight to carry (10-7 – 3lbs less than 12 months ago), he has to be respected once again in 2013. The bookmakers were certainly impressed with his run at Ascot with the horse now fighting for second favouritism in some places at 12/1 behind the Willie Mullins trained Prince De Beauchene. That is high praise indeed for the horse but punters can be pretty sure he stays as he proved last year when he finished fourth and based on his current form, it would be no surprise to see him at least placed again.

Another horse who has long been touted as a potential National winner is Teaforthree but he looked well below his best recently when he faded out of contention in the Haydock National Trial. The Rebecca Curtis trained nine year old won the four mile handicap at the Cheltenham Festival last year to prove his stamina while he ran another good race at Chepstow when finishing second in the Welsh Grand National back in January. The manner in which he faded at Haydock on his last start however is a worry for punters but at the same time, he has been such a consistent horse recently that he can surely be forgiven for one bad run.

Teaforthree and Jockey AP McCoy, have built up a successful partnership over the past couple of years but the Champ is unlikely to be on board the Welsh trained horse at Aintree come April. McCoy is likely to get the leg up on Sunnyhillboy for his boss JP McManus this year instead, leaving Rebecca Curtis looking for a new partner for Teaforthree. It was Nick Scholfield who took the ride at Haydock and while he is clearly a very good jockey, he does lack the experience and class of McCoy who is of course the best in the business.

One other contender who is worthy of a mention at this stage is On His Own who made a fine return to the track at Navan to win the Boyne Hurdle ahead of his second tilt at the Grand National. The Willie Mullins trained horse fell at Bechers on the second circuit when travelling well last season and all the signs are that he is bang in form ahead of a return to Liverpool on 6th April. The horse showed plenty of class to win the Grade 2 Boyne Hurdle on his first start for 10 months and as a result the bookmakers were impressed enough to cut the horse into as short as the 8/1 favourite for Aintree.

All of this comes in the wake of the news that Grand National top weight, Tidal Bay, will miss the race after picking up an injury. Even shoudler top weight, the Paul Nicholls trained runner looked well in after the handicapper had done his work but his withdrawal will now see the field shaken up ahead of the race. Plenty of horses will now be the subject of a hike in the handicap as a result of the withdrawal of Tidal Bay leaving plenty of punters left scratching their heads when trying to find the winner at this stage. There is no doubt however that the likes of Cappa Bleu and On His Own are credible contenders, they have both been treated fairly by the handicapper and both will be looking to win the race at the second attempt.

Neptune Collonges Grand National Success Marred By More Aintree Tragedy

In the wake of a second successive Aintree Grand National in which two fatalities were suffered, it is quite understandable that the public outcry would be at its loudest. The tragic deaths of Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, Synchronised and According To Pete could now spark profound changes to the race that could even result in the removal of its most notorious fence, Bechers Brook ahead of the 2013 Grand National.

Aintree Racecourse spent £250,000 on safety improvements after receiving thousands of complaints following the deaths of Ornais and Dooney’s Gate last year. It is clear however, that the improvements have failed, particularly those made to “Bechers” as it was at this fence that Synchronised (on the first circuit) and According To Pete (on the second circuit), both fell as had Dooney’s Gate 12 months before them. In fairness to the fence, Synchronised actually got to his feet after depositing jockey, Tony McCoy and ran on until falling rider-less at the 11th where he then broke his leg.

The deaths sadly marred the outcome of the race, where grey, Neptune Collonges and jockey, Daryl Jacob, not only defied the 33/1 odds against him, he defied the trends and stats of the race proving in the process that there is no substitute for sheer class to get up by a nose to finish ahead of Sunnyhillboy. At his peak in 2009, the 11 year old was rated at 174, making him easily the best horse in the race. He had won two Grade One races inIrelandand would have won more in theUKhad it not been for the presence of his two superior stablemates, Kauto Star and Denman. In winning, he became the first grey horse since Nicholas Silver in 1961 to win the race and the first since Red Rum in 1977 to carry 11-06 or more to victory. Neptune Collonges win also meant a first ever “National” success for champion trainer, Paul Nicholls.

Whatever the outcome it was certainly not to be a day for the JP McManus the Jonjo O’Neill team, who not only lost their prized Gold Cup winner Synchronised but also had to suffer the agony of watching O’Neill’s second entry, Sunnyhillboy lose the race in the run-in. Ridden with great gusto by Richard McLernon, the nine year old was overhauled in a thrilling battle with Neptune Collonges before being beaten on the line by the shortest possible margin. It was the closest ever finish to a Grand National and one that will live very long in the memory.

As usual, thebookmakers had a superb day after sending off Seabass and Shakalakaboomboom as 8/1 joint favourites. Despite brother Ruby Walsh turning down the ride on him, a huge gamble on Katy Walsh and Seabass was witnessed beforehand with the general buzz indicating that she was about to become the first ever female to ride the winner of the race. In the event, having ridden the horse superbly throughout, where he remained prominent, he just did not have enough stamina to take on the first two on the run in. Nonetheless, his third place earned Katy the accolade of finishing the race in a higher position than any other female before her. Shakalakaboomboom, who also rode with great prominence faded at the last finishing in 9th place.

Fourth place went to the Evan Williams trained Cappa Bleu giving the trainer a fourth consecutive place finish in the race, while fifth home was 100/1 rank outsider In Compliance who was just over two lengths clear of last year’s winner, Ballabriggs. Only fifteen of the forty runners finished the race.

Synchronised Remains On Course To Re-Write History After Latest Grand National Forfeit Stage

Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Synchronised heads both the market and the weights at the latest forfeit stage for the 2012 Grand National. A total of 59 runners have stood their ground, with last year’s winner Ballabriggs next in the weights on 11-09. Midnight Chase, who finished 31 lengths behind Synchronised in the Gold Cup is on 11-08 the same as Weird Al who pulled up in Cheltenham feature with a broken blood vessel whilst a pound further back is Gold Cup fourth BurtonPort who’ll have just three pounds to reverse the eight lengths he finished behind Synchronised in the Gold Cup.

The simple fact that there are so many Gold Cup runners in this year’s Grand National tells us that we are likely to witness one of the highest quality renewals for many years. Add to the mix last year’s winner, Ballabriggs, Prince De Beauchene, winner of the Bobbyjo Chase inIrelandlast time out, together with Irish Hennessy Gold Cup winner, Quel Esprit and Sky Bet Chase winnerCalgaryBay.

Should Synchronised pull off the almost impossible Gold Cup and Grand National double in the same season then he would be the first horse to do so since Golden Miller in 1934 and the first horse since L’Escargot in 1975 to win both races. Another first is that he would also be the first horse since Freebooter in 1950 to carry top weight to victory. It all adds up to a very difficult task indeed for the Jonjo O’Neil trained and JP McManus owned runner but he could be the once in a lifetime horse that defies the history books.

It is fair to say that he will not go down as one of the all time great Gold Cup winners but it should be remembered that he won the Grade 1 Lexus Chase inIrelandin his preparation race forCheltenhamback in December. He also won the rearranged Welsh National over 3m7f in January 2011 and the Midland National over 4m1f a year before that, wins that confirm his staying ability to handle the marathon Grand National trip and it’s just whether he can overcome the burden of top weight.

Meanwhile Bookmakers generally have confirmed that support continues to come for the Willie Mullins trained Prince De Beauchene. The nine year old was last seen winning the Grade 2 Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse last month will be racing off only 10-06 making him a very decent proposition and with Ruby Walsh likely to take the ride, his price is only going to go in one direction.

Support it appears has waned for Donald McCain’s Weird Al following his broken blood vessel sustained in the Gold Cup where he had to be pulled up. He was still confirmed for the race however as is stablemate and 2011 winner, Ballabriggs, who is currently third favourite with odds of around 12/1. Ballabriggs of course will be trying to emulate the feat of the legendary three time winner, Red Rum, trained by McCain’s father, Donald and who was the last horse to win the Grand National back-to-back.

Others reported to be being well supported with just three weeks to go before the race include Junior from the David Pipe stable, Burton Port who is now into 12/1 in places, Alan King’s West End Rocker a 16/1 shot the same price as Cappa Bleu, Cheltenham Festival winner, Sunnyhillboy and the highly regarded Seabass from the Ted Walsh stable in Ireland. All will come to Aintree on April 14th with high expectations.

Are Changes On The Cards Following The BBC Ditching Its Racing Coverage?

If viewer’s comments made on the Mail Online and other such sites, is anything to go by then the BBC’s loss of the rights to cover live the Grand National, Royal Ascot The Derby and Prix l’Arc de Triomph meetings to Channel 4 Racing from 1913 is a popular one.

Indeed most of those “in the know” seemed to be expecting a capitulation by the BBC from horse racing, particularly after the last year’s Grand National when two horses died. Rigidly adhering to their political correct policies, the “Beeb” clearly could not be seen to be broadcasting an event which is under such close scrutiny from all corners of society.

What this means for the array of presenters on both channels is yet to be discussed in the public domain but Clare Balding, who has fronted BBC racing for the last 14 years, has made it clear that she is very disappointed and hinted that she will be leaving the BBC. Obviously she will be going nowhere until post London Olympics but will she be offered the same position with Channel 4 Racing and if so, will she bring Willie Carson with her?

Will Channel 4 be tempted to replace their current betting appraisers led by John McCririck with the John Parrott and Gary Wiltshire or will Channel 4 stick with its current stable.

Certainly Parrott will not be short of employment as the BBC do intend, at least for the time being, to continue their snooker coverage. Meanwhile Wiltshire is gainfully employed currently by the Greyhound coverage on Sky Sports as well as his role with the Tote/Betfred.

There may even be an opportunity for Rishi Persad with Channel 4 but the man famed for his inane interviews is finding alternative sporting opportunities elsewhere within the BBC.

Will any of the current Channel 4 presentation team be nervous about their futures? Certainly they have the edge in popularity over their current BBC counterparts but given that there may be personality changes which of them will be the most worried?

Despite curtailing his appearances, McCririck remains a very watchable character by most and along with the other pundits, all are very professional and deliver their message with great clarity as a rule. They let the punter know well in advance on their Morning Line programme on Saturday morning, the likely market movers and drifters and latest information from the markets and exchanges. They also usually inform their audience of which horses Pricewise from the Racing Post is tipping, which saves money buying the paper which more often than not proves profitable!

Nick Luck who is generally the front man for the Morning Line does a great job and it would appear unfair if he paid the price for some heavyweight arrivals from the BBC.

It all looks very interesting and no doubt if Channel 4 sees fit, it could form a new team that befits the fact that from 2013, they will be the lead broadcaster as far as horse racing is concerned in the UK. This is a far cry from just a few short years ago when it looked as if their racing coverage was about to fold due to lack of revenue.

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