By Barry McEneaney
4:15 Crabbie´s Grand National Chase (Handicap) (Grade 3)
Lottery would be regarded by many as a rather aptly-named winner of the first official running of the Grand National in 1839.
Racing has always been laden with cliches and the widely-held view that the Aintree spectacle is an almost random event, governed by lots of luck, can easily be dispelled by empirical evidence.
Lottery, ironically enough, was a well-supported 5-1 favourite of that inaugural National, and the market has been a good guide to finding winners of the race in the intervening years.
Three of the winners in the last decade headed the betting, with Hedgehunter (7-1F), Comply Or Die (7-1JF) and Don’t Push It (10-1JF) ensuring that those who backed the unnamed favourite in each renewal over the last 10 years earned a level-stakes profit, calculated at starting price.
Taking the industry SP is never advisable and the profits generated were far greater if punters hunted for the best early prices available. Three of the other winners during that time frame occupied prominent positions in the betting, starting at less than 20-1.
The National may be the world’s most famous steeplechase, but it’s some way from being the most prestigious. However, favourite backers in most of the sport’s more high-class contests wouldn’t have fared nearly as well over the same period.
The myth of the race as an equine lucky dip is perhaps compounded by the field size. Any race with 40 possible winners will go unsolved by the vast majority of gamblers most of the time, but the challenge has to be contextualised in terms of the prices available. A quote of 25-1 for a runner in most races would be regarded as a ‘big’ price, but that wouldn’t be the case in the National, where roughly half the field can be backed at 50-1 or bigger in the run-up to the race. ‘Big’ prices don’t necessarily make for big outsiders.
A number of strong statistics have helped to hit upon the winner over the years, with these trends relating to stamina, official ratings, big-field form, weight carried, breeding and preparation for the race.
Favourite Teaforthree ticks almost all the boxes and should run well again in this race. Third in last season’s renewal when he may have been sent to the front too soon, he races off a 2lb lower mark this time around. Rebecca Curtis’ charge finished second at Ascot in February, before running a good trial for the Aintree marathon in last month’s Gold Cup at the Cheltenham Festival. His form and impeccable jumping should see him involved at the business end of the race.
Intense schooling has helped Monbeg Dude iron out deficiencies in his jumping technique this season. The former Welsh National winner has performed well in three of his four starts during this campaign, but has to bounce back from a lacklustre effort on his most recent outing. He will require some luck in running due to the hold-up tactics that will be employed on him.
Former Gold Cup winner Long Run’s running style has evolved radically with the passage of time. Having been a keen and relatively pacey sort as a young horse, he’s become a much more lazy and stamina-laden horse. That transition means he could run well if he takes to this unique challenge. Patrician rider Sam Waley-Cohen enhanced an already enviable record over the National fences with victory in Thursday’s Fox Hunters’ Chase.
The talented but quirky Tidal Bay is handicapped to run well despite his welter burden, but the ground may be livelier than ideal for him. The last 13-year-old to win the National was Sergent Murphy way back in 1923.
Balthazar King loves to bowl along at the head of affairs, but was asked to do too much, too soon in last season’s race. Unbeaten this term, he could improve greatly on last season’s 15th place finish behind Auroras Encore.
Pineau De Re ran an eye-catching trial for the National over hurdles in the Pertemps Final at the Cheltenham Festival. His handicap mark may have been protected by racing over the larger obstacles just once in his last four starts, where he scored a facile victory, albeit against ordinary opposition in a veterans’ chase at Exeter.
Big Shu has been campaigned brilliantly by Peter Maher in the cross-country sphere, winning at last season’s Cheltenham Festival and finishing third behind Balthazar King this year. His ample stamina and safe jumping should ensure he goes well for a long way.
If there were doubts over his course preferences beforehand, Triolo D’Alene seemed to prove unequivocally that he’s a flat-track specialist with his poor display in last month’s Gold Cup. He demonstrated his affinity for these fences last season when scoring in the Topham Chase and raised his game to a new level in landing the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury on his second start of this campaign. That success will have compromised his chances to some degree as it catapulted him up the weights for future handicaps.
Barry Geraghty’s mount travels well in his races and is the type who could be trading at a much shorter price in running. However, he did suffer a reoccurrence of his breathing problems in the Gold Cup, an issue that could crop up again at the end of this near four-and-a-half-mile marathon. He bids to become the first seven-year-old to prevail since Bogskar in 1940.
Lion Na Bearnai underperformed in a truncated campaign last season after taking the Irish equivalent of this race in 2012. He’s shown signs this term that he could be returning to form.
Last year, Colbert Station was in the process of running a fine race before unseating his rider. The Ted Walsh inmate has failed to finish in two of his three chase starts during the current campaign, but could run well if granted a clear round.
Hawkes Point stays exceptionally well and looks well-suited to this test. The prospect of rain and deteriorating ground conditions would be a significant boon to his cause.
Much of the post-mortem on last year’s race focused on the impact the safety changes had on the outcome of the race, with alterations made to the starting point, fence design and landing areas.
Just two runners fell out of the field of 40, but the sample size provided by the runners in one race is too small to say categorically that the complexion of the race has changed forever.
The premium on expert jumping may be less critical than it once was, but stamina remains a key component to National success. The old chestnut about it taking a two-and-a-half mile specialist to win the National should carry a wealth warning and it’s best to shun those that haven’t won over three miles and/or run impressive races over further.
Of the fancied runners primed for big runs, Teaforthree would appear to be the most reliable option, but that is reflected in his price. He should go close if ridden a little more conservatively than he was 12 months ago.
Balthazar King, Big Shu and Pineau De Re make most appeal as alternatives at their current prices, with a marginal preference for the latter, while Hawkes Point could enter the equation if the skies were to open.
How and where those National bets are placed also warrants consideration. Rather than use the race as a welcoming shop window for their product, the betting industry hammers the once-a-year punter by creating huge overrounds on the starting price system. Expect to see a whole slew of runners contract in the betting when the live betting show comes in from the course, with comparatively few runners lengthening in price. Tony McCoy’s 2010 National Winner Don’t Push It was a stark example of the kind of betting anomaly often present in the race, returning an industry SP of just 10-1 in comparison to a Betfair SP of over 18-1.
Odds comparison websites such as Oddschecker afford gamblers the opportunity to monitor and avail of both the best early prices and the best place terms for each-way bets. The British industry’s ‘big three’, which comprises of Ladbrokes, William Hill and Coral, are sticking rigidly to their parsimonious policy of only paying four places on the National, while their rivals have extended their each-way terms to five or even six places.
Selection: Pineau De Re
Alternatives: Balthazar King, Big Shu, Hawkes Point, Teaforthree
1 Pineau De Re 25-1
2 Balthazar King 14-1
3 Double Seven 10-1 Jt Fav
4 Alvarado 33-1