Without descending into the realms of hyperbole and getting overly excited, the Grand National 2011 is building up to be the most competitive in years. There are so many interesting runners for the Aintree showpiece with real chances it will prove to be a class renewal of the event. In recent years – if it can be said without garnering ridicule – winning the race has become easier. Fences are not as stiff as they used to be and in turn stamina becomes less of an issue.
From Ballabriggs for Donald McCain Jnr to Oscar Time for Gold Cup winning jockey Sam-Waley Cohen toBackstage for cute-whore trainer Gordon Elliot; from Big Fella Thanks to Don’t Push It who is bidding to win the race for a second time off top weight. And that’s not even mentioning the Alex Ferguson part-owned What A Friend who has been strongly supported since finishing fourth in the Gold Cup. The Man Utd manager might quite like winning in Liverpool this season. (That won’t be the first time you’ve heard that) Oh and then there’s the favourite The Midnight Club.
While the World’s Greatest Steeplechase that stops a nation (but not a royal wedding) is described as a lottery, stats and trends will point you in the right direction. Or at least in the right vicinity. But it’s wise not to take them as Gospel or Qur’an; they are there to be broken as we seen when six year old Long Run won the Gold Cup. One stat does stand out as one to be observed is that the last ten winners have had at least ten races over fences. Why is this important for Grand National 2011 or any other National? Jumping ability is as an important trait as stamina is in the gruelling four mile four furlong race over the biggest fences a horse is likely to encounter. In turn, a horse with falling blotches on his record should be stricken from your thoughts. Excuse maybe one fall but any more is a sign that his jumping ability is suspect. Experience is key to Grand National success.
On that note, you can pretty much draw a line through…erm…the favourite, The Midnight Club and Quinz. Controversial? Irish champion trainer Willie Mullins has targeted The Midnight Club from a long time out for the Aintree race, but Ruby Walsh’s mount has ran seven times in chases and blotted his copybook with a fall in his second attempt at a beginners chase. The jumping has been honed, apparently, and Mullins has stated the ten year old is an out and out stayer. From viewing his last race – there didn’t seem to be too much in the tank for my liking. Paul Townend did have to work on him to keep him up about his business to win the 3m 1f contest. He’s only ever won on heavy ground too and that’s not to be expected at Aintree. As warned previously, write him off at your peril but he doesn’t tick enough boxes for me.
Backstage’s preparation race came in the form of £1,000 point-to-point race at The Pigeons Racecourse. A low key affair but reports are it was an impressive victory – his price to win the Grand National was cut straight afterwards, and again recently. Given that Gordon Elliot’s first winner anywhere was Silver Birch in the Grand National, you’ve got to respect the trainer’s eye for a National type horse. He’s probably the shrewdest judge of animal we’ve seen in a long time and Elliot spent the formative years of his life under the tutelage of Martin Pipe. Elliot didn’t pick up how to handicap a horse off the street – case in point were his runners at Cheltenham, especially Carlito Brigante’s success. Given his experience (10+ chases), weight on his back and his only blotch an unseating in this race 12 months by a loose horse, Backstage will be my selection.
On ratings, and because I have to fall back on something, What A Friend’s run in the Gold Cup means he has plenty in hand given the weights were already set and could be worth a few schillings. The Grand National could still be a difficult task for the Paul Nicholls runner. The eight year old hasn’t won a race with more than 12 runners. With 40 odd opponents to contend with, he might shirk at the prospect in Aintree. Key to your Grand National selection is experience. A battle hardened horse with a proven record over large obstacles. And then a bit of luck.