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.
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