Things We Learned » Age old rules

Age old rules

Once again, the older horses came to the fore in Saturday’s Crabbie’s Grand National.  Twenty-one of the 24 horses who filled the first six places in the previous four renewals of the race were aged in double figures, and sure enough, the first two home this year were 11 and 10 respectively.

The strength and stamina that comes with age seems to be key to the Grand National these days. It has always been the case that older horses are favoured, but perhaps it has been accentuated of late by the modifications to the fences. Perhaps the stiffer fences provided a slight breather of sorts as horses prepared for each fence, came back on their hocks. Perhaps that doesn’t happen as much any more, perhaps the gallop is more even and unrelenting and unforgiving that it used to be.

Whatever the reason, the evidence says that the older horses are strongly favoured, and that the younger horses who ran well on Saturday should be marked up at least a little.

National pointers

Natural inclination is to hunt for next year’s Grand National winner in this year’s Grand National. It is a legitimate starting point, with five of the last 14 Grand National winners having run in the previous season’s race.

It is always difficult for the winner to follow up. There have been gallant efforts in the recent past, with Hedgehunter and Don’t Push It and Comply Or Die all going close again 12 months after their Aintree heroics, all off significantly higher handicap marks. However, the fact remains that you have to go back to Aintree legend Red Rum in 1973/74 to find the last horse to win back-to-back Grand Nationals. So it is unlikely that Pineau De Re will follow up next year as a 12-year-old with more weight on his back.

Runner-up Balthazar King is obvious, this was his second attempt at the race, he jumps these fences really well and, ridden with more restraint than he was last year, he ran a cracker to finish second. However, he was 9lb well-in on Saturday, he starts off now 9lb higher than he was on Saturday, and it is unlikely that he will be as well-handicapped next year. Also, he will be 11 next year. Not that 11 is too old for a Grand National, because it isn’t, but there may not be as much improvement from 10 to 11 in the Grand National as there could be from nine to 10 or from eight to nine.

Cue Double Seven. JP McManus’ horse ran a cracker to finish third as an eight-year-old. AP McCoy said afterwards that the ground might have been a little dead for him, but he should be better equipped for the energy-sapping test with another year’s worth of maturity under his belt.

Martin Brassil proved in 2006 with Numbersixvalverde that he knows how to prepare a Grand National horse for the big day, and you can be sure that Double Seven will be trained with one race in mind next season. He will be higher in the handicap for sure, but he has the potential to improve by at least as much as his handicap rating increases between this year and next year.

It is a similar story with fourth and fifth, Alvarado and Rocky Creek, aged nine and eight respectively. Alvarado came from an improbable position – he was no better than 12th jumping the second last fence – to finish fourth, while Rocky Creek raced prominently from a long way out before fading and just clinging on for fifth. The third, fourth and fifth could all do better next year.

Topham tops

The Topham Chase can also be a good pointer to the following year’s Grand National. The fences may be easier these days than they used to be, but they are still unusual, and a demonstrated fluency over them, on the Grand National course at the right time of year, is an obvious asset to take into any Grand National. Bindaree finished fourth in the Topham the year before he won the National, while Monty’s Pass finished second in the Topham before coming back 12 months later to land the big one.

Ma Filleule’s performance under the superb Barry Geraghty in this year’s Topham Chase was fairly breath-taking, but she is only six, and it might be difficult for Nicky Henderson’s mare to go back and land the National next year. No seven-year-old has won the Grand National in 75 years.

Triolo D’Alene had a similar profile to Ma Filleule’s going into this year’s race, and he was pulled up. Like her stable companion, Ma Filleule could be a Hennessy horse next season. The National might have to wait a year or two.

Runner-up Bennys Mist could be the Grand National horse to take out of this year’s Topham. He settled well in his first-time hood, he jumped the fences nicely, and he stayed on well to take second place.

Venetia Williams’ horse has won twice over three miles on heavy ground, so there is every chance that he would stay four and a half miles, and he proved on Friday that he could operate away from very soft ground. He was raised just 2lb for Friday’s run, which is fair. That leaves him on a mark of 140, which should see him sneak into a normal Grand National on a relatively low racing weight.

Venetia Williams knows how to train a Grand National winner, and, if she trains Bennys Mist for the race next year, he could be a player. He took well to his hood here, and it may be that the hood will be left off until the Grand National weights are published next February.

Grand frustrations

It is always frustrating when you leave a sporting event thinking what might have been. There was not one single horse to whom you can point from the Grand National – not even Across The Bay – and say, he was an unlucky loser, but there are several about whom you can wonder.

Burton Port unseated at the second fence, Big Shu fell at the third, Tidal Bay unseated after being hampered at the Canal Turn, Long Run fell at Valentine’s, Teaforthree unseated at The Chair. All on the first circuit.

The great thing about running a horse race – the whole point of it in fact – is that, once it has been run, you are usually at least a little wiser as to the relative merits of each individual horse at the end of it. The frustrating thing about this year’s Grand National is that we never got to find out about a lot of the fancied horses. We still don’t know.

Cheltenham form

Once again, Cheltenham form was a key pointer at Aintree. There were horses, like Balder Succes and Warne and Beat That who skipped Cheltenham and ran out of their respective skins at Aintree, but there were others who ran well at both meetings.

Pineau De Re, Balthazar King, Ma Filleule, Whisper, Lac Fontana, Josses Hill, Silviniaco Conti, Boston Bob, Uxizandre, Duke Of Lucca, Guitar Pete and Holywell all proved that you can run well at Cheltenham, then step forward three weeks later and do the same at Aintree.

© The Irish Field, 12th April 2014