There can be very few moments in sport as exciting as those in early April of each year, when the 40 or so runners and riders line up for the greatest horse race there is – the Grand National.
The Grand National is simply the world’s greatest steeplechase. It’s most certainly the most famous race over obstacles in the world and, for many fans, it’s the greatest horse race of any type, anywhere.
But what is it, exactly, that makes the Grand National so special?
Well for starters, if you’ll pardon the pun, its very much part and parcel of British culture. If the Cheltenham Festival and all its fine races in mid-March is the serious side of things then the Grand National is the fun element of National Hunt racing in the country (though Aintree also hosts top quality races).
The Grand National Saturday is the day when pretty much the whole country has a punt on the race. Children and housewives pick out their favourite horses by name or perhaps because of the colours carried by the jockey which are published in every national newspaper. Then later on the Saturday afternoon, tens of millions of people in the UK and tens of millions more all around the world settle down to watch the four and a half mile race on TV with 75,000 more people in the stands at the course.
Over £150 million is thought to be wagered on the Grand National each year
These days, an increasing number of people bet on horse racing with the betting exchange Betfair. In fact, over £150 million is now thought to be wagered on the Grand National each year – with an ever-increasing portion of that amount being placed with Betfair and other gambling exchanges. Quite simply – this is the biggest gambling day of the year in the UK when everyone seems to have a flutter.
But the race is a fantastic spectacle, whether you have a bet or not. Most people know at least a little about the history of the great race, which has been held at Aintree racecourse since 1839.
The names that really resonate for almost everyone in the UK in recent years are, of course, the legendary Red Rum who won an unprecedented three Grand Nationals and also managed to finish second twice in five starts between 1973 and 1977. Fittingly, Rummy is now buried right next to the winning post at the Aintree course. His late trainer Ginger McCain also entered Grand National folklore and his son Don entered the record books on his own account in 2011, saddling the winner Ballabriggs.
Jenny Pitman, the first lady trainer to train a National winner with Corbiere back in 1983 is also synonymous with the great race.
The National was also immortalized in film with the movie “National Velvet”, which was made in 1944 and starred a very young Elizabeth Taylor in the main role as Velvet. She wins the great race whilst posing as a male jockey. And whilst the movie and book on which it was based (which was actually penned by UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s wife Samantha’s Grandmother Enid Bagnold) were entirely fictional – they certainly helped spread the fame of the race. The film remains hugely popular with children the world over to this day.
How to pick the winner
As for how to decide which horse is going to win the Grand National each year – well it’s perhaps not as difficult as you might imagine. Legend has it that the race is a complete lottery and any one of the maximum 40 runners can win. In fact, the first ever winner in 1839 was actually called Lottery appropriately enough.
But this belief isn’t really borne out by the stats these days. In fact, by looking down the list of winners over the past 40 years or so – you can spot a few patterns that will help make up a very handy shortlist of entrants for next year’s race (which, by the way, will be held on April 11th 2015).
In fact, last year’s Grand National winner Pineau De Re was an excellent case in point. The horse carried a weight of 10 stones 6lbs to victory. And few horses can carry more than 11 stones to win. The 2012 winner Neptune Collonges carried 11 stones 6lbs, but that was a bit of a rarity. In 2010, the winner Don’t Push It carries 11 stones 5lbs, but apart from Hedgehunter in 2005, the previous time any horse carried 11 stones or more to victory was Jenny Pitman’s Corbiere in 1983, with 11 stones 4lbs.
It seems the weights may be creeping up a little as the course has become easier to make it safer. But the Grand National is a handicap race and it takes a very special horse to be able to carry much more than 11 stones; so keep an eye on the weights.
The same goes for the age of the horse. Virtually all winners these days are aged 8,9,10 or 11. In fact, just two 12 year-olds have managed to win the Grand National since the legendary Red Rum did so in 1977. These were Royal Athlete in 1995 and the other winner Ginger McCain saddled Amberleigh House, the 2004 winner.
Next, keep a close eye on the market. It’s generally a wise thing to do to rule out any horse whose odds are over 50/1 on the day. You’d miss one or two this way – like the 100-1 winner Mon Mome in 2009, but this was an exception.
As a rule, really long shots and lowly rated horses aren’t up to it and may be running for the owner’s sake more than anything else.
Finally, read the newspapers and eliminate any horses that don’t really like the going on the day along with those with iffy jumping records.
If you can put all these things together, there’s a very good chance you’ll have the Grand National winner on your hands. And whether you do or you don’t – it’s still a wonderful spectacle, it’s completely unique and it just gets better every year.