Willie Mullins – An Off Season?

Willie Mullins has led the Irish charge to Cheltenham for a number of years. He was the leading trainer every year from 2013 to 2016 and is largely responsible for the recent Irish dominance at the festival. However, this year there his Cheltenham raiders aren’t surrounded by the usual excitement and hype. There is a general feeling that his yard never quite hit form this season, and as a result he sits third in the betting for leading trainer at the festival.

Previous Festivals – Where do the Winners Come From?

Mullins has trained 32 winners at the last 5 festivals, so it’s worthwhile to break them down in order to identify his areas of strength. I’ve divided the festival races into 7 categories:

  • Non-Handicap Novices Hurdles – the Supreme, Ballymore, Albert Bartlett, Mares Novices Hurdle and Triumph Hurdle
  • Non-Handicap Novices Chases – the Arkle, JLT, RSA and National Hunt Chase
  • Open Grade 1 Hurdles – the Champion Hurdle, Mares Hurdle and Stayers Hurdle
  • Open Grade 1 Chases – the Champion Chase, Ryanair Chase and Gold Cup
  • Handicap Chases – the Ultima, Close Brothers, Festival Plate, Kim Muir, Grand Annual
  • Handicap Hurdles – Coral Cup, Fred Winter, Pertemps, County Hurdle, Martin Pipe
  • Other – Bumper, Cross Country, Foxhunters
Non-Hcp Novices Hurdle Non-Hcp Novices Chase Grade 1 Open Hurdle Grade 1 Open Chase Handicap Hurdle Handicap Chase Other
2018 wins 1 2 2 0 1 0 1
2017 wins 2 1 1 1 1 0 0
2016 wins 3 1 2 1 0 0 0
2015 wins 1 3 2 0 2 0 0
2014 wins 2 0 1 0 1 0 0
Total wins 9 7 8 2 5 0 1

So, a few points worth noting:

  • Mullins has had 16 wins in the non-handicap novice races over the last 5 years – in other words, he has trained 16 of the 43 winners of these races in the last 5 years.
  • He has had just 5 wins in handicaps, and no wins in handicap chases.
  • He has had 10 wins in open grade one hurdles and chases, and his other win came in last year’s Bumper.

Novices

It would seem that Mullins’ key strong point is, unsurprisingly, the level-weight novice contests. In the Supreme, Arkle, National Hunt Chase, Ballymore, RSA, JLT, Mares Novices Hurdle, Triumph and Albert Bartlett, he has trained 18.4% of the total field in the last 5 years. His horses accounted for 37.2% of the total winners in that period of time. Mullins trained 27.6% of the horses to make the frame in the last 5 years (including winners).

However, the general consensus seems to be that these wins followed seasons of domination in Ireland, and that the horses were well fancied and in good form when Cheltenham came around. I want to weigh up how Mullins’ novices are performing this season compared to past seasons, so I’m going to look at how his novice hurdlers and chasers performed in graded level-weight contests in past seasons before the month of March. Firstly, his novice hurdlers (note that this doesn’t include juvenile hurdles):

Mullins Novice Hurdlers (Graded Non-Handicaps) Before March

Season Runners Wins W% W/P W/P%
2013-14 25 9 36 14 56
2014-15 31 10 32 16 52
2015-16 27 14 52 18 67
2016-17 30 8 27 14 47
2017-18 31 8 26 11 35
2018-19 31 8 26 12 39

The 2015-16 season was a standout one in terms of novice hurdlers – Mullins won 14 graded events in Ireland before heading to Cheltenham, with over half of his runners in these races winning. However, the following 2 seasons were slightly lower with 8 winners each year before Cheltenham. This season has actually seen the same number of winners to date.

Looking at novice chasers next:

Mullins Novice Chasers (Graded Non-Handicaps) Before March

Season Runners Wins W% W/P W/P%
2013-14 16 5 31 8 50
2014-15 26 10 38 17 65
2015-16 16 8 50 8 50
2016-17 22 6 27 9 41
2017-18 25 6 24 11 44
2018-19 20 6 30 10 50

It’s the 2014-15 season that was the standout this time, but again Mullins has trained the same number of winners in these races as he did in the previous two years. In fact, he has done so with slightly fewer horses, so his win rates (and win/place rates) are actually slightly superior this year to anything else we’ve seen since the 2015-16 season.

These numbers alone tell us that Mullins isn’t having that much of an “off season”. However, a closer look at this year’s winners to date might. I’ve listed the winners in the 2018-19 season below in all cases where they appear towards the top of the festival markets:

  • Cadmium – 20/1 Grand Annual
  • Voix Du Reve – 25/1 Arkle
  • Camelia De Cotte – 33/1 Arkle, 25/1 JLT
  • Ballyward – 6/1 National Hunt Chase
  • Sancta Simona – 12/1 Mares Novices Hurdle
  • Aramon – 12/1 Supreme, 25/1 Ballymore
  • Klassical Dream – 8/1 Supreme

Some of these horses accounted for more than one of the wins in the tables, and some other winners are out for the season and won’t be heading to Cheltenham. This list tells a fairly different story to the tables – Mullins’ horses may be winning races, but they’re certainly not well fancied for festival races. The fact that Ballyward (second favourite for the four-miler at 6/1) is Mullins’ leading hope in the novice contests according to current prices is fairly damning considering the fact that he trained the Supreme favourite or joint favourite in each of the last 4 renewals, and that all of them were shorter than 4/1. He also trained the Arkle favourite in 4 of the last 5 renewals, and 3 of these were odds-on. This year, his leading Supreme contenders sit 3rd and 5th in the market at 8/1 and 12/1, and his leading contender in the Arkle is fourth in the betting at 13/2.

These are just two examples of races in which Mullins doesn’t seem to have the same strength as in past years. Another is the Mares Novices Hurdle – he has trained all 3 winners of the race, each of them the favourite at odds of 4/7, 11/8 and 8/11. This year, his top contender is probably Sancta Simona who can be backed at 16/1, putting her around 10th in the market (although she is as short as 8/1 with one firm).

In short, I’m not sure that it’s fair to say that Mullins is having an “off season” as a whole – we’ve seen that his success in big novice races has been on a par with the last few seasons, and his win strike rate in all Irish races so far this season (25.08%) is more or less on a par with where he finished up last season (26.6%), even if they are below the 3 seasons before last (33.75, 33.21 and 31.52). However, it seems unlikely that his success at the Cheltenham festival (with novices at least) will match that of previous seasons.

The Positives – Handicap Hurdles

So, are there any positives to be taken from this? Well, there is one area which isn’t necessarily associated with Mullins, but in which he has excelled over the years – handicap hurdles. He hasn’t always aimed a large number of runners at these races (from 2007 to 2012 he had an average of just over 3 runners per year, including none in 2008 and 1 in 2009). However, he was nevertheless successful, with 3 winners and another 2 places from his 20 runners in that period. In recent years he has aimed more runners at the handicap hurdles – he has had 55 runners in these races in the last 5 years. His win rate has been relatively low by his own high Cheltenham standards, with 9 winners from these 55 runners (a 9% strike rate with 1.27 A/E) and a further 7 places (a 22% W/P strike rate). The 1.27 A/E is the more interesting point – despite Mullins’ high profile, his horses in these races don’t tend to be as heavily backed as in grade one contests – Bleu Berry was 20/1 when winning the Coral Cup last year, and Arctic Fire was the same price when he won the County Hurdle the previous year off top weight.

An interesting angle is that all of these winners and placed horses ran in a graded race last time out – if we focus just on horses which ran in graded hurdles last time out, it makes the record even more impressive:

Mullins Hcp Hurdlers (Ran in Graded Hurdle LTO)

Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
36 5 14 12 33 71.53 1.81

I’ve broken this down a bit more with a few other angles, which can be seen below:

Location of Prep Run

Track Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
Leopardstown 15 3 20 5 33 50.87 2.56
Clonmel 3 1 33 2 67 11.59 1.96
Other 18 1 6 5 28 9.07 0.93

As ever, a Leopardstown prep run is proven to be valuable experience heading towards the festival. Interestingly, Clonmel has also produced a winner and a runner-up from 3 runners. Both of these (Don Poli when he won the Martin Pipe in 2014 and Roi Des Francs when finishing 3rd in the same race the following year) ran in the Surehaul Mercedes Benz Novices Hurdle, a grade 3 3m novices hurdle run at Clonmel in February. Battleford took the same route to the Martin Pipe in 2017 but only managed 8th.

Graded or Listed Winner?

Won at Listed Level or Above?

Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
Yes 19 4 21 7 37 79.36 2.9
No 15 1 7 5 33 -5.83 0.82

4 of Mullins’ 5 handicap hurdle winners had previously won a graded or listed contest, as had another 3 placed horses.

Which Race?

Race Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
Coral Cup 18 1 6 3 17 13.29 0.89
Fred Winter 5 0 0 0 0 -5 0
Pertemps 1 0 0 0 0 -1 0
County Hurdle 18 2 11 6 33 34.48 1.71
Martin Pipe 13 2 15 3 23 10.76 1.57

An obvious question to ask is which handicap hurdles Mullins’ horses are being aimed at and are winning – it’s clear that he doesn’t tend to run many horses in the Fred Winter or Pertemps, but does run them in the Coral Cup, Martin Pipe and County Hurdle.

More Festival Content can be found in the Cheltenham 2019 Section.

Can a 4-Year-Old Win the Supreme?

One pressing issue this year ahead of the first race of the festival is likely to be the presence of a four-year-old runner. This occurrence isn’t unheard of – there was one last year – but the increased significance this year is understandable, given the fact that Khudha went off at a price of 200/1 last year and finished down the field, as, with no disrespect to the horse or connections, would have been expected. Before that, the last 4yo to run was the admittedly smart Marsh Warbler who had won a grade one juvenile hurdle but went off at 22/1 and was out of his depth, finishing down the field in a Supreme featuring the likes of Sprinter Sacre, Cue Card and Al Ferof.

This year, however, Joseph O’Brien has dominated the Irish juvenile scene and with Sir Erec proving a worthy Triumph favourite in an impressive win at Leopardstown’s Dublin Racing Festival, it’s looking increasingly likely that stablemate Fakir D’Oudairies, who won the Triumph trial on Cheltenham Trials Day with ease, will be re-routed to the Supreme in order to keep O’Brien’s runners apart. So, the question arises again this year, can a four-year-old win the Supreme?

At first glance the record of juveniles in the Supreme looks poor – three horses have tried it in the last 10 years, finishing 13th, 11th and 9th. If we look back over the last 20 years, 15 4-year-olds have gone to the race and only one has won, with another one making the frame. The winner in question was Hors La Loi III in 1999, and the runner-up was Binocular in 2008. They went off at 9/2 and 8/1 respectively, making them two of just three four-year-olds to run in the Supreme at single-figure starting prices in the last two decades.

In short, the form of 4yo’s in the race in the last 20 years looks dire (01F009007002900) but this may be misleading – the form of 4yo’s at single-figure prices is 129.

Admittedly, we’re looking at a very small sample size here, and there may be some logic behind the idea that a 4yo isn’t ideally suited to this test. To my mind, the Supreme is a race for as an experienced horse. This is looked into in detail elsewhere, but to summarise, horses with at least 4 starts over hurdles (in the UK or Ireland) have outperformed those with 3 or less in the last 10 years:

Runs over Hurdles Runners Wins W% W/P W/P% P/L(BF) A/E
1-3 92 2 2.17 14 15.22 -83.76 0.3
4+ 69 8 11.59 16 23.19 50.03 1.52

The two winners with 1-3 hurdles starts before running in the Supreme were Douvan and Vautour, each of whom had run twice in France over hurdles before arriving in Closutton. This seems to be a very strong stat, with the majority of runners in the Supreme in the last 10 years not having had as much hurdling experience as would be desired. To me this is a major negative for this year’s favourite Angels Breath who has run once over hurdles and missed his planned second start due to the influenza. At the time of writing it’s unclear whether he will get a prep run before the festival, but even if he does, he will only have run in two races over hurdles.

Compare this to horses in the field such as Aramon (6 races over hurdles including a win and a second place in a grade one hurdle), Klassical Dream (7 starts over hurdles including a grade one win) and Elixir De Nutz (6 starts over hurdles including a grade one win) and 4/1 seems a very short price for the favourite.

In short, I believe heavily in the idea that experience is a big advantage in a Supreme. With this in mind, I’d be probably be against a lot of four-year-olds running in the race. However, Fakir D’Oudairies has not only run in four races over hurdles (two since he arrived in Joseph O’Brien’s yard and two in France) but also in two chases in France. He’s not lacking in experience, and for this reason I wouldn’t necessarily discard him in a Supreme based solely on his age.

More Festival Content can be found in the Cheltenham 2019 Section.

Cheltenham Handicaps – Spread of the Weights

With the popularity of the festival increasing, there’s extremely high demand to run horses not just in the graded races but also in the handicaps. This means that a lot of handicaps are contested by horses who are good enough to win at graded level, and the ratings can be fairly compressed, ultimately making the actual weights less significant than they are at other meetings. The market possibly hasn’t caught on to this yet, so horses in the top half of the weights can be under-bet as punters prefer something which is theoretically better treated. It’s worth looking at each handicap individually and seeing the spread of the weights. This allows you to determine the relative significance of the weight being carried by horses.

Although every year will be different, so we’ll only know for certain about the spread of the weights in this year’s handicaps when they’re released, it’s worth looking back on previous years to look at the patterns:

The Festival as a Whole

The method of looking at the spread of the weights is simple – just take the top OR in a race, compare it to the bottom OR and find the difference between the two. The average difference between top and bottom OR in last year’s 10 handicaps was 16.5, and this has been fairly steady over the last few years:

Average Difference by Year
Year Avg Dif
2018 16.5
2017 16.1
2016 14.7
2015 15.2
2014 16.7
Overall Average 15.84

It’s worth trying to put this into context, and to do so I’ve looked at the average difference between top OR and bottom OR in two top meetings this year either side of the Irish Sea, each of which hosted 5 handicaps – Leopardstown’s Dublin Racing Festival and Kempton’s Christmas meeting.

Leopardstown DRF 2019
Race Bottom OR Top OR Difference
0-150 2m Hcp Hdl 120 148 28
0-150 2m1f Hcp Ch 113 141 28
2m2f Mares Hcp Hdl 112 133 21
0-150 3m Hcp Hdl 119 139 20
2m5f Hcp Ch 130 150 20
Average Difference 23.4
Kempton Christmas 2018
Race Bottom OR Top OR Difference
Nvc Hcp Ch 121 137 16
2m5f Hcp Hdl 122 142 20
3m Mares Hcp Hdl 120 142 22
3m Hcp Ch 120 144 24
2m Hcp Hdl 114 142 28
Average Difference 22

Both of these are notably higher, so the theory stands (not that we needed much proof, as it’s an easy observation to make) – as more and more horses are campaigned towards festival handicaps, the ratings tend to be more compressed and therefore so are the weights. This also acts as a good reference point – 3 of these 5 races had ratings spreads of 28, and the average difference of the 10 races was 22.7.

Race by Race

Cheltenham does host 10 handicaps over the week, though, and it’s not much use to evaluate them all as a whole. So, I’m going to look at which handicaps have the highest average differences and which have the lowest. In theory, this should show us which handicaps should be looked at as handicaps in the traditional sense (assessing a horse’s capability and comparing this to the mark given by the handicapper) and which should be analysed similarly to level-weights races.

Festival Plate
Year Bottom OR Top OR Difference
2018 137 155 18
2017 133 158 25
2016 135 157 22
2015 137 155 18
2014 131 157 26
Average Difference 21.8
Ultima
Year Bottom OR Top OR Difference
2018 137 155 18
2017 134 155 21
2016 131 153 22
2015 133 155 22
2014 129 151 22
Average Difference 21
Coral Cup
Year Bottom OR Top OR Difference
2018 135 153 18
2017 136 156 20
2016 139 158 19
2015 138 158 20
2014 135 154 19
Average Difference 19.2
County Hurdle
Year Bottom OR Top OR Difference
2018 133 154 21
2017 134 158 24
2016 138 152 14
2015 134 146 12
2014 132 154 22
Average Difference 18.6
Grand Annual
Year Bottom OR Top OR Difference
2018 139 154 15
2017 135 154 19
2016 137 152 15
2015 130 153 23
2014 136 154 18
Average Difference 18
Pertemps
Year Bottom OR Top OR Difference
2018 135 155 20
2017 137 147 10
2016 135 154 19
2015 135 152 17
2014 135 148 13
Average Difference 15.8
Kim Muir (Max 145)
Year Bottom OR Top OR Difference
2018 119 145 26
2017 133 145 12
2016 134 145 11
2015 130 145 15
2014 131 144 13
Average Difference 15.4
Fred Winter
Year Bottom OR Top OR Difference
2018 126 139 13
2017 124 139 15
2016 128 142 14
2015 129 139 10
2014 127 139 12
Average Difference 12.8
Martin Pipe (Max 145)
Year Bottom OR Top OR Difference
2018 136 144 8
2017 135 145 10
2016 135 142 7
2015 135 144 9
2014 133 146 13
Average Difference 9.4
Close Bros (Max 145)
Year Bottom OR Top OR Difference
2018 137 145 8
2017 137 142 5
2016 136 140 4
2015 134 140 6
2014 131 140 9
Average Difference 6.4

So, the Ultima, the Plate, the Coral Cup, the County Hurdle and the Grand Annual, although below the averages set by the Leopardstown and Kempton meetings, can probably still be described as true handicaps, for now anyway. The Pertemps and the Kim Muir are good examples of how much the ratings spread can change from year to year – last year they were 20 and 26 respectively, placing an emphasis on the ratings given to the horse by the handicapper, whereas in 2017 they were 10 and 12 respectively. The Fred Winter, the Martin Pipe and the Close Brothers Handicap Chase tend to have very low spreads, so really the handicap shouldn’t be the main priority when assessing those races.

Application

So how can this information actually be applied to our betting at the festival? Well, my theory would be that a large number of punters haven’t factored this into their analysis, and therefore the market hasn’t factored it in to the odds. Handicaps are viewed as handicaps, and the traditional method of assessing a horse’s chance of winning a handicap is to treat the weight it’s carrying as a key factor, if not the key factor. Punters love to latch on to the idea of a plot horse who has been overlooked by the handicapper – if the weights are less important in races like the Fred Winter, Close Brothers and Martin Pipe, then these horses should be over-bet and those at the top of the weights should be under-bet, therefore representing value.

More Festival Content can be found in the Cheltenham 2019 Section.

Saturday Selection – 21/7/2018

2:25 Newbury – JLT Cup – Class 2 Handicap – 2m½f

This is a tricky puzzle to start the day off, with 17 horses in contention. However, there is plenty of form to get stuck into and 4 places on offer (or 5 if you choose to take 1/5 of the odds), so it’s worth taking a look. Stratum is the 9/4 favourite and he has a very attractive profile – he ran well to finish 3rd at Royal Ascot last time out in the Ascot Stakes over 2m 4f, shaping as if this step back to 2m could suit. Mullins is trying out first time headgear and he has been the subject of market support which is interesting considering he is owned by Tony Bloom. However, his price isn’t overly attractive in a race like this and I’ll be hoping that we can successfully oppose him as he takes up almost a third of the market, and therefore should create value elsewhere.

The next horse in the betting may be of more interest. Almoghared runs off bottom weight by virtue of being the only 3yo in the field, and comes into his handicap debut having also shaped nicely at Royal Ascot last time out, having finished 4th in the Queens Vase.

Buzz is one very interesting contender. He was taken out of the John Smiths Cup last week and the decision has been made to run over this trip instead. He’s unproven over the trip but breeding would suggest that it won’t be a major issue, and one would imagine that he’s being tried out over this distance with a view to running in the Ebor. This won’t mean that he’s not trying here today, however – he’ll need to put in a good run in order to go up in the weights to get into the Ebor. He’s a very consistent type, improving from run to run, and could be seen at his best here if he handles the trip. At 14/1, he looks the best bet.

SELECTION: BUZZ E/W (14/1)

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The Football Tipster – 2/7/2018

Our football tipster has previewed both of today’s World Cup clashes and attempted to find the value in the markets:

15:00 – Brazil v Mexico

Mexico got off to a flying start, beating Germany and South Korea, before disappointing in their final group game when losing 3-0 to Sweden. It’s possible that they had simply taken their eye off the ball briefly, but this loss meant that they’ll have to play Brazil today rather than a preferable draw against Switzerland – it can be quite difficult to find form in a tournament such as this when momentum is lost.

Brazil have failed to be spectacular so far, drawing 1-1 in their first game against Switzerland before beating both Costa Rica and Serbia 2-0. They’re heavy favourites for tomorrow’s match, but it will be interesting to see whether Mexico can catch them on the break as they did against Germany.

It’s hard to tell whether that performance was as impressive as it first seemed, considering Germany’s subsequent form and shaky defence. My instinct would be not, and they’ll play a defence today which should be tougher to break down that Germany’s proved to be.

This has been the natural end to Mexico’s tournament in the last six World Cups and it seems likely that this will be the case today. However, odds on Brazil to qualify are hardly attractive. Brazil have conceded just twice in their last 10 games, whilst Mexico have failed to score in 4 of their 9 games in 2018. A clean sheet for Brazil wouldn’t be a huge surprise, and 7/5 seems generous.

BRAZIL TO WIN TO NIL (7/5 BET365, LADBROKES, CORAL, BETFRED, BOYLESPORTS)

19:00 – Belgium v Japan

Belgium were arguably the most impressive team in the group stages, albeit in an easy group, and they look to have the easiest knock-out game of the round when they face Japan today.

Before their 1-0 win over England, Belgium had scored at least 3 goals (and won by at least 3 goals) in each of their last 4 matches. As a single bet, Belgium -2 looks like value at 23/10. However, for the double, I’m going to go with Belgium -1.

BELGIUM -2 (HANIDCAP) (23/10 UNIBET, 888SPORT)

DOUBLE: BRAZIL TO WIN TO NIL, BELGIUM -1 (3/1 188BET)

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Grand National 2018 Runner-by-Runner Guide

Thunder and Roses
Thunder And Roses has some solid form which would suggest that he would be suited to this race – he won the Irish Grand National in 2015. He unseated Mark Enright at a fairly early stage in this race last year, before going back to Fairyhouse and finishing 4th in the Irish National. Staying ability isn’t a great issue, but jumping is – he fell on both of his last two starts and has been out of sorts this season – even his 4th place finish in the Thyestes last January was a long way off his Irish National form.

Blaklion
Blaklion is undoubtedly a classy horse and was one of our selections last year when he finished fourth in this race carrying 9lb less than he is today. The hike in the weights is justified, with an impressive win in the Becher Chase last December showing his credentials for this. There is a debate over whether he failed to stay the trip last year or simply hit the front too soon, and whilst I would lean towards the latter, I can’t help but think that he has missed his chance off 9lb less. Expect him to put in a very good run today, but it’s hard to argue that he’s much of a value bet.

Anibale Fly
Tony Martin’s charge is probably the runner of most interest from those at the top of the weights or the top of the market. He ran a fantastic race to finish 3rd in the Gold Cup last time out and so is now officially 9lb well in, with the weights for this race having been released in February. Might Bite and Native River making the Gold Cup a real stamina test suited him and one would think that he should be seen to his best over this sort of trip.

The Last Samuri
This is his third time running in the race, having finished 2nd in 2016 and a more disappointing 16th last year. It’s hard to find an excuse for that run, but he chased Blaklion home in the Becher last December (having finished 3rd in that race the previous year). He definitely stays well and likes this unique test of jumping, and will be very much suited by the soft ground. He has been seen to good effect all season (including a decent 3rd in the Cross-Country at the Cheltenham Festival last time out) and he should put in a decent run again this year – although there is a sense that he may have left his chance of winning this behind back in 2016 when he carried a stone less than today.

Valseur Lido
Now 9 years old, the latter stage of Valseur Lido’s career hasn’t lived up to the early promise. He won the JNWine.come Champion Chase at Down Royal in November 2016 and then ran well to finish 4th in the Lexus a month later. He was then off the track for a full year due to injury and returned with a promising run in the race formerly known as the Lexus last Christmas. However, he didn’t come on from that run and has run poorly since, albeit over a shorter trip. This unique test could see him back to somewhere close to his best, but he runs off a mark of 158 and so is handicapped on the assumption that it will do so.

Total Recall
This has been the plan for Total Recall for quite a while and he has been in good form, winning at Leopardstown off a farcically low hurdles mark in February and running well before falling in the Gold Cup last time out. He would have a very good chance but has one major problem – he tends to run keenly and Paul Townend will have a very difficult job in trying to make him settle early on today. Whilst he would be a top contender if he does manage to settle, it’s too much of an “if” for him to be a bet around 12/1.

Alpha Des Obeaux
On his day, this is a very capable horse, but there are plenty of question marks – he ran poorly last time out and has had issues a few times in the last few years, having bled more than once. He’s a fairly unpredictable character, but there are a few patterns in his form which would suggest that this might not be ideal; all 5 wins have come in fields of 11 or less, all 5 wins came within 30 days of his last start (he hasn’t been seen for 69 days), all 5 wins came in January or earlier, and all 5 wins came at right-handed tracks.

Perfect Candidate
Now 11 years old, he showed that he has retained some ability when winning at Cheltenham last November. However, he has failed to impress on both subsequent starts and 154 looks like a fairly high mark considering his current form and his disappointing performance in this race last year when he carried just 2lb more than today.

Shantou Flyer
Shantou Flyer was pulled up in this race last year, having been fairly badly hampered. He has been in good form this season and certainly deserves a win, having finished 2nd on his last four starts. The last of these was in the Ultima at Cheltenham and he seems to have a chance here if he stays.

Tenor Nivernais
He simply looks to be very high in the weights based on recent form – he hasn’t shown any promise this season and it’s hard to see why this would bring out a better performance in him considering he didn’t challenge at all last year.

Carlingford Lough
Like a few of these contenders towards the top of the weights, Carlingford Lough has proven class, with his past victories including two Irish Gold Cups, a Punchestown Gold Cup, two grade 1 novice chases and a Galway Plate. He hasn’t really been at his best since that Punchestown Gold Cup win (and certainly not this season) and whilst his mark wouldn’t be insurmountable if he was to rediscover his best form, his jumping poses another question.

Delusionofgrandeur
The Grand National does tend to throw up some strange results and so it’s hard to discount anything. However, Delusionofgrandeur has an awful lot to find with a lot of these on past form (that’s not any poor reflection on the horse) and might prefer better ground. I also have suspicions that he may be more suited to a stiffer, more undulating track that Aintree, although that may not be of huge significance.

Tiger Roll
One of my favourite horses in training, Tiger Roll defied ground which wouldn’t have been ideal to record another Cheltenham Festival success in the Cross-Country last month. However, I’m not overly confident that he can back that up with another win today. I reckon he’s more suited by an undulating track like Cheltenham than he will be by Aintree, and I also think that he may not be at his very best following a tough run at Cheltenham. He tends to need a break (2 wins from 18 runs when back out within 30 days, 5 wins from 12 runs after a longer break. Even more impressive is his record after at least 60 days off – 3 wins and 3 places from 6 runs, including his three Cheltenham Festival wins). He ran at Cheltenham just 31 days ago in what was undoubtedly one of the toughest races of his career and probably his main target for the season. It’s also worth remembering that he was disappointing in the Irish National last year after winning at Cheltenham, after a similar break (34 days). Aside from these worries, jumping may be an issue – he’s physically a fairly small horse and may have some trouble with these Aintree fences.

Regal Encore
He put in a very good run last time out at Ascot and so comes into the race in better form than when running off the same mark last season. His eight-placed finish last year wasn’t overly impressive but he’s not an easy horse to disregard.

Vieux Lion Rouge
Vieux Lion Rouge has some form in the book which would suggest that he’s suited to the test – he won the Becher Chase in December 2016 and the Haydock Grand National Trial the following February, causing him to go into last year’s race at a price of 12/1. He only managed 6th, a slight improvement on the previous year’s 7th. He was probably undone by the stamina test both of the last two years, and it’s hard to see him coming out on top this year – he carries a higher weight than he did in either of the last two renewals which probably isn’t justified even if he ran a reasonably good race with blinkers on last time out.

Chase The Spud
Again, here we have a horse with form in the book that would suggest that he’s up for this, having won a Midlands National last year. He should stay and should enjoy the conditions but there haven’t been any real excuses for his last two starts (pulled up in both the Welsh National and the Eider). He’s very high in the handicap based on that form.

Warriors Tale
He has been running well of late, finishing a narrow 2nd in both of his last two starts. It’s possible that he’s not the type of horse that you want on your side in a battle approaching the line, and whilst there are major positives (his jumping has looked strong and Trevor Hemmings’ purchase has to be noted), I won’t end up backing a horse in this with such major question marks over staying ability and ability to see out a tough finish.

Seeyouatmidnight
He’s a very classy horse, having beaten some seriously good horses in the past. His jumping is also sublime and he was 3rd in the Scottish National in 2016, a key piece of form for this race. He’s the type of horse which would in theory be the perfect Grand National bet. However, only one start this season just a few weeks ago is hardly an ideal prep and I’ll have to be against him at 14/1 on that basis.

Gas Line Boy
The Becher is often seen as the most important piece of form for this race with experience over these fences a huge advantage. However, it’s worth remembering that Gas Line Boy won the Grand Sefton over these fences over just 2m 4f last December. He may be seen to better effect over a shorter trip, but did finish 5th in this race last year. This was a respectable placing considering he didn’t have a huge amount of luck in running. Robbie Dunne on board has to be a plus. He does carry 5lb more than last year which may be a big ask at the age of 12 but his 3rd to Buywise last time out was arguably as good as anything we’ve seen from him.

The Dutchman
The Dutchman landed the Peter Marsh at Haydock last January but was pulled up the following month back at Haydock in a gruelling Grand National Trial. It was later discovered that he had burst blood vessels on that occasion, but even with an excuse for that run, it’s hardly an ideal prep. I find him to be a tough horse to predict, particularly in terms of his jumping which seems to have good and bad days. The mud won’t be an issue but he’s not top of my list.

Pleasant Company
Pleasant Company seemed to be travelling very strongly in the race last season and looked a likely winner until fading in the last half mile. That could be excused, with a bad mistake at Valentines on the second circuit probably taking a lot out of him. He is a pound lower this year but widely available at 33/1 at the time of writing compared to 11/1 last year. However, there is a reason for this – he has run poorly on both starts this season, in the Paddy Power Chase and the Thyestes. It could be argued that he has been kept for the race or that a return to the course could revive him, but there are more attractive options in the field with less question marks.

Ucello Conti
A familiar name to those who have followed the race in the last couple of years, Ucello Conti finished 6th in 2016 and unseated at Bechers on the second circuit last year (he seemed to be travelling well at the time). He ran well in the Paddy Power Chase at Christmas (although soundly beaten by Anibale Fly) and then disappointed in the Thyestes at Gowran. It’s worth watching some of his race footage – like Warrior’s Tale, he doesn’t seem to be particularly strong in a tough finish and with that in mind he’s probably not one to back (although it would be no surprise to see him put in a good run without winning).

Saint Are
Saint Are is a true veteran of the race, having run in the last three renewals – he was 2nd in 2015, pulled up in 2016 and 3rd in 2017. He has been pulled up on both starts this season, but this has likely been the plan since the beginning. He carries the same weight as last year despite being a year older. Although Aintree might bring out the best in him once again, it’s a very tough ask to come and win a Grand National on his fourth attempt.

Walk In The Mill
Walk In The Mill looks like a progressive type and has the advantage of Sam Twiston-Davies. However, his run in the Peter Marsh on testing ground was poor and calls his stamina into question.

Raz De Maree
He is now 13 years old, but Raz De Maree put any doubts of that nature to bed when winning the Welsh National last time out. Having said that, he’s likely to be ridden patiently with a view to making his move late and I have my doubts over whether he’ll be able to keep up in the early stages of the race, which have been run at a ferocious pace in recent years. Tough conditions will help but I’ll have to oppose him.

I Just Know
This is a runner who should probably be respected based on his stable – Sue Smith certainly knows how to train a National winner, with Auroras Encore winning at a big price in 2016. He won the Yorkshire National well last January but has taken a 14lb hike in the weights as a result. His relentless running style, endless stamina and strong jumping make him an obvious National type. However, I’m inclined to think that his weight looks slightly high and his price looks slightly short, considering he would have to put in a real career best here. That said, I’m not overly keen to overlook him.

Virgilio
Virgilio showed definite class as a novice but has been disappointing this season. He hasn’t been seen since December and has subsequently had a wind operation, but realistically it would have to have a major effect if he’s to make an impact here.

Baie Des Iles
A significant market-mover during the week, Baie Des Iles is an obvious type – she’s a definite stayer and a good jumper. She comes into this off the back of finishing 3rd in the Punchestown Grand National Trial. The form from that race is rock-solid, with the top two finishers (Isleofhopendreams and Folsom Blue) both running massive races in the Irish National. She’s likely to be knocked on the basis of being a 7yo but this isn’t overly worrying as she’s very experienced from her time in France, having started running over fences at a much earlier age than most of these. She’s a definite contender, although how much value exists at her current price has to be questionable.

Maggio
Maggio put in a memorable display when he won the race before the National the year before last, having missed the cut for the National itself. Last year he didn’t make the race due to injury, so this has definitely been the target for a long time. He’s now 13 and it’s possible that he has missed his chance, but there have been some suggestions that he has still got his old ability. He’s not the worst 100/1 ever.

Pendra
Pendra is a good horse on his day but has had plenty of injuries and complications, and was slightly underwhelming in the Kim Muir at Cheltenham despite the fact that he usually runs very well first time out. He’s not the most attractive proposition in this field.

Buywise
The major concern here is jumping – Buywise is prone to putting in the occasional dodgy jump, and there are 30 tough fences to contend with here. He actually did make it around on his sole other start in the race back in 2016, but was well beaten in 12th. He’s likely to be ridden patiently and could simply be left with too much to do. An unpredictable type of horse, he may put in a good run but is hard to back.

Childrens List
Willie Mullins tends to set his own precedent when it comes to stats and trends, but this horse has only had 4 chase starts and 2 of these were in beginners’ chases. He was pulled up in the Grand National Trial at Punchestown last time out and probably didn’t stay that trip, so this will be a tough ask even if the ground isn’t quite as testing.

Lord Windermere
A past RSA and Gold Cup winner, it’s rare that Lord Windermere actually gets his day in the sun but when he does he can be fantastic. He actually put in a respectable run in this race last year, finishing 7th, but fell in the Becher on his sole start since then. Again, he may not jump badly, but there are 30 of these fences to contend with today and his fall in the Becher wasn’t his first error that day. He has serious class, but it may be worth looking elsewhere rather than backing him to record his first win since the 2013 Gold Cup.

Captain Redbeard
Captain Redbeard comes from a small operation so this would be a fantastic story if he was to win. However, there are a number of negatives – he’s not a definite stayer in my book, his run over these fences in the Grand Sefton was disappointing and jockey Sam Coltherd’s inexperience over these fences also has to be seen as a concern.

Houblon Des Obeaux
Although he carries 5lb less than he did last year, he will have to run a lot better in order to improve on his finishing position of 10th. The more testing conditions underfoot and sudden yard form may cause this improvement, however, and he proved that he’s still capable of running to a good level when winning at Sandown in November.

Bless The Wings
There’s a massive negative here in my book and that’s that only 12 days have passed since we saw this horse being pulled up in one of the most testing races in recent memory, the Irish National at Fairyhouse. This alone is enough to put me off him.

Milansbar
Milansbar’s prominent running style is suited to a Grand National and he has some good recent form in the book (2nd in the Midlands National). He should stay all day if he’s able to find his own rhythm up front (this may not be too easy in a race such as this one). There are a couple of question marks (will Bryony Frost take to the National on her first attempt, has he been aggressively campaigned with 4 runs since Christmas, all on testing ground and all over 3m 5f or further) but he’s definitely of interest.

Final Nudge
Unlike some of the horses who are well in because of the National weights being released so early, Final Nudge would actually carry 3lb less if the weights were calculated following his disappointing run in the Kim Muir. He’s a definite stayer, however, and may be of interest off what is still a low mark.

Double Ross
Double Ross put in a massive run to finish 4th in the Kim Muir last time out. He ran a decent race in this in 2016 until his saddle slipped. However, it would seem that Blaklion is much more fancied by the stable.

Road To Riches
Unfortunately, Road To Riches hasn’t been seen to his best for almost two years now, and he really doesn’t seem to be the force of old. It’s hard to see why that should change here.

The Grand National – Age Stats

When the Grand National comes around, trends and stats are used more than ever to analyse the big race (often viewed as an impossible puzzle). Rather than taking these at face value (eg, 8 of the last 10 winners were aged between 9 and 11), it’s worth taking a closer look at them:

10-Year Age Stats

10 Year Age

The grid above shows that all of the last 10 winners were aged between 8 and 11, as were 38 of the total 40 horses to which finished in the top 4. However, so were 84% of the total field. This suggests that this group of horses over-performed, if not by a huge amount. There was a significant underperformance from horses aged 7 or younger, despite this sample being relatively small. The slight underperformance from 10yo’s may suggest that we should focus on 8- and 9-year-olds, but the significant over-performance of 11yo’s would suggest otherwise.

The changes to the race in recent years are well documented, and it may be worth looking at the last 5 renewals to find out whether the trends are changing.

5-Year Age Stats

5 Year Age

3 of the last 5 winners were aged 8 or 9 – however, the other 2 were aged 11. Again, we see an underperformance from 10yo’s, but there is also an underperformance from the 9yo’s in the last 5 renewals. Some might argue that this shows a shift towards younger horses, but the 9% over-performance from 11yo’s (including 2 wins) suggests that this would be a knee-jerk reaction.

Conclusion

Horses aged younger than 8 or older than 11 have struggled to win the race –  although not a huge amount of them have run and it’s difficult to simply discard such runners on this basis.

Of the others, the best record has been that of 11yo’s, with 8yo’s also performing well. However, any useful trends should be backed up by logic and it’s hard to make a case for 11- and 8-year-olds performing well when 9- and 10-year-olds don’t.