So here’s the thing. Today I was ready to tell you the winner of the Grand National. Highland Lodge has been a revelation since joining trainer James Moffatt and won the Becher Chase in December, over the National fences, from seven pounds out of the handicap whilst beating many rivals that are now shorter prices for the National. I think he is likely to improve for the step up in trip, and I’m very keen on his chances at what I see as a very generous 50/1. I’ve already backed him at that price. So why do I now think he will not win? Because he almost certainly won’t get into the race – he is 47th on the list.
This may get a little tricky, but stay with me. 87 horses are still entered to run in a race with a capacity of 40. In a handicap such as this, preference is given to the better horses at the top of the weights. Those just the wrong side of the cut-off have to hope things will change before final declarations on Friday, and usually there are a couple of changes in the days leading up to the race. There are now six horses on 10st 2lbs currently occupying places 43rd to 48th on the list, and their order had to be decided by the chief handicapper Phil Smith. Highland Lodge is not the only hard luck story – 2014 winner Pineau De Re is 46th and Alvarado, who has finished fourth the last two years, is 48th in the pecking order.
Dissenting noises have been heard from prominent figures about the process. Apart from the individual gripes, there is a more general theme here about the growing trend towards the bigger owners and trainers. Many years ago Aintree set out to attract better horses – they made the race shorter, modified the course, moderated the fences and, significantly, they artificially compressed the handicap so that those higher in the ratings would not be giving away as much weight. Guess what – it has worked! But be careful what you wish for.
What this means in reality is that the traditional Aintree specialist is now unlikely to be able to run in the race. The ratings on which the weights are based give little bias to previous course form, and so it can be argued that the race now contains classy animals who have done much to earn their lofty reputation, but little to say they will adapt to the unique demands of the Grand National.
This year, of the 40 currently scheduled to take part, ten are trained by either Paul Nicholls or Willie Mullins, throwing everything at the battle for the trainers championship. Seven are owned by either JP McManus or Gigginstown Stud. These are the powerhouses and superstars in our sport, and their contribution is welcomed throughout the industry, but the murmurings of discontent that first appeared during the recent Festival of superpower domination shall surely only grow if the smaller Fry are pushed towards the periphery of our National obsession.
Our sport, and the Grand National in particular, is based on the tantalising strands of the Dream Academy. The underdog can succeed against the odds. Names such as Foinavon, Mon Mome, and the aptly named Last Suspect litter the history of the great race. It is surely no coincidence that the most engaging Premier League title race in a generation, for the non-affiliated layman at least, features Leicester City who were 5,000/1 at the start of the season (yes, that was the correct number of zeros). Even in this age of money talking, it seems that trophies cannot be bought and the Gods OF Probability can still have their fun.
So who wins the Grand National? I don’t know. Sometimes we miss the obvious, and last year’s winner Many Clouds is in tremendous form and has by the far the best chance of any. 8/1 is not unreasonable, and if you combine him in a double with Rory McIlroy to win the Masters (the most talented golfer in a generation, already a four-time major winner at the tender age of 26, and also 8/1) you will receive 80/1 on the double. I’ve already been tempted. Further down the odds I’m interested in Ucello Conti and The Romford Pele (for the National that is – I don’t think they’ve ever played golf), but not as much as I was by Highland Lodge.
He will have to go down as one of the “could-of-beens, should-of-beens”, like the 2016 Gold Cup winner Vautour and the three-time Champion chaser One Man. What is for sure is that it will be another cracking renewal and enormous party on Merseyside. A year ago I was wafted around Aintree by the extraordinary atmosphere surrounding my first Grand National. The management know how to put on a spectacular event, and the inhabitants of Liverpool, both temporary and permanent, know how to have a great time. Go while you have the chance – you never know when the window of opportunity might close, like it did for Highland Lodge.