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Grand National Preview 2019

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This year’s Grand National promises to be like no other in recent memory, with Tiger Roll likely to be sent off as the shortest-priced favourite since 1919 as he bids to be the first horse to retain the prize since the mighty Red Rum in 1974. Most Grand National winners are never quite the same again after landing the race, having expended too much energy and effort over Aintree’s marathon trip and imposing fences to go to the well again. But there are absolutely no question marks about the fitness or will-to-win of Gordon Elliott’s superstar, who arrives at Aintree after demolishing the field in Cheltenham’s Cross Country Chase for the second year running without needing to get out of second gear. To most observers, he looks in even better form than last season, when the narrow official margin of victory did not reflect his dominance of the race. If he gets the required luck in running, he certainly can win again.

But there is one potential problem for Tiger Roll: he will have to carry a hefty 11-5 around the four-and-a-quarter mile course, six pounds more than he shouldered last year. An often repeated line in the build-up to the race is to “avoid horses carrying over 11 stone”. Given the unusual fact that another two of the top horses in the betting, Anibale Fly and Lake View Lad, will also carry over 11 stones, this needs to be looked at in more detail – is this received wisdom actually a myth?

Does Carrying Over 11 Stone Matter?

Historically, yes it certainly did – and that’s the reason for this trend being seen as a ‘rule’. But does it still apply after Aintree weakened and lowered the previously fearsome fences in 2013? These changes have had the desired effect, significantly lowering the rate of horses falling or being brought down, and in effect completely altering the character of the race: chance plays a smaller role, and class should prevail more often. Below shows the weight that placed horses have carried since 2014 (with the top BHA marks showing that Anibale Fly’s 164 this year is nothing out of the ordinary):

On the face of it, then, weight does matter, with only one winner (Many Clouds in 2015) and just five placed horses in the last five renewals. But this is meaningless – after all, how many horses have actually carried a heavy weight in each year?

With this extra information, the picture is significantly less clear: in the five years in question, there were only 38 runners carrying over 11 stone, just 19% of the field. For there to be five horses placed out of those 38 – and one of those a winner – is actually about par, with those horses representing 17% of the available places.

To put it another way, horses carrying a heavy weight have a 13% chance of placing, versus a 14% chance for those in the 10-09 plus bracket, and of course a 15% (6/40) chance generally. Basically, if a horse is good enough, it can still get the job done: weight doesn’t really matter.

Backers of Tiger Roll can therefore take comfort, but his price seems certain to be prohibitively short in a race where luck still plays a part, meaning that top-weight ANIBALE FLY might be the smart alternative. He’s the perfect age (nine), comes to Aintree in superb form after finishing second in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and has already proven he can handle a big weight when finishing fourth in last year’s Grand National carrying 11-8. Barry Geraghty gave him an overly cautious ride in 2018, losing ground in the process, and with a more aggressive approach he could turn the tables on Tiger Roll at a much bigger price.

What About Horses To Follow Lower In The Weights?

Even though runners at the top of the weights have been shown to have a fair chance, the fact remains that more than 80% of placed horses in the last ten years have carried 11 stone or less, so which of them are worth following this year?

RATHVINDEN represents a very solid proposition for Irish champion trainer Willie Mullins, who understandably targets the riches of this English prize year-in-year-out. The 11-year-old won a classy renewal of Cheltenham’s four-mile National Hunt Chase in 2018, demonstrating that he stays a marathon trip, and proved his form and fitness with a superb win in a graded chase at Fairyhouse in February. Crucially, that victory came after the English handicapper’s assessment, meaning Rathvinden is officially eight pounds ‘well-in’ and will carry only 11 stone.

Elliott is sending a battalion of challengers to Aintree as well as Tiger Roll, and seems certain to break the record for the number of entries in the race. Perhaps best suited to this unique test will be Dounikos and General Principle, who run off attractively low weights given their proven class in staying chases. Both are inconsistent, but if they get into a good jumping rhythm they could upset the more fancied horses. It may be significant that stable jockey Jack Kennedy will ride Dounikos rather than another Gigginstown-owned horse, and if Tiger Roll can’t get the job done, Elliott may still win the prize.

On the face of it, many of the British entries look ill-suited to the Grand National, with either little form in the book over extreme distances, or concerns over their current fitness and wellbeing. Ramses De Teillee has neither issue, placed second behind only the graded-chase winner Elegant Escape in the Welsh National this season, but he is only a seven-year-old, and no winner of the National has been that young since 1940.

Yet four British horses do fit the required profile, and have every chance of claiming victory against the higher-profile Irish challengers, with two of them particularly fancied.

Three-time Grand National-winning owner Trevor Hemmings was frustrated last year when Vintage Clouds didn’t quite make the cut, but this year he gets in close to the bottom of the weights. His close-up third in the 2018 Scottish National (run over four miles) shows he can handle the trip, and his excellent second in the competitive Ultima Handicap Chase at Cheltenham advertised both his ability and wellbeing. The winner of that Scottish National was Joe Farrell, who sneaks into the race for Rebecca Curtis carrying a featherweight, and also arrives off the back of second place in a good handicap chase – and a significant public gamble. On strict form lines, however, VINTAGE CLOUDS is preferred of these two.

Walk In The Mill proved his love for the unique Grand National fences by winning the Becher Chase in December, traditionally a key trial for the big race itself. He stayed on well that day on soft ground, and looks the type to relish an extra mile. But perhaps the most talented English horse of all is STEP BACK, who demolished a high-class field last April at Sandown, powering away from his rivals over a three-mile-five-furlong trip. Trailing by 13 lengths that day was the much-fancied Rock The Kasbah (the mount of Richard Johnson this year as he seeks a first win in the Grand National), which shows just how impressive a performance it was. Trainer Mark Bradstock has blamed the talented nine-year-old’s underwhelming performances this term on his “terrible and fragile feet”, but if Step Back does indeed line up at peak fitness, he has the ability to gallop the rest of the field into submission at generous odds.

Alastair Akers

04/04/2019


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