Sunday 17 December 2017

Classy Grey has right profile and Aintree Factor

Last year's Aintree Grand National provides solid clues for this year's race, writes Ian McClean

For a race with such a long, distinguished and colourful history, there has never been a closer finish since the aptly-named Lottery won the first Grand National in 1839 than last year. Neptune Collonges' thrusting verdict by an official nose over Sunnyhillboy would have been declared a dead-heat in the pre-pixel era.

The 2012 edition of the people's race, one of the greatest spectacles of all in the annual sporting calendar, could hardly have been more dramatic. Seven-times champion trainer Paul Nicholls was winning the race for the first time with his 53rd runner. In doing so in such pulsating fashion, he was denying JP McManus, who looked sure to collect everywhere along the Elbow bar the winning post. That owner's deflation was to further descend with the sad postscript accompanying his other runner Synchronised.

Kipling's twin imposters must have had racing in mind, as just two years earlier the same connections had been jubilantly celebrating their first National win with Don't Push It. If drama is the juxtaposition of diametrically opposed emotions, then the National has it more than any other race.

The nature of the race itself has changed in recent times, and not simply the softening of the obstacle-course in the interests of welfare and safety. As recently as the 1990s the race was beginning to lose its lustre. In 1999, the field comprised only 32 horses. Worse than that, back in 1996 just 27 runners lined up for the event and 18 of those raced from outside the handicap. From then on a conscious effort was made to restore the competitive grandeur of the race predominantly through giving the handicapper licence to play fast and loose with the upper end of the weight scale. This year's 171-rated original top-weight Tidal Bay was given a one-off 162 rating to entice him to compete in the National before a stress fracture intervened.

Fairness aside, the end has certainly justified the means in that the race is nowadays over-subscribed, with more high-quality horses than ever condensed into a form of limited handicap in danger of satisfying the purists every bit as much as the pin-stickers.

Mind you, it hasn't made finding winners any easier as the compression of the weights has made at least one governing rule of thumb redundant. Between 1984 and 2004, no horse carrying more than 11-0 managed to win the National. Neptune Collonges managed to nurse 11-6 to victory last year. Indeed the last four winners in succession have each carried 11-0 or more. So it seems weight is no longer a barrier to success.

Amongst the raft of statistics that accompany the National, one of the more interesting is that no horse in the last 30 years has overcome an absence of more than 50 days before winning. Indeed the last to overcome that length of break was the notoriously fragile Aldaniti back in 1981. That stat, significantly, would rule out fancied runners like Imperial Commander and Colbert Station – both of which incidentally are going to experience the unique Aintree fences for the first time.

Which brings us to the Aintree Factor. Seven of the last 12 winners had contested a race over the National fences before, and on that particular note, the previous year's race has been especially informative in suggesting winners. Last year's race is particularly rich, with a number of protagonists returning to try their luck another time. Unlucky Sunnyhillboy has run only twice since, has an 84-day absence to overcome, and has been raised 10lbs to add to his misery from last year.

Third-placed Seabass is 5lbs higher, while Cappa Bleu has fared best of the placed horses by actually being dropped 2lbs, although 2011 winner Ballabriggs (two places further back in sixth) has been dropped 8lbs. Donald McCain's 12-year-old bids to become the first horse since his father's Red Rum (1977) to regain the National. Red Rum was also 12 when he re-entered the famous winner's circle, as coincidentally was the yard's Amberleigh House when he won back in 2004.

Perhaps the most high-publicity horse to emerge from last year's contest is this year's race favourite On His Own – extremely lightly-raced for a nine-year-old with just 11 races on his CV. He was travelling ominously well when squeezed out at Becher's second time last year. He races off the same mark this time, has won his only race since (a Grade Two hurdle for a warm-up at Navan in February) and has the invaluable assistance of Ruby Walsh next Saturday. He could easily be a handicap blot but his price of 6/1 factors that in already.

The two horses that most catch my attention both ran in the race last year and both, strangely, made their exit in the same incident at the fifth obstacle. Chicago Grey and Rare Bob have been conditioned with just one target in mind since, and connections' strategic patience has been rewarded in both cases with a handicap mark lower (9lbs and 6lbs respectively) than last year's.

Rare Bob has been keeping some exalted company since he unseated a very young Bryan Cooper at the second last when challenging withdrawn National favourite Prince De Beauchene on the Mildmay course on Grand National day two years ago. That was off a mark of 151. Off the same mark, he acquitted himself very well over the Aintree fences that same December on bottomless ground he wouldn't have liked. He has been brought along steadily this campaign and ran extremely well in the Leinster National earlier this month. The last time he ran off 140 in a handicap was as a novice when favourite for the Irish National in 2009.

Chicago Grey has always been a class horse. Winner of the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham in his novice year, he actually started favourite for the Scottish National on his next outing. That was off a mark of 151. His career since then has been chequered but a wind operation this season resulted in him popping up at 25/1 in a decent Grade Two at Navan last time. Fortuitously, it was after the National weights had been framed, and he is now extremely well-in off 141. Paul Carberry has produced one stunning National ride already this season with a hold-up performer (Monbeg Dude in the Welsh National) and is the ideal man for the job to add to his Bobbyjo success back in 1999.


1 Chicago Grey

2 Rare Bob

3 On His Own

4 Cappa Bleu

Irish Independent

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