It is that time of year again when the country stops everything for around 15 minutes to watch the most historic and world famous race.
In all honesty this year’s renewal doesn’t look as mouth-watering as previous races with the market lead by Shutthefrontdoor who will be ridden by retiring Champion Jockey AP McCoy in his final Grand National.
The previous winners race trends can give you an indication of what type of horse you need to win a National but with the circumstances slowly changing they are arguably becoming less relevant. I say that, as the jumping is arguably now more forgiving than previously due to the welfare concerns so horses with stamina are something to start with.
There is a little bit of pressure personally this year after backing the first and second home last year in Pineau De Re and Balthazar King. Replicating that isn’t easy but these three selections in my opinion will be there come the closing stages of this gruelling test of stamina.
Remember when placing your bets some bookmakers will be offered more places but for that have slashed their odds while others will only pay out on the first four but are offering best odds guaranteed.
Philip Hobbs’ trained Balthazar King (10/1) skipped running in the Cross Country at Cheltenham to focus on this engagement. That was clever in more than one way, firstly he’ll come here as a fresh horse compared to most of his competitors and secondly it means his handicap mark didn’t get hiked for a good performance, as he is already 3lbs higher than he was in last year’s race.
The 11-year-old has ran in this race twice, in 2013 he finished 15th and last year he was the runner-up behind Pineau De Re. The positive there is that he has finished the course untroubled and he is likely to do so on Saturday. If you re-watch the race last year you can argue that Balthazar King would have travelled further than many other finishers as Richard Johnson, cleverly in one way, kept him on a wider route, which prevented any dramas in case a horse in front falls and reduces the risk of being hampered or brought down. So arguably he travelled further than the winner who travelled close to the rail throughout. I would expect a similar route to be taken this year and with the fact he hasn’t raced since November should mean he has that extra freshness.
In 45 career races in UK, Ireland and France he has incredibly only fell three times showing his jumping is solid, which is needed for this race. Two of those falls came early on in his career and his other came at the end of last season in France in a race in May following the National, so probably a tired horse. I will admit I backed him on the first day the market for the race came available, just like last year, and got a fairly decent price. It is no surprise he is this short as he has jumping ability, proven stamina and a good track record here, if this was at Cheltenham he’d probably be shorter! Here’s to a safe return and of course taking Richard Johnson to his first Grand National success.
Saint Are (40/1) is my next selection for the Tom George stable. Since the stable switch for the start of this season he has been in the first three on all four runs suggesting he has been rejuvenated. For a nine-year-old he is experienced and one that looks the sort of Grand National type.
In February he shaped well when beating six rivals at Catterick over 3m1½f in a fairly moderate race but one he needed to win well to make the handicap rating for this race. In all honesty after watching the race repeatedly it was impressive and he could have done another circuit if needed suggesting the stamina is there for this marathon steeplechase. He was ridden prominently, jumped eye-catchingly well and had his rivals in trouble from the turn. His nearest rival that day Everaard was also carrying 12lbs less, which adds to the stylish nature of his victory.
The evidence is there to suggest he could go well again in this race at Aintree after finishing ninth in 2013 when he was off a rating at 142 for Tim Vaughan, which is 1lb lower than what he’ll go off on Saturday afternoon. When running in 2013 he was a seven-year-old, which is an unfashionable and young age for winners in this race as the last seven-year-old winner came back in 1940 when Bogskar triumphed.
He has won at Aintree back in 2012 in the John Smith’s Handicap Chase over 3m1f on the Mildmay course and was third in the Becher Chase (3m2f) over the National fences in December where he was 3¾l behind winner Oscar Time and Mendip Express in second. He seems to be coming into some form just at the right time.
At an even bigger price Portrait King (66/1) has very good each-way potential at an attractive price. In 2012 this grey won the Betfred Eider at Newcastle over 4m1f by 3l to Posh Bird. After the final fence he had ground to make up but a good turn of foot in a gruelling test of stamina suggests that he could be a useful type for this race.
This season has been a bit of a hard luck story in all honesty. In this year’s renewal he was settled towards the rear and was faultless on the first circuit however his chances diminished at the start of the second circuit when Wyck Hill fell and badly hampered him. He rallied and completed the course but only managed to finish ninth.
Three runs prior to that in December in the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown he was pulled up towards the end of the race. In the first circuit at the final fence in the back straight he was hampered by the fall of Dogora then in the final circuit he was hampered by the fall of The Westener Boy and was therefore pulled up as his chances had gone. If Davy Condon takes a wider course on him then he won’t have to deal with being hampered.
He has followed a similar route to this race as last year’s winner Pineau De Re as his last outing was over hurdles but that was only 25 days ago, which is the slight concern that this comes too soon afterwards. However he does jump well and has obvious stamina for this sort of race.
My shortlist also included Rocky Creek, First Lieutenant, Night In Milan, Alvarado and Soll, who on paper looked to have very realistic chances. Alvarado was fourth last year and has obvious chances on that and has had only one run since then in a Veterans Handicap at Doncaster so should be primed for this and would be one of the others to keep an eye on at a price.
I’m a bit disappointed that two Irish horses in Goonyella and Gallant Oscar are both unlikely to make the cut come tomorrow’s 48-hour declarations. They are ones to keep an eye out for in coming Grand Nationals.