Grand National tests mortality of both man and beast

TwinSpires Staff

April 10th, 2015

by Vance Hanson

The most popular and most controversial Thoroughbred race in the world will be held Saturday at Aintree Racecourse outside Liverpool, England – the Grand National Steeplechase.

Contested at a grueling 4 1/2 miles over obstacles that literally test the mortality of man and beast, it is both one of the sport’s great spectacles and an easy target of opprobrium, from vehement animal rights activists to industry insiders.

Be that as it may, there is no denying how fascinated the general public is with the race. The BBC reported ahead of the 2014 running that an audience of 500 million worldwide would watch the Grand National, and that betting turnover in Britain would reach £350 million (more than $500 million).

Even as technology has made viewing and betting the Grand National more accessible throughout the world, the irony is that the race’s status has actually declined in recent decades. It is a technically a Grade 3 event on the National Hunt calendar, and has long been overtaken in importance by what transpires several weeks earlier at the Cheltenham Festival.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Grand National is the course obstacles themselves. Golf fans watching the Masters this week know each hole at Augusta National carries a name. Many of the 16 fences at Aintree have also been named through the years, some rather menacingly. Becher’s Brook, The Chair, Canal Turn, Foinavon, Valentine’s Brook, and Water Jump are some examples.

Foinavon is named in honor of the 1967 winner, a 100-1 longshot who emerged as the only horse to avoid a massive pileup approaching that fence. The incident was beautifully documented in color by British Pathe.

As a betting proposition, American racing fans would normally find a 40-horse Grand National (39 on Saturday due to an early scratch) completely inscrutable. However, the limitations of American tote technology restricts the number of wagering interests on this side of the pond to 24 – 23 individual interests and one huge mutuel field.

A former colleague of mine once penned a decent how-to guide to handicapping the Grand National. Using a handful of handicapping tools, he argued it was possible to whittle down the field of 40 to roughly eight logical contenders.

I’ve personally put that advice to the test in recent years with moderate success. I actually had a few bucks on the 2012 longshot winner Neptune Collonges, who came out on the right side of the tightest photo in Grand National history.

Of the aforementioned handicapping tools, the ones I found most useful were an emphasis on current form, the ability to handle a distance of ground (preferably three miles and over), and positive experience over the Aintree course itself.

Far from being any sort of expert on National Hunt racing, I approach this race purely for action and entertainment purposes. Here’s a look at some of the individual wagering interests in the American pools I’ll be looking at.

2. MANY CLOUDS (20-1), aside from his recent poor showing at Cheltenham, has the positive current form to make an impact. Stamina not an issue, but the weights and course condition are.

6. BALTHAZAR KING (8-1) was second best in this event last year, has won six of his last 10, but enters without the benefit of a prep race. He’s still hard to overlook.

17. THE DRUIDS NEPHEW (10-1) enters off a Group 3 score at Cheltenham, has relative upside and might stay a long ways if able to jump cleanly.

18. CAUSE OF CAUSES (15-1) just won over four miles at Cheltenham, so he’s sure to stay the trip. The main drawback is that he’s stepping up in class.

Of course, there are plusses and minuses to every horse in the field. ROCKY CREEK (#4, 7-1) is one of the favorites, but might have been exposed in last year’s Grand National when finishing fifth behind some of these. SHUTTHEFRONTDOOR (#7, 5-1) is the sentimental favorite to give legendary jockey Tony McCoy a proper send-off into retirement, but offers no value.

PINEAU DE RE (#8, 20-1), who won last year’s race by five lengths, might be overlooked but does not enter this renewal anywhere near the form he had 12 months ago. REBEL REBELLION (#11, 30-1) is in good form, but is questionable at the trip.

Then there is the MUTUEL FIELD (#24), which consists of the 17 lowest-weighted horses in the race. Seventeen for the price of one always sounds like a good deal, and if the price is 4-1 or higher, it makes sense to get a piece of it even if you’re spreading elsewhere.