Grand National - At The Races

The handicap element of the National

    It may be the world’s greatest race, but it’s a handicap first and foremost, and Jamie Lynch looks at the calculable components of this year’s field.

Rewind a week and collectively, if cautiously in public and vociferously in private, we were all casting suspicious looks at the price of Auxerre in a big handicap, even before 5/1 became 5/2 and he won like he should have been 5/4. And that’s the setting for the Grand National, like no Grand National in my lifetime, being monopolised so resoundingly, yet so rationally, by one horse, TIGER ROLL down to 7/2, when the average starting price of the Aintree favourite is 7/1.

It’s the Grand National, but it’s a handicap first and foremost, and though less pronounced, because of the extreme environmental issues, of the rigours of the race and the ferocity of the fences, the primary principles of handicapping still apply, in that some horses are better treated than others. Needless to say, Tiger Roll is amongst them.

After the waiting game comes the weighting game, and, because the weights are framed in mid-February, along with the fact the National is a penalty-free zone, there’s the chance to move right up the starting grid in the quasi qualifying laps of the spring, ahead of Aintree. Eight contenders have done exactly that, some by bigger margins than others, starting with PAIROFBROWNEYES who would be racing off 156, rather than 146, if the adjustment could be made for his win in a ‘National’, the Leinster version, though it was only three miles, and he’s not so well-in on Timeform figures as the official ones.

Naturally, Cheltenham is main number cruncher for Aintree aspirants, and half of the eight pole-positioned participants earnt their racing stripes at the Festival; besides Tiger Roll, Gold Cup runner-up ANIBALE FLY also has an 8 lb head start, while the second and third from the Ultima, VINTAGE CLOUDS and LAKE VIEW LAD, have Aintree advantages of 5 lb and 3 lb respectively, in theory.

I say ‘in theory’ because the practical part of the National exam is so much harder, hence the rare position of strength that Tiger Roll finds himself, not only well ahead of the game in handicapping terms but also wearing the Aintree t-shirt from where he’s been there and done that. And the really remarkable ingredient of Tiger Roll is the tigerish roll he’s on again this season, unusual for a National winner to find the drive to thrive having climbed the sport’s biggest mountain. To illustrate that point, between 2002 and 2014 no Aintree hero managed to win any race subsequently.   

Tiger Roll was the seventh National winner out of the last ten to be having his first experience of the famous fences at Aintree, so his virginity needn’t be a negative for RATHVINDEN, who’s the same as Tiger Roll in the form formula, 8 lb well-in after toying with Alpha Des Obeaux on his return in the Bobbyjo Chase, appropriate as it’s the twentieth anniversary of Bobbyjo’s success in the Grand National.

It’s hard to argue against Tiger Roll’s odds, but it’s easy to argue that Rathvinden should himself be a single-figure price, given the hard handicapping evidence and the strong suspicion that he’ll take to Aintree, remembering all of the qualities that got him home ahead of Ms Parfois in the 16-runner four-miler at last year’s Festival.

To complete the list, the other two who’ve improved their rating since the weights were published are JURY DUTY (by 6 lb) and RAMSES DE TEILLEE (by 5 lb). But the realm of well-handicapped horses isn’t merely in the present, but also in the past. It’s historical, therefore hypothetical, but sometimes you’ve got to speculate to accumulate, so they say, and there are a several runners on appealing marks, if you go back far enough, none more so than NOBLE ENDEAVOR.  

Two runs since returning from a year out have yielded little, but the destination of the first (Becher Chase at Aintree) and the timing of the second (Cheltenham Festival) at least suggests a plan is in place, and his mark of 150 is lower than when he was third in the Ultima and sixth in the Irish National in the spring of 2017. It’s a risk but, at odds of 50/1, it’s a risk with its rewards, and we’re dealing with Gordon Elliott here, a trainer who has masterminded many a magic trick, and a trainer who has crafted a one-in-a-million horse in Tiger Roll.

Horseracing survives on competition, and competition thrives on numbers, and numbers derive from handicapping; and the Grand National is the greatest competition of them all. It’s not just the narrative that counts but also the numbers, Tiger Roll topping both lists, the reason he’s the price he is, logical on data as well as drama, but others add up too, certainly Rathvinden and speculatively Noble Endeavor.