Will the Irish win yet another Grand National?

Cheltenham may be the pinnacle of the UK’s jumps season but the Grand National is the race that resonates most with the general public. The Randox-sponsored contest is the sixth of seven races on the final day of the Aintree spring meeting this Saturday, 9 April, with a scheduled start time of 5.15pm.

While Cheltenham’s 28-race four-day festival collectively comprises the biggest betting bonanza of the year, Aintree’s Grand National stands alone in terms of turnover on a single race. And just as at Cheltenham, Irish-trained runners have dominated the Grand National in recent years. It wasn’t always the case. Between 1959 and 1998 there was but one Irish-trained winner. Since then, there have been ten, including four of the last five.

Ireland’s recent dominance is even more complete when you analyse the numbers. In last year’s Grand National, Irish horses filled ten of the first 11 places. They finished first, second and third in the previous running in 2019 (2020 was not run due to the pandemic) and filled the first four places in 2018.

The current market suggests it’s likely to be a similar story this year. Nine of the first 12 in the betting are from Ireland. Only two British-trained horses – Snow Leopardess, Éclair Surf and Fiddlerontheroof – are trading at less than 25-1 (bet365). And one of those may not even make the cut.

The Grand National is the one event where people who wouldn’t be interested in any other race all year will head off to the betting shop to place their annual wager. Therefore, various horses are likely to be over-bet when there’s a feel good story involved.

Last year it was all about Rachael Blackmore. Having been crowned leading jockey at Cheltenham with more winners than all of the British trainers could muster between them, the money plunged on her Grand National mount Minella Times. She duly delivered the goods, thus creating history by becoming the first female rider to win the race.

This year’s feel good story is Snow Leopardess. She’s won all her three starts this season including the Becher Chase over the Grand National fences. Now she bids to become the first mare to win the race since Nickel Coin in 1951. Furthermore, she’s a grey, so that’s an added attraction for once-a-year punters. But those aren’t the main reasons. Prior to her winning streak, she’d produced a foal, so she’d become the first ‘working mother’ to win the Grand National if she triumphs at Aintree. The newspapers are bound to pick up on that one, hence her odds, already short, will shorten further.

Some once-yearly punters will be attracted by a good name. That brings last year’s third, Any Second Now, into the reckoning. Any Second Now is far easier to deal with than the likes of Enjoy D’allen, Escaria Ten or Éclair Surf.

Prices will shorten on all the leading fancies in the days leading up to the race, and are likely to shorten further on the day itself as bookmakers seek to hedge their liabilities.

Who’s heading the Irish Grand National challenge?

Six of the first seven from last year’s Grand National take part again. All of them will carry more weight this time. The winner, Minella Times, will again be ridden by Rachael Blackmore. He’s failed to complete in both starts since that historic success 12 months ago, but trainer Henry de Bromhead is hoping a return to Aintree may see a return to form. For a previous Grand National winner, he’s a big price at 16-1 with Paddy Power. However, Minella Times will have to shoulder top weight of 11st 10lb compared to just 10st 3lb in 2021).

De Bromhead also runs Court Maid, a recent recruit from the Tom Mullins yard, and former Kerry National winner Poker Party. Both are available at 66-1 (Betfair).

Any Second Now holds an obvious chance, having been an unlucky third in last year’s Grand National. He was stopped in his tracks when a horse fell in front of him at the 12th fence. It was the sort of incident that nine times out of ten would have eliminated all chance. But jockey Mark Walsh gradually nursed him back into the race, to the extent that he looked to have every chance when the field turned for home. But Minella Times ran away from him between the last two fences. He’s got 12lb more to carry this time. He’s a best-priced 9-1 with Betfred to avenge that defeat.

Burrows Saint, the 2019 Irish Grand National winner, tired over the last two fences last year and faded to finish fourth. He was a distant third behind Any Second Now at Fairyhouse at the end of February when getting 7lb, so it’s hard to see him reversing the placings now that he’s only receiving 3lb. However, he’s trained by Willie Mullins, which is obviously a big plus. Surprisingly, despite his domination of jump racing, Mullins has only won the Grand National once, with Hedgehunter in 2005. Burrows Saint is a standout 22-1 with William Hill.

Mullins has three other runners in the race but they’re big-priced outsiders. Brahma Bull unseated in Cheltenham’s cross-country race last month, while Augusta Gold finished second over 3m 2f at Down Royal. Both are available at 80-1 with SportNation. Mullins’s fourth runner, Class Conti, trailed in last of the 15 finishers in last year’s Grand National and can be backed at 150-1 with bet365.

Mullins’s great rival Gordon Elliott comes mob-handed with eight of his horses guaranteed a run. His Cullentra House stable has been slightly out of form recently. A welcome winner last Friday broke a run of 62 consecutive losers over a period of 16 days.

Elliott’s main hopes rest with Delta Work and Escaria Ten. Delta Work beat stablemate and dual Grand National winner Tiger Roll in Cheltenham’s cross-country chase last month. That was his first win since the 2020 Irish Gold Cup and it puts him near the top of the betting market with Coral among those going a best-priced 8-1 about his chances. Escaria Ten was beaten a nose by Any Second Now in Fairyhouse’s Bobbyjo Chase last time out but is now 1lb better off and is available at 11-1 with Betfred.

Of Elliott’s other runners, Farclas (25-1 with Betfair) finished fifth in last year’s Grand National but now carries 11lb more. He’s never won beyond 2m 3½f. Run Wild Fred (25-1 888sport) scored his only win over fences in the valuable Troytown Chase at Navan in November. The mare Mount Ida (33-1 with Paddy Power) won the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Chase at Cheltenham in 2021 but could finish only seventh in the Grade 2 mares’ chase there this year.

Elliott’s longshots comprise Coko Beach (50-1 with Boylesports) who finished a long way behind Any Second Now, Escaria Ten and Burrows Saint in the Bobbyjo at Fairyhouse; the once highly-rated Samcro, who has struggled in the last two years; and Punchestown Grand National Trial Chase winner Death Duty. Samcro is available at 66-1 with Ladbrokes, while Death Duty can be backed at 40-1 with SportNation.

Some lesser-known Irish trainers have live contenders. Ciaran Murphy sends Enjoy D’allen, who’s a 14-1 chance with Unibet. He finished third in Leopardstown’s Paddy Power Chase over Christmas but has yet to win beyond 2m 5½ f under rules, although he did win a 3m point-to-point.

Paul Nolan’s Discorama finished seventh in last year’s Grand National. The trainer has protected his handicap mark by running him over hurdles, so he only has 4lb more to carry this time. He’s available at 33-1 with Betfair.

Thyestes Chase winner Longhouse Poet (16-1 with Betway) is trained by Martin Brassil who won the 2006 Grand National with Numbersixvalverde. He’s never fallen and is 18-1 with bet365. That looks tempting.

What chance a British Grand National winner?

The aforementioned Snow Leopardess is trained by Charlie Longsdon. She would be a great storyline and such things have a habit of coming true at Aintree. There’s been plenty of money for her. She could be backed at 16-1 five days ago but she’s only half those odds now. She’s a standout 9-1 with Coral.

Fiddlerontheroof, trained by Colin and Joe Tizzard, is another yet to win beyond 2m 4f. However, he ran a stormer when a half-length second to Cloudy Glen in the 3m 2f Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury in November. His second-place finish under top weight at Ascot in February was achieved despite losing his left-hind shoe. He’s never been out of the first three in ten starts over fences and is a best-priced 14-1 with Unibet.

The Tizzards also run Lostintranslation, who won the Grade 1 Betfair Chase in 2019 and finished a close-up third in the 2020 Cheltenham Gold Cup, but he failed to sparkle at all last season. Despite bouncing back to form in the Ascot 1965 Chase in November, he seems to have gone off the boil again. Harry Cobden takes the ride and he’s available at 80-1 with William Hill.

Jonjo O’Neill’s 2019 Ladbrokes Trophy winner Cloth Cap was well-fancied for last year’s Grand National. He was prominent throughout and still lying second when a bad mistake four ended his chances. With 10st 9lb to carry, just 4lb more than last year, he looks well treated and is available at 25-1 with Ladbrokes.

Another Ladbrokes Trophy winner, De Rasher Counter, represents trainer Emma Lavelle. He won the Ladbrokes in 2019 but has run only four times since. He sustained a tendon injury, eventually returning after 489 days on the sidelines in the Denman Chase at Newbury in February. He finished fourth that day and Lavelle is hoping it will have put him spot on for the race. He can be backed at 40-1 with Betfred.

Lavelle also has Classic Chase winner Eclair Surf entered. His form received a major boost on Saturday when Win My Wings, who beat him just under two lengths in the Eider Chase, landed the Scottish Grand National. His price has tumbled from 33-1 to a best-priced 14-1 with bet365 since then but he needs two to come out to get a run.

Lucinda Russell sent out One For Arthur to win the 2017 Grand National. Her hopes for a second rest with last year’s Scottish Grand National winner Mighty Thunder (40-1 with Paddy Power). He’s been trained with this race in mind and has only 10st 9lb to carry. However, the fact that he’s been pulled up on his last two starts in the Welsh National and the Edinburgh National is off-putting.

Nigel Twiston-Davies also knows how to train Grand National winners. He’s had two, Earth Summit (1998) and Bindaree (2002). He now seeks to bridge the 20-year gap with his Rowland Meyrick Chase winner Good Boy Bobby, who’ll be ridden by his son Sam. He’s not overburdened with 10st 12lb. Coral go 40-1 about his chances.

It’s 32 years since Mr Frisk broke the track record to give Kim Bailey his sole Grand National success. He saddles Two For Gold. He’s won two of his three starts this season and came within two lengths of winning a Grade 1 Chase at Ascot last time out. He’s currently a standout 50-1 with SportNation but those odds look sure to shorten.

Ben Pauling is still looking for his first Grand National success. He runs Kildisart, a 33-1 shot with 888Sport. His last win was on Aintree’s Mildmay course three years ago. He returned after a mammoth 462-day break to finish fourth in Newbury’s Greatwood Gold Cup on 5 March, albeit beaten over 20 lengths. In his favour, he’s never fallen or failed to finish in any of his 20 starts.

Henry Daly hasn’t won the Grand National either, though his mentor Captain Tim Forster, won it three times. Daly relies on Fortescue, who beat Fiddlerontheroof at Ascot last time out, but he needs four to drop out in order to get into the race. He’s a 50-1 chance with Betway.

It’s been over two years since Santini last won a race and he tends to blow hot and cold. His new trainer Polly Gundry will be hoping Aintree’s Grand National fences rekindle his enthusiasm. If they do, 33-1 looks a big price, but it comes with risks.

Dan Skelton’s Blacklion has just sneaked in with 10st 7lb. He ran a huge race last year to finish sixth behind five Irish-trained horses. He won the Becher Chase back in 2017 and finished fourth in that year’s Grand National when sent off favourite. He’s completed in three of his four starts over the Aintree fences (he was brought down on the other occasion). He’s won twice on heavy ground at Haydock this season, stays all day, and is on offer at 66-1 with Boylesports. However, he’s now 13 years old and no horse of that age has won the Grand National since Sergeant Murphy triumphed in 1923.

Top Ville Ben is a front-running northern chaser who could outrun his odds. He won Wetherby’s Rowland Meyrick Chase in 2019 and finished third in it this season to Good Boy Bobby. He’s a 50-1 shot with 888Sport and is likely to slip under the radar, except with people named Ben. However, he’s fallen five times in his career, including over hurdles, and took a heavy fall at the Chair when tackling the Grand National fences in the Becher Chase in November.

Although 11-year-olds won three consecutive Grand Nationals from 2012 to 2014, the last six winners have been eight or nine. Only one horse older than 11 has won in the last 25 years. That rules out Anibale Fly (12) and Blacklion (13).

No 7-year-old has won the Grand National since Bogskar in 1940, so dismiss both Coko Beach and Noble Yeats.

Only six horses have carried more than 11st 6lb to victory since 1938. Many Clouds (11st 9lb) in 2015 was the first to do since Red Rum carried 11st 8lb to a historic third Grand National victory in 1977. Hence, the stats are against Minella Times, Delta Work, Easysland, Any Second Now and Run Wild Fred.

Eight of the last nine Grand National winners had finished in the first three at least once in the previous three starts. Almost all the leading fancies miss this criterion but it’s a big negative for both Lostintranslation and Mighty Thunder. Look for a horse in form.

Course experience is a big help. That bodes well for the chances of six of last year’s first seven: Minella Times, Any Second Now, Burrows Saint, Farclas, Blacklion and Discorama, while Cloth Cap went well for a long way until making a bad mistake four out.

Four of the last nine Grand National winners ran at the Cheltenham Festival. However, this is a stat to treat with caution given there’s only a three-week gap between them this year.

Grand National Verdict

Although the fences have been modified and the distance reduced by around 300 yards, the Grand National is still a severe test. It could be argued that making the fences easier has placed an even greater emphasis on stamina, because horses spend marginally less time in the air and are going that much faster.

Irish-trained horses have dominated the Grand National in recent years and they again have a very strong hand. Gordon Elliott’s Delta Work is the class horse in the race with five Grade 1 chase victories behind him. His defeat of Tiger Roll over Cheltenham’s cross-country course raises speculation about how the dual Grand National would have fared had he not been retired after Cheltenham.

The value may soon disappear but Delta Work’s stablemate Escaria Ten at 11-1 with Betfred, Longhouse Poet at 16-1 with Betway, and last year’s fifth Farclas (25-1 with Betfair), could complete yet another Irish one-two-three-four.

Best of the Brits? Fiddlerontheroof at 14-1 with Unibet.

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