Far from the supposed lottery that it used to be, the Grand National has become a more predictable race in recent years due to three key changes. Firstly, the severity of the notorious Aintree fences has been reduced, in order to (successfully) reduce the death rate in British racing’s biggest showcase. This means that the pile-ups of the past have disappeared, reducing the randomness of the outcome and giving better horses a greater chance of getting round. Secondly, the winning prize fund has mushroomed to an almost vulgar £500,000, and it’s hardly surprising that connections who would previously have swerved this risky and brutal test are now sending their classier staying chasers to Aintree. Thirdly, recently retired UK Head Handicapper Phil Smith deserves credit for his policy of compressing the weights, which has given quality horses a genuine chance of winning, and has made victory more difficult for bang-average sloggers at the bottom of the handicap.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that picking the winner is easy – this is still a 40-runner handicap run at a furious initial pace over imposing fences for a marathon four-miles-two-furlongs, in case you’re getting cocky – but it’s become a race where ante-post betting is no longer purely the pursuit of lunatics. For the sake of all-important value, it’s imperative to stake a wager before the weights are released, when punters’ attention suddenly shifts to the race. There is no real reason to wait for the weights, after all, as the handicapper’s changes tend to be fairly predictable: Irish horses go up a few pounds, and English course specialists can get raised a pound or two if they’ve obviously been held back all season for April. Rather than going through all the entries – which would be an act of lunacy in mid-February – I’m going to pick out one horse whose price seems inflated given his obvious claims, and another whose sheer class demands consideration.
MISSED APPROACH – Warren Greatrex
Greatrex confirmed the Grand National as the nine-year-old’s “big target this year” in an honest and revealing piece in the Racing Post Weekender. “We’ve deliberately kept him back until the weights are announced and then he’ll have one run, preferably in the Eider, before Aintree. He’d need his next run to blow away the cobwebs but then he’ll be a seriously interesting horse for Aintree as he’ll definitely stay and the race will bring out all of his biggest attributes.” With a deeper look at his profile, this horse has every tick in the book for a Grand National winner:
- Rating & Weight: Rated 145, which barring a strange set of circumstances should be enough to get into the race, but not high enough to take him above the historically-significant 11-stone barrier.
- Proven Stayer: Won the Kim Muir at Cheltenham last year on soft ground, a proper test over 3m2f, and had previously stayed on strongly when second in the 4m1f Edinburgh National, third in the 3m5f Betfred Classic Chase and second in the 2017 Cheltenham 4-miler behind a certain Tiger Roll.
- Big Fences: Enjoyed the Grand National fences on his sighter over them in the Becher Chase in December, although he did make one error when trying to get back into the race after being left at the start.
That all said, this is still a handicap, and as such form is king. It’s that run in the Becher Chase that makes this horse such good value: the bare form says he finished a distant sixth, but that doesn’t tell half the story because he had two big excuses. Firstly he was left at the start, giving up several lengths to the rest of the field; secondly, he was badly hampered at the key moment in the race when the major players made their move, and had no chance of getting involved after that. For much of the race, he shaped as the best horse.
Given Missed Approach was good enough to beat two comically well-handicapped Irish plot horses in last year’s Kim Muir at Cheltenham off a mark of 138, a mark of 145 (even if adjusted slightly by the handicapper) looks more than within his grasp. With his target confirmed, he rates an excellent bet at 40/1.
ELEGANT ESCAPE – Colin Tizzard
Elegant Escape is a seriously classy staying chaser. He won this season’s Welsh National off a mark of 151, the sort of run that marks him out as having the potential to go close in a Grand National off a mark in the 160s, and as such he merits serious respect. After all, the much-missed Many Clouds, who triumphed in 2015 off 160, had earlier that season landed another big staying handicap chase (the Hennessey) off a mark of…151. It’s true that Many Clouds won that season’s Cotswold Chase, while Elegant Escape had to settle for a staying-on second place, but that run should be seen as another positive showing for Tizzard’s charge. Firstly, Frodon’s official mark of 169 is rock-solid given his runs in open handicaps earlier in the season, meaning that Elegant Escape could still be well-treated off 162. Secondly, Elegant Escape yet again showed off his stamina, passing his rivals up Cheltenham’s stiff hill only to find Frodon just too good.
In fact, in my opinion, the further Elegant Escape has to run, the better he will be. He was simply outpaced at key moments in both the RSA Chase and the Ladbroke (née Hennessey!), yet rallied in both quality races to finish in the places. When allowed to settle into his rhythm at a gentler pace in the Welsh National, run over 3m5f and against the kind of horses he’d be up against in the Grand National, he was always comfortable. If anything, having to run another half a mile would be to this out-and-out-stayer’s benefit. He also jumps impeccably and efficiently, something that’s vital around Aintree’s big and imposing fences.
That combination of class, reliability and stamina is not common, and means he has to be considered good enough to emulate Many Clouds and put himself in contention despite his lofty mark. But despite all of this, Elegant Escape really doesn’t have the profile of a Grand National winner.
Let’s take his age first. He is only a seven-year-old, and that is a concern: no horse younger than eight has won the race since Bogskar in 1940. But this is a very experienced horse who has had 17 rides under rules, including 11 chase starts, and he proved his toughness by winning the normally brutal Welsh National at Chepstow in December. He also competed against older horses with merit in the second-biggest handicap of the season, finishing second in the Ladbroke Trophy in November, and as such I’m happy enough to overlook Elegant Escape’s age.
Clearly, he would also be carrying a significant weight around Aintree, being officially rated 162, but there is still a major doubt about just how much weight that would be. His ability to win may depend on the participation of top-rated Bristol de Mai. Given Bristol de Mai is likely to run in the Gold Cup, he’s by no means certain – or perhaps even likely – to take part, even with connections’ current insistence that he will. Yet if BdM does turn up, his huge official rating of 173 might allow Elegant Escape to ‘only’ shoulder something around 11st5lbs rather than top weight, a significant boost, and something that would make Tizzard’s horse a much more attractive bet.
Most worryingly, in Colin Tizzard’s own words, “he wouldn’t be certain to run because he’s still a young horse and there’s plenty of time later”. Tizzard added that “if it was soft at Aintree he could be very interesting”, which puts into question Elegant Escape’s participation on standard Aintree good-to-soft going.
Having long thought “the further the better” for this horse, I just couldn’t resist taking my chances, but there are too many unknowns to suggest others follow me in. Gambling on soft ground in April is too big a chance to take, and as such, despite all his class and form, Elegant Escape can’t rank as a recommended bet at this stage. If you are tempted despite the negatives, I’d insist on using the exchange markets, as not only will you secure a slightly juicier price, but the option of trading out of the bet remains on the table.
Missed Approach – 1pt win at 40/1 (General)