Things We Learned » Grand questions

Grand questions

Lots has been written and spoken about last Saturday’s Grand National – some of it sensible, lots of it not so sensible – that there seems little point in adding to it at this stage. In light of the ultimately fatal injuries that Synchronised and According To Pete regrettably suffered, there have been myriad suggestions as to how the race can be rendered safer than it is. Again, some of them sensible, some of them not so sensible.

Of course, it is important that the norms for the race are continually reviewed, given its profile as the most famous and most-watched horse race in the world, and it s influence on the general image of horse racing as a result, but it is also important that the reviewers carry out their review in the cold light of day, when the heat of the moment has cooled. It imperative that they consider what happened and why it happened (cause and effect), not just what happened (effect), while all the time bearing in mind that a sample size of one is a small sample size indeed.

One small anomaly: if the senior riders and the senior trainers are saying that the easing of the fences and the speed that that engenders is causing a major problem, why is there a continuing lobby to ease the fences further?

National weights

It used to be the case that you couldn’t win the Grand National with more than 11st on your back.  No horse since Corbiere in 1983, we said, had carried more than 11st to victory.  Then Hedgehunter came along in 2005 and won it with 11st 1lb, and we said 11st 1lb: you couldn’t win it with more than 11st 1lb on your back.

But how easily did Hedgehuunter win?  Would he have won it with another 1lb on his back?  With another 2lb?  With another 5lb?

Don’t Push It carried 11st 5lb to victory in 2010, and that was the new cut-off point.  No horse since Red Rum has carried more than 11st 5lb to victory, we said, and he was unique in terms of Grand National history.  Now Neptune Collonges has won it under 11st 6lb.

You could argue that Neptune only got home by as narrow a margin as should make no difference (in truth, it makes a world of a difference) and that the next three horses home carried 10st 12lb or less, but it may be time to turn the telescope around, look through the other end.  What with all the tinkering with the weights and all the compression at the top of the handicap and all, it may be time to change your angle.

Now, the last four winners of the Grand National have carried 11st or more to victory, and two of those have carried 11st 5lb or more.  As well as that, of the 16 places available in the last four renewals of the race, nine have been filled by horses who carried 11st or more.  Maybe it has suddenly morphed into a race for the highweights.

Own goal

Still on the Grand National, the horse to take out of this year’s race with next year’s contest in mind for me was On His Own. Quite well back initially, the Willie Mullins-trained gelding didn’t enjoy a clear run through the early stages of the race, and he was quite badly hampered in the State Of Play/Rare Bob/Chicago Grey scrimmage at the fence before Becher’s first time.

One of the main worries about On His Own going into the race concerned his tendency to jump to his right. The most impressive performance of his career by far was when he won the Thyestes Chase at right-handed Gowran Park in January, and even when he won a good novices’ handicap chase at left-handed Ayr last April when trained by Howard Johnson, the performance was all the more commendably because he did tend to his right through the race.

On Saturday, however, he jumped straight. More than that, he seemed to relish the challenge that the big fences presented. From an unpromising position towards the rear of the field jumping the Canal Turn first time, he had made nice progress under Paul Townend to join the front rank, travelling well, by the time they arrived at Becher’s second time. Alas, he just got in too tight to the fence, landed too steeply and came down.

It was a cracking performance from an eight-year-old. He will be nine next year, the ideal age for the race, and if Willie Mullins does a Hedgehunter on him, makes next year’s Grand National his sole goal, he should arrive at Aintree next April, all going well, with a handicap mark of in or around his current mark of 148, and he would be a big player off that mark. He (40/1) and Alfie Sherrin (unquoted) are the first two horses on my 2013 Grand National list.

Bolger blitz

Jim Bolger has made his traditional flying start to the season, putting clear daylight between himself and his pursuers in the trainers’ championship. The trainer’s horses continue to be under-rated, mind you, as evidenced by the fact that the exciting home-bred Light Heavy was allowed drift to 3/1 third favourite before putting up a really likeable performance to win the Ballysax Stakes at Leopardstown on Sunday, and by the fact that, if you had bet €1 on all Bolger’s runners this season so far, you would be showing a net profit of €28.16. The only other trainer in the top 10 who is showing a level stakes profit for the season to date is David Wachman, with a strike rate of 25% and a level-stakes profit of €13.38.

Scottish King

Fresh from success in the Eider Chase at Newcastle in February, Maurice Phelan is off to Ayr this afternoon with Portrait King, and he has a huge chance of following up.

No seven-year-old has won the Scottish National since Gingembre in 2001, but plenty of youngsters have been placed, and the son of Portrait Gallery proved his stamina and his strength in winning the Eider, and in beating subsequent National Hunt Chase fourth Up The Beat in Punchestown’s Grand National Trial in early February.

The handicapper has raised him 9lb for his Eider win, and you would have liked to have seen the race work out a little better than it has so far, but he won with so much in hand that day, and he has such a progressive profile, that there is every chance he will be able to take that type of hike in his stride. Ayr is not wholly dissimilar to Newcastle, as a galloping, relatively flat left-handed track with a long home straight, and the rain that they are having north of the border is a positive, as is the booking of Denis O’Regan again. All looks set for another big run.

© The Irish Field, 21st April 2012