‘Any tips for the National?’ I think anyone who has even a vague connection to a horse has been asked this question over the last week, and it’s a pretty impossible one to answer. With a field of forty and some very tough obstacles to get over safely on the way, all you can really do is look at statistics. As Belinda McClung, one of the owners of last year’s National winner, One for Arthur, put it to me: ‘There isn’t as much pressure in a race like the Grand National, where there are 39 other horses; you can get brought down, fall – anything can happen.’
If you do want to look at stats, then the average age of a Grand National winner over the last ten years has been 9 ½, and the favourite rarely wins; in the last fifty years, the favourite has won only 11% of the time. The last ten years have seen ten winners with starting odds longer than 25/1. Of the three current favourites (Blaklion, Anibale Fly and Tiger Roll) – which were at 11/1 but are now all at 12/1 – Blaklion is 9, while Anibale Fly and Tiger Roll are both 8. One for Arthur, who was 8 when he won in 2017, was one of the youngest winners in the last twenty years. The heavy going will affect things as well, especially for the horses carrying top weights. Blaklion, for example, ran well last year, but is carrying the top weight of 11st 10 – a big ask for a little horse, especially with such wet ground. Anibale Fly is carrying 11st 8, so of the three mentioned above, Tiger Roll’s 10st 13 might help him round. (However, his trainer Gordon Elliott has himself said the ground isn’t ideal for him, and that the going will suit his other runner, Ucello Conti, far better.)
But let’s face it, at the end of the day, most people won’t be choosing which horse to put their money on based on its previous form. Of the £300 million or so which will be gambled on the race today, much of that will be placed because of a horse’s name, or because it happens to be running in pink (or blue, or whatever colour you fancy, I suppose).
Personally, I think the real story of the day here will be about the girls. Today, for the first time since 1988, there are three female jockeys riding in the National: Katie Walsh, Rachael Blackmore and Bryony Frost, riding Baie des Iles, Alpha Des Obeaux and Milansbar respectively. No woman has ever won the race, so if one of them manages it today, it will be a historic moment. Katie Walsh, who’ll be easy to spot today aboard the grey Baie des Iles, came third in 2012, which is the closest to winning that a woman has ever managed.
Bookies have slashed the odds of a woman winning today down to 8/1, and Walsh’s odds are now at 16/1, compared to 50/1 earlier in the week. ‘My mare loves a bit of soft ground’, she says, so she isn’t worried about the going. Bryony Frost, in comparison, hasn’t ridden round National fences before, although she has been schooling her horse over the imitation Aintree fences that have been put up down in Lambourn. But the pair of them won the Betfred Handicap Chase at Warwick in January (on soft ground), the same race that One for Arthur won last year just before his National victory. Could that be a sign? Guy Disney has already made history this week at Aintree, by becoming the first amputee jockey to ride around the National course on Thursday, and all of the girls are aboard decent horses, so you never know. Today could end up being one of those days that goes down in the history books.
The Grand National is on at 5.15pm on ITV