Thursday, 7 April 2011

Grand National Guide

Around this time every year I discover friends I never knew I had and reconnect with old ones I haven’t spoken to in a long time.

What is it about this time of year that suddenly makes me popular? Well as anyone who’s ever seen me will attest it’s certainly not my rugged good looks!

My passion for, and reasonable knowledge of, horse racing on the other hand may just be the reason I suddenly become everyone’s best friend, because early April is Grand National season and everyone wants to get the winner of the world’s greatest horse race.

My record in this race isn’t too bad really if I do say so myself; the first year I had a proper bet in it I had the winner (Numbersixvalverde) I also had Comply or Die two years later when he took it, and last year I had second and fourth – the former in last year’s race I was especially proud of as I’d been telling anyone who’d listen that it was Black Apalachi’s race last year. The least said about the 2007 and 2009 renewals of the race, where I had nothing even remotely close to the outsiders that ran home in front, the better though…

This year I come into the race without a leading fancy and with only a few days to go I’m still undecided where my money will be going, thus I decided to put together a little guide to hopefully narrow down my own selections and also maybe enlighten a few others along the way in the process.

My usual prerequisite for a Grand National selection is a horse that has a. jumped the National’s daunting obstacles before and b. can stay the marathon 4m4f trip these horses will have to endure. Worryingly, this year the horses I’ve been looking at up to this point fit neither of these criteria, so let’s hope some good old fashioned research can give me, and possibly you, a bit more confidence in making a selection for Saturday’s equine extravaganza at Aintree.

These odds and the line-up are obviously subject to change at any point between now and 4.15pm on Saturday so whilst I’ve endeavoured to ensure as accurate a write-up as I can, inevitably there will be some discrepancies between what you read here and what you actually get on the day. Also, as I’m covering every horse in the race here the write-ups aren’t quite as detailed as they would have been had I only focussed on a few leading contenders, the reason being that when it comes to the Grand National someone will back every horse.

To try and make sure every horse that goes in the race gets a little focus here I’ve also included the four reserves that will fill any defectors’ places. And just to clarify, horses I know better than others will probably have more pros and cons than those that I don’t know so well, so don’t look at the pros and cons too much in terms of quantity, more in terms of quality, as I obviously know the class, well-known horses much better than some of the lesser known outsiders.

One final point is that you may see me reference a horse being French bred and that being a negative or Irish bred and that being a positive as well as reference to age, weight and official rating amongst other things. A lot of this is purely due to what the stats show but remember, stats are meant to be turned upside down, as they were two years ago when 100-1 French bred winner Mon Mome got home in front.

So without further ado, let’s cast an eye over the runners for the 2011 John Smith’s Grand National…

1. DON’T PUSH IT – 14/1

Pros: - Last year’s impressive winner. - Course and distance winner. - Champion jockey Tony McCoy rides. - Racing off lower mark than he should be. – Decent, if unspectacular Cheltenham prep run. – Highest rated horse in race.

Cons: - Top weight. – Running off 7lb higher mark than last year. – Stats against a horse winning back to back Nationals (though not unprecedented). – Before last year McCoy had abysmal National record. – Now 11, stats against older horses.

2. TIDAL BAY – 40/1

Pros: - Good grade horse on his day. – Second in Betfair Chase earlier in season behind Gold Cup winner Imperial Commander. – 6th in Gold Cup this year which is historically a strong prep race. – Finishes races strongly, could run on past beaten horses for at least a place. – Runs off 7lb lower mark than he should. – Trainer always strong in the North. – Course winner.

Cons: - Never quite really fulfilled his potential; ‘Idle Bay’ nickname not far wrong. – Unproven over distance, doubts over whether he’ll stay the trip. – Never tackled National’s daunting fences. – Little handicap experience. – Big weight.

3. WHAT A FRIEND – 12/1

Pros: - Impressive Gold Cup run saw him a strong finishing 4th, almost beating Kauto Star for a place. – Massively well in at the weights, will run off 15lb higher mark in next race. – Blinkers last time out seemed to work wonders. – Trained by champion trainer Paul Nicholls. – Won at the meeting last year. – Decent handicap form, 2nd behind Denman in a Hennessy.

Cons: - Ungainly jumping style at times, may find him out early over bigger obstacles. – Awkward running style with high head carriage can see him hang and exert unnecessary energy. – Ruby Walsh passed him over to ride The Midnight Club for Irish boss Willie Mullins. – Never run over this trip. – Poor season prior to Gold Cup run.

4. VIC VENTURI – 50/1

Pros: - Course winner. – Victorious over National fences in last season’s Becher, historically a solid National trial. – Trainer confident of big run. – From same stable as last year’s 2nd Black Apalachi.

Cons: - Failed to complete last year, brought down but never looked like making an impact. – Beaten favourite last time out. – Unspectacular prep. – Never completed this distance. – Probably wants softer ground than he’ll get. – Due to be dropped 4lbs for next race, so running off higher mark than rated. – Stats would suggest too old now (although Black Apalachi was 11 last year).

5. MAJESTIC CONCORDE – 33/1

Pros: - Won last time out (beating BECAUSEICOULDNTSEE). – Trainer’s first National runner for 16 years, he must be confident of big performance. – Seems to go well on any ground.

Cons: - Largely unproven at this trip. – Due to drop 11lbs in the handicap in next race. – No course or National fences experience. – Dual performance horses (flat & jumps) not usually strong National contenders.

6. OR NOIR DE SOMOZA – 50/1

Pros: - Been primed as a stayer by yard. – Won large amount of prize money in France. – 2lbs well in at the weights. – Trainer won the race in 2008. – Will be fresh for the race.

Cons: - French horses have poor record in race. – Untested at anything even remotely close to this trip. – No course or National fences experience. – No prep run, been off the track for 132 days.

7. DOONEYS GATE – 100/1

Pros: - Won last time out. – Course experience & form. – Trainer has good record in race and in form.

Cons: - Would like ground softer. – No real distance experience. – No experience of Grand National’s daunting fences. – Due to drop 10lbs for next run so against it on official ratings. – Overlooked by Ruby Walsh. – Odds appear to reflect chance.

8. BIG FELLA THANKS – 16/1

Pros: - Placed (4th) in race last year, course, distance and fences experience. – 6th in 2009 as well. – Jockey knows what it takes to win the race. – Shrewd trainer, will be trained to the minute for this race.

Cons: - Due to drop 1lb for next race. – Disappointing season since last year’s race by his own high standards.

9. THE TOTHER ONE – 50/1

Pros: - Trained by champion trainer Paul Nicholls. – Placed in this season’s Hennessy. – Course form. – Untested at trip but shapes as though could handle it. – Ground shouldn’t be an issue.

Cons: - Disappointing distant 4th in last run (Argento Chase at Cheltenham). – No win since October 2008. - Trainer never won the race. – No experience of National fences. – Unproven at marathon trip.

10. BALLABRIGGS – 14/1

Pros: - Was long time ante-post favourite for the race. – Trainer has it in his blood to win National (father trained Red Rum). – Rock solid form (apart from hiccup last time out). – Goes on any ground. – Trained with this race in mind since last season. – Cheltenham Festival winner (2010). – Aintree experience. – Trained nearby.

Cons: - Beaten favourite last time out. – No Grand National experience. – Never attempted the big National obstacles. – Drifted in the betting somewhat recently. – Never attempted marathon distance before. – Jockey better over hurdles than fences (in my personal opinion).

11. THE MIDNIGHT CLUB – 9/1

Pros: - Current favourite. – Chosen mount of Ruby Walsh. – Trainer and jockey pairing have won race before (Hedgehunter, 2005). – Stable in form. – Winner of Bobbyjo Chase last time out, historically solid trial for Irish runners. – Solid Form. – Stats would suggest right age, weight and breeding for victory.

Cons: - Due to drop 4lbs next race. – Has fallen in much less competitive race previously. – No course, fences or trip experience.

12. NICHE MARKET – 18/1

Pros: - Trained by Paul Nicholls. – Race experience, ran last year. – Irish Grand National winner. – Ran 3rd in a Hennessy behind Denman & was 5th in race this season. – Will go on any ground. – Retains jockey that rode him in race last year.

Cons: - Failed to complete last year, pulled up feeling like “a car with a flat tyre”, trip might be too much for him. – Disappointing form since Hennessy this season.

13. SILVER BY NATURE – 14/1

Pros: - 11lbs well in. – Won last time out, in Grand National trial – Placed in a Welsh National. – Stamina shouldn’t be an issue.

Cons: - Too many falls and unseatings in previous runs for comfort. – Other than last run, poor form this year, well out of it in Welsh National and Hennessy. – Stats against a Scottish winner. – No experience over National fences and no course form.

14. BACKSTAGE – 12/1

Pros: - Shrewd up and coming trainer has already won race once. – Won last two races (although not under rules). – Ran in race last year and was well fancied and going well until brought down by loose horse. – Well backed in recent weeks. – Stable in form.

Cons: - Disappointing rules form since race last year, well beaten every time. – French breds have poor record in race. – Failed to complete last year. – Strength of prep run wins questionable. - Never completed at this distance or anything close. – 3lbs worse off at weights.

15. CHIEF DAN GEORGE – 40/1

Pros: - Course winner. – Cheltenham festival winner. – Completed Scottish National just outside places.

Cons: - 4lbs worse off at weights. – Worry that Cheltenham win in 2010 was finest hour, disappointing since to say the least. – No experience over National fences. – Fell last time out.

16. CALGARY BAY – 33/1

Pros: - Solid(ish) form. – Course experience, ran at meeting last year (although poor) – Legendary trainer of Best Mate. – Has contested grade 1s against some good horses.

Cons: - Serious case of seconditis. – No experience with the fences or the trip, stamina a big concern. – Personally, I really had to struggle to come with any pros for him (although I can also think of few cons…)

17. KILLYGLEN – 66/1

Pros: - Course winner. – Jockey has won race before.

Cons: - Too many pulled ups on record for my liking, stamina a doubt – Form not great. – No experience over the fences. – Failed to complete Scottish National last year.

18. OSCAR TIME – 12/1

Pros: - Bought specifically to give jockey a ride in this race, very telling. – Well in at weights (though only by 1lb). – 2nd in Irish Grand National. – Reliable jumper. – Amateur jockey has won King George and Gold Cup already this season and is a veteran over the big obstacles. – Irish bred.

Cons: - Stamina questionable, faded last time out when beaten by THE MIDNIGHT CLUB. – Amateur jockey could struggle when push comes to shove against pros like McCoy. – Never raced on English soil, no course or fences experience. – Suspect recent support in the market is for the Waley-Cohens rather than the horse itself.

19. QUINZ – 20/1

Pros: - Won Racing Post Chase last time out. – 9lbs well in at the weights. - Reliable jumper, only 7yo but has jumped with the assurance of an 11yo this season – Leading jockey and trainer combo. – Course experience.

Cons: - French bred. – Stats would also suggest too young this year. – No Grand National experience. – Never attempted trip of this magnitude. – Has fallen in the past.

20. BECAUSEICOULDNTSEE – 25/1

Pros: - Cheltenham form at similar distance, stamina should be no issue. – Relatively unexposed. – Lightly raced this year for this race specifically. - Jumping is solid. – Will go on the ground. – Leading Irish jockey on board. – Always take note of trainer-owners. – Big field experience.

Cons: - No Grand National experience, fences may be daunting. – 3lbs out at the weights.

21. COMPLY OR DIE – 50/1

Pros: - Previous winner (2008). – 2nd in 2009 and completed again last year. – Previous winner of Eider chase. – Course, race and fences experience, stamina and staying ability no issue at all. – Pipe yard been in form lately. – Will be trained to the minute for this. – Reunited with usual jockey Timmy Murphy.

Cons: - All signs point to being too old this year. – Due to drop 5lbs next time out. – Recent form is about as bad as it could be. – Never really in touch last year like had been in previous years.

22. QUOLIBET – 150/1

Pros: - Form behind OR NOIR DE SOMOZA in France. – Experience at big trip and daunting fences, ran in Cross Country race at Cheltenham last month. – Unexposed, could be anything. – Trained by last year’s winning trainer. – JP McManus rarely buys rubbish.

Cons: - Pulled up in Cross Country race at Cheltenham, which was first British run. – No Grand National experience. – No indication in form that he should run well here. – Odds would appear to reflect chance with knowledge we have. – French bred.

23. GRAND SLAM HERO – 80/1

Pros: - Trainer won race before. – Irish bred.

Cons: - Yard out of form. – Form leaves a lot to be desired. – No experience at this trip, at the course of over the big fences. – Fallen and pulled up several times before, jumping and stamina big concern.

24. STATE OF PLAY – 25/1

Pros: - 4th in 2009, 3rd last year, rock solid form in the race. – Stamina and jumping no issue at all, will stay on past beaten horses at the end. – Put away for this race since last year, goes well fresh. – Regular jockey on board. – 5lbs better off at weights than last year and 9lbs better off than 2009.

Cons: - Worry that he’s not good enough to actually win ‘the big one’. – Long time off track, rust could be a concern. – Never looked a threat last year until staying on at the end. – Another year older, gruelling runs could have taken it out of him. – No prep run.

25. KING FONTAINE – 66/1

Pros: - Decent run at Cheltenham last time out. – Solid form prior to 2011. – Jockey rode 2nd placed horse last year. – Irish bred. – Leading owner.

Cons: - Pulled up in Grand National trial. – 5lbs out at the weights. – No experience at course, trip or over the fences.

26. IN COMPLIANCE – 50/1

Pros: - 4lbs well in at the weights. – Trained by Dessie Hughes, had 2nd place last year. – Decent performance in the Topham at this meeting last year, form over National fences. – Course form. – Irish Bred.

Cons: - Beaten favourite last time out. – Unseated last time out. – No form at this trip. – Only 20 days since last run.

27. HELLO BUD – 33/1

Pros: - Winner of the Becher Chase in November over Grand National fences. – Scottish Grand National winner. – 5th in the Grand National last year. - Race, course, fences and trip form.

Cons: - Yard out of form. – Stamina questionable, was prominent last year but faded in the last half mile. – Pulled up 2 out of last 3 races. – At 13 too old to win according to stats.

28. WEST END ROCKER – 33/1

Pros: - Had COMPLY OR DIE & HELLO BUD behind him when winning at Warwick in January. – Irish bred. – Choc Thornton rides.

Cons: - 1lb out in weights. - Pulled up in Grand National trial last time out. – Questionable stamina, also pulled up in a Scottish National. – No Aintree experience or form.

29. SANTA’S SON – 150/1

Pros: - Prolific northern trainer. – Irish bred. – ‘Right’ end of the weights.

Cons: - 6lbs worse off at the weights. – Well beaten last time out at Cheltenham. – Has a number of falls on his record. – No course, fence or distance form. – Poor form this year other than hurdles win at Musselburgh in February.

30. BLUESEA CRACKER – 20/1

Pros: - Recently bought by JP McManus, presumably for this race. – Irish Grand National winner. – 1lb well in at the weights. – Irish bred. – Right end of the weights. – Reliable jumper. – Form from Cheltenham 4th in November has panned out.

Cons: - Well beaten last time out, THE MIDNIGHT CLUB was 32l in front of her. – Best performances on soft > heavy ground. – No Aintree experience.

31. THAT’S RHYTHM – 100/1

Pros: - Course winner. – Should like the ground.

Cons: - French bred. – Has fallen before, including Scottish National last year and year before. – Stamina would be a concern having never completed a marathon trip. – No experience over the National fences. – Poor form since August win.

32. SURFACE TO AIR – 66/1

Pros: - Form prior to this year very strong (although dates back to 2008). – Winner of Summer National at Uttoxeter in 2008, stamina shouldn’t be an issue. – Should be relatively fresh. – Ran 3rd behind Denman early on in career.

Cons: - 987 day absence was ended with a last placed run at Market Rasen, very well beaten. – Only one run after lengthy absence a big concern. – No Aintree experience, fences could be big shock after so long off track.

33. PIRAYA – 150/1

Pros: - Completed race last year (13th), trip, fences and course experience. – Trainer won the race in 2008. – Has fair form claims if somewhat inconsistent.

Cons: - 4lbs out at the weights. – French bred. – Pulled up on last 2 starts. – Has fallen before. – Was 118l behind the winner last year when completing. – Looks like he’s the stable’s 3rd string.

34. CAN’T BUY TIME – 66/1

Pros: - Irish bred. – Owned by JP McManus. – Course and fences experience. – Trainer won the race last year.

Cons: - 7lbs out at the weights. – Fell in the race last year and in 2009, worry that he doesn’t jump the fences. – Pulled up last time out. – Low down the McManus pecking order.

35. CHARACTER BUILDING – 33/1

Pros: - Top female jockey on board. – Irish bred. – Completed race last year (7th), Grand National experience and can complete course. – Reliable jumper. – Consistent performer.

Cons: - 8lbs out at the weights. – No win since March 2009. – Another year older.

36. ORNAIS – 100/1

Pros: - Early career form very strong. – Only beaten a length on latest start. -5th in National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham in 2008, trip should be no issue. – Trained by Paul Nicholls.

Cons: - French bred. – Beaten favourite last time out. – 17lbs worse off at the weights. – Off the track two 2½ years prior to February this year. – No Grand National experience, never tackled fences.

37. ARBOR SUPREME – 20/1

Pros: - 4lbs well in at the weights. – Irish bred. – Trained by Willie Mullins, owned by JP McManus, always take note of this pairing. – Ran in the race last year. – Has beaten last year’s second Black Apalachi in a chase. – 2nd Behind THE MIDNIGHT CLUB last time out, only by 1l.

Cons: - Fell in race last year. – Pulled up in Welsh National this season. – Has failed to complete races in the past for various reasons.

38. ROYAL ROSA – 100/1

Pros: - Prolific northern trainer. – 2nd in Becher Chase this season behind HELLO BUD and 3rd in 2009, course and National fences form. – Ran in last year’s race.

Cons: - French bred. – 10lbs out at the weights. – 12 year olds have poor records in the race. – Pulled up in Welsh National last time out. – Unseated in last year’s race. – Later career littered with being pulled up.

39. SKIPPERS BRIG – 40/1

Pros: - Beat BALLABRIGGS last time out. – Irish bred. – 2lbs well in at the weights. – Connections were very keen to get him into the race. – Reliable jumper. – Won last 2 races. – Solid career form.

Cons: - No experience at Aintree. – Stamina a doubt. – Best form would appear to be on softer ground.

40. GOLDEN KITE – 66/1

Pros: - Irish bred. – Early career form strong. – Bottom weight (at time of writing).

Cons: - 3lbs worse off at weights. – Recent form inconsistent. – Has fallen and pulled up before in career. – Never run on English soil, no Grand National experience. - Beaten into 9th by 47l last time out.

RESERVES:

41. ALWAYS WAINING – 50/1

Pros: - Course winner. – Irish bred. – Completed Grand Sefton (6th) earlier in the season and won last year’s Topham, course and fences form. – Reliable jumper.

Cons: - No experience at this trip. – For age has had a lot of races compared to some National opposition. – 5lbs out at the weights. – No win since this meeting last year. – Career full of pulled ups.

42. FAASEL – 66/1

Pros: - Course winner. – Irish bred. – Trainer has won race before. – 2nd behind Junior at Cheltenham last time out. – 2nd behind BALLABRIGGS at Cheltenham in 2010. – Course experience. - Reliable jumper.

Cons: - 1lb out at the weights. – Trainer already has strong hand in race, would be 4th string. – Pulled up in Scottish National last season. – No Grand National fences experience. – Stamina a doubt, never completed close to this trip.

43. LE BEAU BAI – 66/1

Pros: - 3rd in Grand National trial behind SILVER BY NATURE. – 3rd in a Welsh National. – Reliable jumper.

Cons: - French bred. – Pulled up last time out in Midlands Grand National (and pulled up in same race in 2010). – Not much recovery time since above race. – Stamina may be an issue now. - 2lbs out at the weights.

44. GILES CROSS – 50/1

Pros: - Irish bred. – Only carries 10st. – 2nd in Eider on last start when only 2 completed, no stamina concerns. – 2nd in Welsh National this season. - 3rd in a Midlands Grand National. – Has had a run at Aintree before.

Cons: - Beaten favourite last time out. – 1lb out at the weights. – Very tough race last time out. – No experience over Grand National fences.

So after all that what are my picks to fill the places come Saturday?

1. BACKSTAGE
2. DON’T PUSH IT
3. QUINZ
4. BECAUSEICOULDNTSEE

Whatever the outcome and whether or not you have the winner of the big one on Saturday it will undoubtedly be a great day as always when quite possibly the greatest spectacle in the British, perhaps the world, sporting calendar takes centre stage.

Coverage of the Grand National is on BBC1HD from lunchtime on Saturday 9th April.


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