Let’s make no bones about it – 40 horses, 30 fences, the guts of five miles – to win the Grand National you need a fair slice of luck. But the luck factor can be overstated. There are some signs that suggest a horse is capable of winning a Grand National. This year there wasn’t much deliberation because Ballycasey is Willie Mullins only representative, but I other years I’ve faced tricky choices as to which horse I should ride. I haven’t always got it right, but generally, here’s what I look out for when I’m trying to pick a Grand National winner.
There’s no need for guessing if he’ll stay the trip, you need clear evidence that the horse will stay. There aren’t many races at distances of 4 miles, so what you need to look out for are horses that are regularly seeing out trips of 3 miles and a half or three miles and five. With the history and sense of occasion, some owners are naturally very excited with the prospect of having a runner in the National, they ignore the fact their horse isn’t really suited to the trip. If you look through the form and see the horse is wheezing home after three miles, then what chance does he or she have of going another mile and a half?
#2 Good jumping
It’s what it’s all about – there’s a clue in the name of the game but people often overlook it and make excuses when there aren’t any. When I say ‘good jumping’, it’s not the ability to put in one or two monster jumps, land about four lengths clear of the fence and then nearly come crashing down at the next, it’s more about consistent, solid jumping. If a horse is more economical with his jumping style and maybe doesn’t catch the eye as much as some others, that’s not a bad thing as long as he’s steady. The ability to stay on your feet for 30 fences is more important than looking good at one and then ending up face down in the mud.
#3 Aintree experience NOT essential
There seemed to be a popular trend in recent years in looking for horses who had raced over the National fences previously. I never really bought in to it then, I don’t buy in to it now. Pineau De Re won last year and he fell eight fences in to his only run over the National fences in the Becher Chase. Auroras Encore and Neptune Collonges hadn’t been over any Aintree fences when they won their Nationals in the couple of years before. There’s every chance that a horse who has run well in the National or in a race over the National fences will win this year, but don’t let it cloud your judgment to the extent you rule out everything else.
The Grand National is such a huge prize and such a gruelling race, it’s rare you get a horse who is performing at his or her best throughout the season and then goes on to win at Aintree. Trainers need to build-up the horse’s stamina and if that means having a couple of uninspiring runs around Plumpton or Fakenham, then so be it. From my point of view, I wouldn’t judge a horse too harshly if he hasn’t been bossing races. It’s hard for a trainer to keep a horse at his peak for six months of the year, so if Aintree was always the target, I’d be willing to excuse a substandard run if it looked like there was more to come. Some of the form figures heading into the National won’t look impressive, but bear in mind that we may not have seen the horse at his or her best this season.
#5 A touch Of class
It sounds a bit vague, but it isn’t. You’re just looking for something in the horse’s history that suggests, on his day, he’s able to mix it with some quality horses. They may not have shown that quality for a while, but you need to know it’s in there. Pineau De Re won an Ulster Grand National and finished 7th in the Champion Bumper. Auroras Encore was a 66/1 winner but finished second in the Scottish Grand National the year before. Neptune Collognes had run well in a couple of Gold Cups and some graded races. It may sound a bit like ‘being wise after the fact’, but when you look back at a Grand National winner’s form, there will generally be some pieces of form that hint at quality.