The UK has some wonderful sporting occasions throughout the calendar year, but arguably the one that comes out on top beating all others is the Grand National steeplechase. For the sheer spectacle and its ability to capture the imagination of not just a massive percentage of the nation’s population, but also hundreds of millions of people worldwide, this event has just about everything.
Saturday 15 April will see the running of the 2023 race, being held as always at the famous Aintree racecourse, in Liverpool. A maximum of 40 horses will set out at 5.15pm on a stamina sapping 4 miles, 514 yards, tackling 30 notoriously difficult fences (some more than others) along the way, in a bid to land the £561,300 winners cheque. There is also almost half a million pounds in prize money additional to that to be shared around, making it the most valuable jump race in Europe.
It is estimated that more than 600 million people will watch the race in over 140 countries around the globe, with over 70,000 actually attending the meeting on the day. The race has its critics due to its demanding nature on the animals, but the excitement that it generates is inescapable and for bookmakers it is usually their busiest of days, with many punters placing their one and only bet of the year, often making a selection based on nothing more than the name of the horse, or colours of the jockey’s silks.
In this preview there is information regarding trends that might influence betting choices, and an explanation on handicapping. There is a guide to the fences facing the field on the gruelling slog around the course, a brief description of the criteria that needs to be met to qualify as an acceptable runner; plus a look at some of the leading fancies this time around, as well as a few tips for the dark horses… although one of those is actually grey!
Tough guidelines to meet to qualify for entry
Due to the exceptionally tough demands that the Grand National circuit presents, there is a strict criteria that horses need to meet in order to even qualify for competing in the race. First of all it is only open to horses that are seven years old, and upwards. They must have started in a chase during the current season and have run previously at least three times, up to and including 21 February.
They will also need to have had at least one top four finish in a chase that has an official distance description of two miles seven and a half furlongs’ or more, at some point of their racing career. Additionally the British Horse-racing Authority’s (BHA) Head of Handicapping must have allotted a rating that is of 125 or above, up to and including 14 February of this year.
Even upon meeting those requirements that still offers no guarantee as there is a maximum of 40 horses permitted and every year the number of entries is more than double that. Indeed, this year there were 85 horses initially put forward for the race.
Of course the final say goes to the owner and trainer of the animal. They may well satisfy all the necessary specifications, but above all else, consideration will have to be given as to whether the horse will be able to actually handle everything that comes with the race, such as the fences, the number of other horses running along side and the punishing distance. Fatalities do occur, so any question marks on jumping and stamina have to be seriously taken into account.
How are handicaps decided
The BHA handicapper then decides on the weight that a horse must carry using a system designed to give each animal a reasonable chance of winning the race; consequently the good horses with a higher rating will carry more weight than those appearing to be less able. The maximum weight any horse can carry in the Grand National will be 11st 12lbs, whilst the minimum is 10st 2lbs.
Horses are then put in descending order from the highest to the lowest weighted and that also determines their race number. Once the weights are announced many trainers will immediately withdraw their horse, often believing they have been too harshly treated by the handicapper, and realising that their entry would struggle to compete. The last day for declaration of runners is at 10am on Thursday 13 April and at that stage the official field is decided.
Until this year there has always been a reserve list whereby any late withdrawals can be replaced, but from 2023 onwards this no longer will be the case. Any Second Now will shoulder the burden of top weight in this years’ race having finished second and third on the past two occasions, but being forced to drag 11st 12lbs twice around the circuit, probably scuppers his chances of going one better this time around.
The course actually has 16 fences, with 14 of them jumped twice. The first five are relatively straightforward and these are also fences 17-21 on the second circuit.
Fence number 6 and then again fence number 22, is possibly the most famous, and that is Becher’s Brook. It is five feet high, but presents its real problems with the landing side being between 6 and 10 inches lower than on the take-off side, which has seen many horses take a tumble over the years.
It is named after Captain Martin Becher who fell there in the very first Grand National way back in 1839. He took shelter in the small brook which was running along the landing side of the fence, protecting himself from the rest of the field as they negotiated the obstacle over his head.
Fence 7 & 23 is known as the Foinavon fence, which follows an incident in 1967 when some loose horses caused chaos here, bringing the entire field to a standstill, with some falling, some unseating their rider and others actually turning and running back in the direction they had come.
Complete outsider Foinavon was considerably back in the field and his jockey was able to hop over the fence and gain a sufficient enough lead to keep in front of the pack, who had eventually got over what is actually one of the smallest fences on the circuit. He won the race at odds of 100/1.
The Canal Turn
The next fence is called the Canal Turn and presents an awkward 90-degree left turn immediately after landing. Many jockeys regard this as hugely significant especially on the second circuit, as jumping correctly can save substantial yards to be conserved for the run-in from the 30th and last fence. Approaching it wrong and the horse can be carried out and effectively end their chances.
The Chair and Water Jump
Fence 15 is one of two that are only jumped the once and is probably the most daunting obstacle the horses face and is known as The Chair. It is 5 feet 2 inches high, but is preceded by a 6 feet wide ditch. Thankfully by this stage the field has become a bit more spread out, so there is not such a pack attempting to tackle it all at once.
The other obstacle jumped only one time is the next and that is the relatively easy Water Jump in front of the grandstand and represents the half way point in the race, after which the field head off for a second trip around the course.
The run-in and elbow
Once all 30 fences have been negotiated there then follows an energy-sapping 394 yards slog up to the winning post, passing what is referred to as the elbow about half way down the run-in, where many leaders seem to hit the wall and run out of gas. This has been the scene of some incredible finishes, none more so than in 1973 when Red Rum made up some 15 lengths to snatch the first of his record breaking three Grand National wins.
This year’s leading fancies
Finding the winner amongst 40 runners is a difficult task. There are a few trends which are covered below, but even then anything can happen and very often a horse will spring a surprise. To back that up punters need look no further back than last year when Noble Yeats defied all the statistics which seemingly ruled him out of contention, to win impressively as a seven-year-old. On the strength of that and an encouraging fourth place in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, he returns this year as second favourite, although his weight has gone up significantly and will very likely become an issue.
The clear favourite is Corach Rambler who looked sensational at Cheltenham last month and is very well weighted to run a huge race. Any Second Now is drifting in the betting because of his top weight, but one who is attracting a lot of interest is last year’s third horse, Delta Work. He also won easily at the Cheltenham Festival and has many admirers.
Grey horses do not have a good record in the Grand National, but Gaillard Du Mesnil looks more than capable of improving that particular stat. Being only seven might have put a few off, but as mentioned above, last years’ winner was the same age, so that argument doesn’t hold. He has class and has proved that he stays beyond three miles.
Mr Incredible, Galvin and Ain’t that a Shame are others who have been well-backed and continue to tumble in the odds.
Worth a second look
Very often the winner can be found amongst the next group in the betting, with odds somewhere between 14/1 and 20/1. Amongst them is Longhouse Poet who was sixth last year, but connections feel he wasn’t ridden to his strengths and a more patient ride could see him really challenging. Le Milos is another that looks to have a big run in him, as does Our Power, who is a safe jumper and proven stayer.
Further down the betting, but well worth consideration is Darasso who has a lot of Irish support after some eye-catching runs earlier this season. A lively outsider could be Mister Coffey at very generous odds, with previous runs suggesting that a longer distance will be right up his street.
All in a name or colour
The beauty of the Grand National is how it attracts betting from all walks of life. Seasoned gamblers are joined by housewife’s and once-a-year punters, who very often make their selection based simply on a name that jumps out at them. This time around there a few who are not without a hope and have the type of names that will inevitably attract support from those who are only looking for a one-time wager.
The Big Dog runs well in big handicap fields and has the sort of identity that many will go for. Former Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp is the owner of Back on the Lash which will bring plenty of backing; whilst another whose name is bound to win lots of casual fans is Velvet Elvis who is actually quite a progressive sort, but it is his name that will sing to those with no great interest in racing, other than for this race.
Of course there will always be those who only ever bet on the grey in the race. This time there are four running and as already mentioned, Gaillard Du Mesnil is quite well fancied. The other three are: Vanillier, who looks like a stayer, but has suspect jumping capabilities so not guaranteed to get around; Eva’s Oscar who is representing the Welsh so additional betting can be expected if he makes the final 40; and Coko Beach who finished a respectable eighth in 2022 and won last time out, so not is certainly without place claims.
Just a few Grand National records
Some of the statistics surrounding the race make fascinating reading, but count for nothing really as every year is completely different and often depends on certain circumstances such as weather conditions, not only on the day, but also leading up to the event.
Out of interest, the fastest winning time was when Mr Frisk won in 1990 in 8 minutes and 47.8 seconds. The slowest winning time came in the very first National back in 1839, when Lottery made it home in 14 minutes and 53 seconds.
Very often more than half the field fail to complete the course, with the most ever being 23 which occurred in the 1984 running, won by Hello Dandy. In 1928 only two managed to make it home with 100/1 shot Tipperary Tim taking advantage of everybody else’s misfortune to take victory. In 2001 in appalling weather, Red Marauder won by a longest ever distance of 30 lengths, getting home ahead of only three others to finish.
There was another 100/1 winner when the record number of horses ran in the race, with a staggering 66 competing in 1929 and unfancied Gregalach making it home first. The shortest winning distance was by Neptune Collonges in 2012, when he was declared the winner by a nose, in a result which many still disagree with, mainly those on the second horse, Sunnyhill Boy.
A brief run through history
Although there is some dispute, it is widely accepted that the first running of the great race took place in 1839. The land in Aintree was leased by a syndicate head and proprietor named William Lynn from the second Earl of Sefton. Initially it was run under the name: the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase.
Between 1895 and 1904 a horse named Manifesto ran in a record eight races, winning twice and coming in third three other times. In 1934 the legendary Golden Miller becomes the only horse ever to win the Grand National and the Cheltenham Gold Cup in the same season. Then in 1947 a horse called Caughoo won at 100/1, with mist shrouding the course and controversially his jockey was accused of only going around the track once.
There have been some truly memorable finishes, with possibly one of the most unusual coming when jockey Dick Francis appeared certain to bring home a royal winner on board the Queen Mother’s horse, Devon Lock, when he inexplicably sprawled flat on his stomach just yards from the finishing line, allowing ESP to snatch the unlikeliest of victories. Red Rum’s hugely emotional sprint to the line in 1977, to win his third Grand National after previous successes in 73 and 74; plus two seconds in 75 and 76, will take some beating; but possibly Aldaniti’s 1981 win just pips it.
The horse had three career-threatening injuries and was effectively written off as a racehorse. He was ridden by Bob Champion, who himself fought, and beat, cancer and the two of the over-coming their own individual battles was incredibly moving. The story was so inspiring that a movie was made called Champions, starring the legendary John Hurt.
In 1983, after several years of uncertainty, the Jockey Club bought the Aintree course, securing its long term future. Ninety-two-year-old Jim Joel becomes the oldest winning owner in 1987 when his Maori Venture won in thrilling fashion. The 1993 race was one to forget, basically because it was declared void. Many jockey’s ignored the second of two false starts and completed the circuit only to be told their efforts had been for nothing. There was massive disruption four years later when the race had to be postponed until the following Monday, after bomb threats were received from the IRA.
Moving into the 21st century, Red Rum’s trainer Donald “Ginger” McCain enjoyed an emotional victory with Amberleigh House in 2004, to give the veteran his fourth Grand National win. Then in 2009 Mon Mome became only the fifth ever 100/1 winner and the first since Foinavon more than 40 years earlier. A year later Don’t Push It provided champion jockey Tony McCoy with his one and only National success, much to the despair of the bookies.
In 2012 Neptune Collognes became only the third grey horse to gain victory in the race, although The Lamb did do it twice back in the 1800’s. Tiger Roll became the first horse to defend his title in 2019, romping home, just as he had done 12 months earlier. The 2020 race coincided with the outbreak of Covid-19 which forced its cancellation and when it resumed a year later, history was made when Rachael Blackmore steered Minella Times home to become the first female jockey to win the famous race. So to last year and Noble Yeats became the first seven-year-old to win since 1940, bringing the Grand National history right up to date.
Local police have stated their intention to deal “robustly” with any disruption after it emerged that there is a possible plot to stop this years race by protestors. A leak to the media has suggested that the “Animal Rebellion” group, who are calling for an end to horse racing, are aiming to “storm security fences” before the start and form a barricade across the Aintree Racecourse. There have been small protests outside the course regularly, but they apparently want to go further this year.
In a statement, Merseyside Police said: “We respect the right to peaceful protest and expression of views, but public order or criminal offences will not be tolerated and will be dealt with robustly.” They went on to say that they had been working with The Jockey Club for a number of months to ensure that any necessary plans and processes would be in place to deal with any incidents that may arise.
Recent Grand National trends
Skilful work by the jockey keeping their mount away from trouble and recognising the strengths and weaknesses of their horse can play a big part in where the eventually finish, but in a field of forty horses the one thing needed above all else is… luck. However, there are little trends that can act as pointers when trying to find those horses more likely to bring success.
Looking specifically at the last ten Grand Nationals, only one winner has gone off as favourite, but nine of them had either won or been placed in a race of at least 3 miles during the season of their victory, and eight of them had not fallen either. Only three of the ten carried above 10st 13lbs with Many Clouds successful in 2015 carrying 11st 09lbs the highest. The majority of the winners were also aged either eight or nine.
Winner is in there somewhere
That seems to suggest the winner will have a weight under 11 stone, be no older than nine, will not be favourite, will have been placed in a 3 miles plus race recently, and not fallen this season. Or of course it could just as likely be the name of a relative, have a catchy title, or the jockey will be wearing attractively coloured silks.