Sometimes in life, you look back and say “that was obvious really”. The 2016 Grand National was a case in point. I refer, of course, to the bookies shortening up the price of virtually every horse in the minutes before the off to deny the once-a-year punter, who would not know what “taking the price early” means, a collective fortune. It’s a scandal that is repeated year after year, but look at the TV graphic from just before the start and you will realise that the 2016 version was the more blatant of perennial crimes.
I do not refer, of course, to the victory of Rule The World which was not obvious at all really and left me scratching my head in confusion. In hindsight it is easy to make a case for most winners, but a close examination of his form coming into the Aintree marathon reveals few clues. He was a very good hurdler a few years ago with two good efforts at the Cheltenham Festival, and last year was second in the Irish Grand National, but remained a maiden over fences and his form this season was far from encouraging. Trainer Mouse Morris is clearly a genius at plotting up a horse, but even after the weights were revealed his horse could only finish fourth of seven in his previous run, a novice chase at Naas.
The biggest influence on the result, which clearly illustrates the pitfalls of ante-post punting, was the dramatic change in the going leading up to the race. The three day meeting started on testing ground, but by Friday many jockeys reported the going to have improved following bright and breezy conditions. Then rain overnight and through the Saturday changed it again to Soft, Heavy in places. Seven of the first eight finishers carried 10-8 or less (the bottom-weight ran off 10-4), which makes Gilgamboa’s performance in fourth all the more laudable. Many Clouds ran courageously to still be with the leaders just a few fences from home, before tiring to finish last of the 16 who completed under the top-weight anchor of 11-10. A measure of how testing it had got was that Goonyella, who has one gear called ‘slow’, was heavily backed in the minutes before the off and finished fifth.
A little more than 24 hours later and another sporting upset was played out thousands of miles away from Liverpool in the far more genteel surroundings of Augusta Country Club, Georgia. Yorkshire lad Danny Willett won the Masters with a steely Sunday performance, whilst American wunderkind Jordan Spieth threw away the lead with six dropped shots in just three holes at the start of the back nine. It was drama of a different kind, played out over hours of nerve-shredding tension compared to the intense adrenaline hit of the Grand National, but equally compelling all the same.
Looking forwards, now, and we are treated to a thrilling finale to the jumps season which concludes at Sandown this Saturday. The Nicholls behemoth finally hit form last Saturday at Ayr, where the stable secured a four-timer which including the Scottish Grand National for Vicente. This one remarkable day wrested the pendulum of the trainers’ championship back towards Britain when it had appeared to be heading firmly across the Irish Sea. Willie Mullins had plundered the Cheltenham and Aintree showpieces with his stable stars to such sublime effect that the bookies had made him 1/8 for an unprecedented title, yet one day on Scotland’s west coast changed all that and Nicholls is now a general odds on shot to secure his ninth championship of the last ten years.
It is likely to be close though. There is almost half a million pounds of prize money up for grabs this coming Saturday, and Nicholls is at the time of writing only £36,935 clear. The big race at Sandown is the Bet365 Gold Cup, and although both Nicholls and Walsh have chances, I prefer the claims of Theatre Guide at a generous 20/1 with the sponsors. Strike that one from your lists, then.
Last year Sandown was fortunate enough to host another high-profile event as the final stop of the AP McCoy retirement bandwagon. This year’s climax looks equally intriguing. Let’s just hope they don’t milk it for all it’s worth like they did last year, when racecards were £5 and the service, quality and pricing at the catering outlets was verging on the criminal. Like the Aintree bookies 11 days ago, greed can cast a distasteful shadow over our sport’s showpiece events.