Here we go again. The annual lottery of unpicking arguably the greatest, most unpredictable race of them all. Not at all helped by modifications to both course and fence in recent years to constantly shift the criteria we look at when looking for inspiration in choosing a winner. 2013 represented a seismic shift whereby a poor jumper such as Aurora’s Encore could win the race. With six career falls, this would have been impossible a decade earlier.
As I write, the field is 12/1 which only hints at the competitiveness of this renewal. There are class Gold Cup level contenders locking horns with proven stayers, some feared wily old veterans and a sprinkling of unexposed types who could spring a surprise.
With bookmaker offers these days extending place options and other special bets available you have to be clear on your betting strategy. Each way is the obvious way forward and then what you want to do is mitigate risk. The general favourite in the run up to the race, Tea For Three is a solid proposition. The only runner to have previously placed in the National. A sound jumper. Acts on the surface. Well handicapped. In fact the only negative I would cite is I’m not a believer that a Gold Cup run only 3 weeks before helps a National performance.
Available at 16/1 this morning, fleetingly with Ladbrokes, and widely available at 12’s on five places elsewhere now, he should be there or thereabouts.
That said, my gut feel is that one or two will prove just slightly too good again. One of these could be a year on year improved performance from front-runner Balthazar King. I’ve watched last year’s National closely again and he travelled as well any horse for a long way, leading and jumping well on the first circuit. A bit like Tea For Three he just failed to get home (though a couple of furlongs sooner) and was given an easy ride up the elbow which hardly flattered his finishing position. However, last year he went into the race off the back of a 141 day absence and I’m not sure that’s the best preparation for Aintree. The horse himself has a proven winning record after 100+ day absences but only one horse in the past six years has managed to finish in the first six having not raced for more than 56 days – State of Play. Stripping a touch fitter, given a little less rein on the first circuit and in slightly better form this season I fancy an improvement. Richard Johnson is a good jockey to have in the saddle and I expect a huge run.
The way the handicapper has reacted to the likes of Tidal Bay and Long Run means that classier horses have never had it so good. Despite the attractiveness of his mark, top weight is still a significant burden over four and a half miles but if anyone can do it Tidal Bay can. He has proved himself to be a remarkably versatile performer over the years and if there’s one attribute you want in a horse at the end of a National, it’s guts. And Tidal Bay has it in bucketloads. I just hope he gets round. And if he does, I can see a late surge into at least a place. His would likely be the most popular victory amongst racing fans.
Long Run has to jump well and though there’s every suspicion his form this past year has ‘been managed’ with this race in mind, he goes into uncharted territory even moreso than Tidal Bay who has at least won a Welsh National. Long Run comes with risk attached but if he gets the trip and gets his jumping into a rhythm, he’s the ‘good thing’ of the race by a stretch. Sam Waley-Cohen takes some stick but around Aintree, he’s proved himself a tremendous rider. I err on the side of caution. I expect Long Run to tire under his relative burden of weight and with a couple of jumping errors thrown in, can’t quite see a magical Gold Cup & Grand National double.
I’ve picked out Swing Bill as an outside place contender. A proven performer round Aintree, sixth last year, and though he can’t win the race, he might sneak a place at odds of 100/1. His age would appear no barrier as he comes into the race off the back of a run every bit as good as his prep race in 2013. More likely he’ll finish between 10th and 15th but I like to be on horses who have ‘a run’ at least.
At the other end of the scale but similarly lightly-weighted, Rose of the Moon is an interesting unexposed type. With nowhere near the usual amount of chasing experience in his locker, I’d normally avoid. But off the back of an extended break he got round Aintree in the Becher, only 20 lengths behind Chance Du Roy. With a slight weight advantage and a win under his belt since, I think 80/1 is generous. Despite inexperience, carrying a featherweight, unexposed, has won over 27 furlongs and a few years ago was splitting the likes of Bob’s Worth and On His Own up the Cheltenham hill.
Two outsiders, two greys. Some things never change!
Triolo D’Alene has been nagging me. Everything is against him. Age, weight, even his handicap mark seems stiff benchmarked against others. In fact, even on the best of his form, he is clearly weighted for that form to be reversed with most of his previous adversaries. That aside. He has Geraghty, the master on top. He’s won a Hennessy, which is a plus, and has won over the Aintree fences, a huge plus. Given he had excuses at Cheltenham, there is a little devil on my shoulder saying that he could be the one class horse to take it all in his stride. Given the maturity of his performance at Newbury, I’m inclined to overlook the age thing and put him right into the mixer. But I can’t. We have to go back to 2002 for an eight year old winner, let alone a seven year old. This test traditionally requires the attributes reserved by grizzly more experienced horses.
Of the shorter priced horses, I’m massively against Burton Port. Just don’t see any hunger in this one time top class animal. He packed up last time at Newbury when looking the winner swinging for home and over much further I fear the same will happen. He’s never hit the deck and has Aintree form. In actual fact, he ticks most of the trends boxes but my guess is he’ll be in reverse gear in the final stretch and will finish 10th-15th.
I very nearly backed Double Seven some weeks ago ante-post, having been laid out for this in the classic Irish style. And with McCoy on top. If you are on at 20/1 plus then good luck but though I rate his chances, I just can’t be interested at odds now close to a proven performer in Tea For Three. Double Seven reminds me of Seabass. Plenty of winning form, but there’s not enough top class performance in there to reassure he’ll be comfortable alongside the likes of Long Run and Tidal Bay, so I’ve bypassed.
Rocky Creek has a similar profile to Triolo d’Alene, though is a year older and has been more obviously laid out for this race. But again, I’m not keen on horses who’ve been absent for more than 60 days and despite a swing in the weights with Henderson’s horse I value the Aintree experience of the younger horse. Certainly not one to be discounted and in my category of ‘could be the winner but too risky’.
I think the handicapper has Monbeg Dude in his grip but must remain respected as a Welsh National winner. David Pipe’s The Package remains an interesting horse. He actually raced in the National four years ago as a seven year old (unseated) but returns as an 11yo and on the pick of his form could easily run into a place. The form of Holywell’s race as Cheltenham has worked out really well so given it was The Package’s first race in a year, it could hardly have been a better performance. Nicely handicapped based on his Hennessy run behind Bob’s Worth, it’s hard to judge whether he’ll suffer the bounce factor after last time but at anything around 20/1, I’d say there’s good EW value to be had.
Finally, of the main contenders I have to carefully consider Big Shu who is very closely matched to Balthazar King. This time last year, the Shu lumped over 12 stone to victory around 4m+ at Punchestown on heavy going which proves beyond all doubt he has the necessary stamina. But Aintree is still a different proposition and I slightly prefer the 10 year old though I wouldn’t put anyone off backing a horse that has won over 4m.
Solid E/W proposition, recommended bets:
Tea For Three, Balthazar King, Tidal Bay, The Package, Big Shu
I wouldn’t entirely put you off (could win, but could flop!):
Double Seven, Triolo D’Alene, Rocky Creek, Long Run
Rose Of The Moon, Swing Bill, Raz De Maree
There’s always the 16:45 at Lingfield:
Hunt Ball, Walkon, Burton Port
Good luck & enjoy the drama!