The greatest horse race is just a week away. The Grand National was first run in 1839, and founded by William Lynn the proprietor of Waterloo Hotel. He leased land in Aintree from the 2nd Earl of Sefton, and the National was born. In the 1840’s Lynn’s health took a turn for the worse and a member of his syndicate, Edward Topham, took over the lease and with it control of the race. The Topham family bought the course outright a century later. In the mid-1950’s Vincent O’Brien dominated the event, saddling the winner in 53, 54 and 1955. A year later Devon Loch famously jumped an invisible object halfway up the run-in with the race at his mercy. The Queen Mother’s horse sank to his stomach and was unable to complete the race leaving E.S.B. to claim the coveted prize. In 1967 Foinavon caused a huge upset when winning the race at a price of 100/1. A loose horse swerved across the front of the 23rd fence, causing interference and a huge pile-up. Foinavon plotted his way through the mayhem, jumping clear of the opposition. Although many jockeys remounted and gave chase, none were able to catch John Buckingham’s mount. In 1984 the infamous obstacle was named in his honour. The 1970’s heralded the arrival of the Grand National’s greatest ever contestant. Red Rum won the race in 1973 and 1974. After finishing runner-up in 75 and 76 he returned to the winner’s enclosure for the third time in 1977 at the age of 12. As the years pass it becomes harder to believe that a horse could be capable of such a feat. His record was truly remarkable and his achievements will never be repeated. The race distance of four miles and three and a half furlongs make the race a unique spectacle, but it is the fences themselves that make the Grand National so special. In recent years those fences have been modified in an attempt to make the race safer for the horses. People have varying views over the merits of such changes, but there is no doubt that the race still captivates the nation like no other. Becher’s Brook, Valentine’s and The Chair remain famous and daunting obstacles, testing the ability of both horse and rider. On the morning of the race, betting shops around the country will be full of punters hoping to pick-out the winner. Numerous systems will be employed in an attempt to find that one special horse from the 40 contenders. The colour of jockey’s silks, a favourite number, or maybe a catchy name will all come under consideration when selections are made. This year’s renewal will see the sport’s greatest jockey saddling-up for the final time, as AP McCoy takes the ride on Shutthefrontdoor. Sure to go off a short-priced favourite, many will place their hopes along with hard cash on the retiring Champ, praying for one final hurrah. Those who like to think they know a little about the sport will look to the form-books and historic race trends, as they attempt to form a list of the most likely contenders. That list may still be a considerable one, and that’s when the ‘lucky pin’ will be deployed. And so, armed with a host of books, websites and other paraphernalia, I will now attempt to narrow the aforementioned field to a mere handful of likely winners of this year’s Aintree showpiece. In recent times the winner has been aged 9, 10 or 11, with a 12 year-old winning back in 2004 and an eight-year-old taking the prize in 2002. It’s pretty clear from this particular trend that both experience and maturity are crucial factors in such a demanding contest. (The race favourite is an eight-year-old that has only run over fences on six occasions.) Only three horses have carried more than 11 stone to victory since 1983, with Neptune Collonges carrying 11-6 to a narrow win in 2012, and AP getting his famous victory off 11-5 aboard Don’t Push It. Of the last 24 winners, none had been off the track for more than 55 days leading up to the race. (Both Shutthefrontdoor and Balthazar King have been off since November.) The age trend alone allows us to disregard half the field, and the weight carrying trend probably points to Rocky Creek being the highest handicapped contender. With these trends in the forefront of our minds we turn to race-form and a ‘gut’ feeling for those horses that are well-handicapped, or maybe still on the upgrade and capable of staying the marathon trip. Rocky Creek is one such horse who appears to be well-handicapped and most certainly improving. He won well off his current mark at Kempton last time and has been trained specifically for the National this year. There has to remain a slight concern over his ability to see-out the trip, after he faded late-on in last year’s race. His trainer has had a winter to remember and Nicholls is adamant that the horse is stronger this time round. Balthazar King has also been trained with this one day in mind. He is a horse that goes well fresh, but the stats suggest his lay-off may play against him. His run last year was terrific, but he came into the National of 2013 off an identical break to this season, and finished down the field behind Auroras Encore. McCoy has hinted that he will retire immediately should he win on board Shutthefrontdoor. The scenes after such a victory are hard to imagine, and it would be a fitting conclusion to an incredible career. The concern has to be that Jonjo’s horse is still a very inexperienced eight-year-old. He’s also had the dreaded long-break and therefore taking account of race trends he has to be rejected. Night In Milan is an interesting contender. He has the right kind of profile and should get his preferred sound surface at Aintree. He’s either won or been placed in 13 of his 18 chase starts, and ran a terrific race at Doncaster in January behind the subsequent RSA fifth If In Doubt. One negative has to be his very limited experience over extended trips, with a third at Catterick his only real run at a marathon distance. But I like him as an each-way proposition, especially at 40’s. The Druids Nephew is tempting but he is yet another eight-year-old, and that means that I should really put a line through his name. He does have a fair amount of experience having run 13 times over fences, and his form behind Sam Winner earlier in the season coupled with his win at the Cheltenham Festival make him hard to dismiss. But if I started bending the rules for this eight-year-old, where would it all end? Godsmejudge is one that I simply cannot ignore. He is the right age and has the right kind of experience having won and been runner-up in two Scottish Nationals. He ran a cracker in the Bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown last April off his current mark, and a race weight of 10-8 looks perfect. I believe he has an outstanding chance and he is currently priced at 20/1. Al Co is another that comes under consideration. He won the Scottish National last April, though he was in receipt of 5lbs from Godsmejudge. He too looks a thorough stayer and is a ten-year-old running off an attractive race weight. His odds of 33/1 make him a decent each-way proposition. And that just leaves the trainer of last year’s winner. Dr Richard Newland hit the jackpot last April when Pineau De Re won the World’s Greatest Steeplechase, and although I feel the reigning Champ will struggle this time round, his trainer has another live contender in Royale Knight. Tried and tested over marathon trips, he needs a decent surface to be seen at his best. He looks likely to just scrape in at the bottom of the handicap, and if he does he could run a huge race. I’m not sure he quite has the class to win, but he rarely runs a bad race, and will be doing all his best work in the latter stages. At 25/1 it will be hard to resist an each-way punt on this nine-year-old. And there you have it. No need for the ‘lucky pin’ after all. My ‘famous five’ for this year’s Grand National are: Godsmejudge Rocky Creek Al Co Royale Knight Night In Milan Good luck to all that battle their way through the door of their local betting shop. Be sure to enjoy this most prestigious race as the drama unfolds. It’s sure to be a thriller.
There are three things in life that have the potential to make me leap out of bed in the morning; a round of golf, the Grand National and house fires. With the former two being preferred, this is an incredibly exciting time of year for me with the Masters at Augusta and the world’s greatest horse race, the Grand National. My first experience of the national was in 1992 at the age of 8 (nearly) when Party Politics reigned victorious. My granddad was fanatical about horse racing and his enthusiasm for racing and the Grand National in particular clearly rubbed off on me in a big way. In the years that followed I remember waking up in the early hours of the morning begging my father to go to the shops to buy the newspapers so that I could pick my horses. I would spend all morning looking through them trying to find the winner and nothing much has changed to this day. My imagination was set alight by the Grand National and I was buzzing for the whole day; particularly if I had found the winner. In actual fact I had a fairly prolific strike rate as an adolescent having backed Royal Athlete, Rough Quest, Earth Summit, Red Marauder and Bindaree. My thought process back then was simply to identify a horse which was likely to get round and would appreciate the marathon trip. Recent renewals have not been quite so kind, having backed only 3 winners in the last ten years, my finest of which was Amberleigh House when relieving William Hill of a nice amount using a £50 free bet as a student. No prizes for guessing what the money was invested in! Some people will argue that the Grand National is a lottery, but not me. I am a purist and believe that it is the ultimate analytical challenge for horse racing fanatics like myself. Furthermore, there are few things in life that can bring a nation together, but the Grand National is certainly one of them and this is one of the many reasons that the race is so special for me. This year’s renewal is as always hugely competitive and the modifications to the course in recent years have really opened up the winner’s enclosure to a new batch of potential Grand National winners. There is now less of a premium on sound jumping and more on having the ability to travel through the race. Sound jumping is still important but not as crucial as it has been in the past. A sound attitude and good level of concentration is also critical as incidents will happen around you and the electrifying atmosphere and nature of the course can set some horses alight. You need a horse that is likely to settle and that comes with experience, particularly at the course. Another increasingly important factor in finding big races winners is the nature of their preparation. My preference is to identify horses that not only have the requisite skills for the race in question but have also been laid out for the race. After all, success occurs when opportunity meets preparation. We only have to look at the number of big race Saturday winners that Paul Nicholls has had recently to know that this is true. Yes you need to be coming into the race with good form, but equally important is to arrive fresh and well. Other sports provide evidence for this point too. Tiger Woods in his prime had a very select campaign where he would prepare his game almost exclusively for the major championships. Likewise we see in football with the Champions League and Europa League that it is very difficult to perform at the top level in Europe midweek and then deliver domestically on the weekend. With this in mind I have focussed my attentions on six leading contenders for this year’s Grand National, most of which have been prepared for the race by trainer’s with a rich history of preparing horses for the big day. In my opinion there is no better trainer to prepare a horse for this race than Paul Nicholls, who won the race for the first time recently with Neptunes Collonges. All of his contenders are interesting, however Unioniste and Rocky Creek stand out for me. Both horses have had this race in mind for a long time. Unioniste ran a solid race when finishing sixth in the Hennessy on his first run of the season. That was a hot race and it was impressive that he was able to run so well on his seasonal debut given the way the form of the race has worked out, with the likes of the Druids Nephew and Djakadam in behind. He then went to Sandown and won a valuable handicap chase in grand style. Unioniste then ran in the Denman Chase at Newbury and you would have been forgiven for thinking he was a little disappointing at the time when finishing third to Coneygree. However, we now know that he simply ran into an extremely talented horse and was conceding weight to him. Ultimately he wasn’t beaten that far and so the form of that race has now been turned on its head. At only seven years old and appearing to be a dour stayer he ticks all the right boxes. Being by Dom Alco he would benefit from softer conditions but connections are confident that it isn’t crucial. He has a lot of weight to carry but does have a touch of class. Rocky Creek also arrives with a strong chance and should arguably be favourite for the race on recent form. He made his seasonal debut at Down Royal where he chased home subsequent Gold Cup third Road To Riches. He ran disappointingly in the Hennessy at Newbury when pulled up, for which there was no real explanation. However, his most recent performance when winning the BetBright Chase at Kempton was breath-taking. He was foot perfect, breezed through the race and won with any amount in hand. That run was the ideal prep run in my opinion on a flat track with sufficient time to recuperate. Paul Nicholls insists that he wasn’t finishing off his races last year and having had a wind operation he is now fulfilling his potential. He ran a super race in the national last season when leading until the second last and he arrives in better health and form than ever before and runs from a 2lb lower mark; he simply must have an outstanding chance. Phillip Hobbs also knows how to get one ready for the big occasion and has strong chances in the form of Balthazar King and Chance Du Roy. Balthazar King has run in the race twice and has finished 15th and 2nd. He is clearly adapting to the challenge of the course and his recent form in Cross Country races has no doubt helped him in this regard. When second last year he had previously won the Cross Country at the Cheltenham Festival and had carried top weight. That race simply must have left its mark on him and he surely could have gone even closer had he not run at the Festival which is the case this year. Furthermore, he covered more ground than any horse in the race, running out-wide for the vast majority of the race. He has been laid out for the race this season having run only once when winning a Cross Country race at Cheltenham in November. He runs from a 3lb higher mark and on decent ground he will be thereabouts. Chance Du Roy is my idea of a lively outsider for this year’s Grand National. You always need to have one of these on your side particularly with a light weight and Chance Du Roy fits the bill perfectly. He was sixth in the race last year having been hampered at Valentines on the first circuit. He won the Becher Chase in 2013 and ran well to finish fifth in the same race on his seasonable debut this year, staying on nicely in the closing stages. He then ran in a hot handicap chase at Exeter where he finished fifth behind the David Pipe trained Soll. That run would have put him spot on for this and the four horses that finished ahead of him that day were all winners next time out so the form couldn’t have worked out better. With the benefit of last years’ experience under his belt, slight relief from the handicapper and a targeted campaign this season he looks massively over-priced at his current odds of 40/1. He also goes on any ground. Grand National favourite Shutthefrontdoor has also been laid out for the race by trainer Jonjo O’Neill. He won the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse last season in good style. He has only had on prep run this season when winning a graduation chase at Carlisle impressively. Connections clearly belief that he is still on the right side of the handicapper and he is almost certain to go off favourite. In my opinion he will go off the shortest price favourite in recent history eclipsing the 5/1 starting prices about Clan Royal, Master Oats and Moorcroft Boy. The ‘McCoy effect’ is always pronounced in the Grand National but with the enhanced media coverage surrounding his retirement, the world and his wife will be set to back the Champion jockey in what could be his final race. My advice would be to put a significant bet on Shutthefrontdoor at around 8/1 (hopefully) on Betfair on the eve of the race and then lay it off a few minutes before the race for a nice risk-free profit (or to fund more selections!). Please be careful as you won’t be able to do this on the antepost market on Betfair as this will be suspended when the day of the race market is put on site and therefore you will not be able to trade out. Our final contender The Druids Nephew was tipped up by myself at the Cheltenham festival as being a well handicapped horse and he certainly didn’t disappoint when winning cosily at a nice price. He goes to Aintree as probably the best handicapped horse in the race. The manner of his performance at Cheltenham was hugely impressive. He traveled and jumped extremely well and was waited with until it was no longer possible. He eased to the front and won with plenty in hand. That race was clearly his target though and he will need to have recovered quickly for this extreme test of stamina. If his he jumps well he could go well for a very long way but ultimately I feel that despite being the best handicapped horse in the race fatigue will tell and he no longer has the services of Barry Geraghty who is side-lined with injury. All in all a fantastic renewal and let’s hope to have some luck with our selections: 2pts win ROCKY CREEK at 10/1 (General) 2pts win BALTHAZAR KING at 12/1 (General) 1pt win UNIONISTE at 25/1 (William Hill, Ladbrokes, Stan James) 1pt e/w CHANCE DU ROY at 40/1 (Betfair, Boylesports, Bet365) 5 places
Football doesn’t have it. Rugby Union doesn’t have it. Neither does Rugby League. F1 doesn’t have it. Cycling misses out. Athletics misses out too, the last time I checked. Fans of most sports usually will have to deal with the dreaded time of year that their beloved pastime goes away, usually for at least a month or two. Some fans are saved by the fact they can simply switch hemispheres; others can alternate between international and club seasons, even if they aren’t quite the same (ask England fans). Fans of racing need not face this dilemma, every year, or ever. The lull from the Cheltenham Festival usually brings – understandably – a hangover for racing fans as we recover, for better or worse, from the events of that hallowed week in March. However, just two weeks afterwards we hit a golden period for fans of either code looking for their fix. On Satruday, for many – the Flat in England returned with the Lincoln and Spring Mile, while those who want an international fix and flavour enjoyed the Dubai World Cup card at Meydan. The Irish, not to be outdone, have a similar card at the Curragh on Sunday to kick of proceedings. Jumping fans may be alienated for a week but need not despair, as next weekend we have the Irish Grand National Festival over two days, and quick on it’s heels we have the Grand National meeting itself at Aintree. There’s then competitive meetings at Newmarket and the Curragh before the week-long bonanza that is Punchestown – and on the final Saturday of Punchestown we have the Guineas. Meanwhile there are trials for the Guineas in between, the return of many favourites, and for those who like a foreign flavour to their action, the rapidly advancing Kentucky Derby trail. The return of the Flat and National Hunt seasons brings with it plenty of debate about which season is better. One of the mainstays of that argument will be the length of time that we get to see our heroes stick around for – an argument easily won by the Jumps – although those who are looking for a season full of highlights are surely better served by the level. However, the true joy surely comes in having your cake and eating it at a time of year that is arguably more exciting and entertaining than any other for fans of both codes with the stars of the Jumps running alongside the most promising horses the Flat has to offer. The Jumps has more established top class stars that we all love each season, while we can enjoy speed and consistent top class racing on the Flat. While each has their strengths, it’s the joy of having both that makes this sport great.
Dedicated racegoers heading for Aintree will have studied the Grand National odds, but we’ve done the research for you when it comes to eating out and have found two culinary gems. First up is The Quarter, which offers a warm welcome and features only the freshest ingredients. Starters and sharing boards have a European accent, while mains feature pasta and pizza, then there’s a sweet deliciousness of desserts to finish.
Racegoer’s tip: Start the day with a hearty breakfast and return for dinner or a takeaway.
Alternatively, head for The Monro, which is known for its racing associations, with Jockey Club employees among the clientele. This award winning gastropub in central Liverpool serves modern British and European style food. You’ll find plenty of game on the menu, shot by the head chef in Wales and lovingly prepared. Dishes are both familiar and inspired, with subtle flavours and tempting choices. Private dining is available and in addition there are quiet dining areas, as well as the bustling locals bar. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly.
Racegoer’s tip: Ask nicely and you might get a winning racing tip from the Liverpool/Irish waiting staff!