At 5:15 tomorrow afternoon a cheer will go up as the runners set off in the Grand National 2018, with 40 runners facing 30 fences over 4 miles, 2 furlongs and 74 yards for the £500,000 first prize.
Despite the fences being modified over the years, the race remains one of the biggest spectacles in the British sporting calendar. Even more than the Derby, it is the one race which is guaranteed to attract an audience of millions around the world and which has the once-a-year punter eagerly studying the form – or seeing which horse has a name similar to their cat – as they try to find the winner.
But there is more to the Grand National than simply trying to back the winner. It is a race steeped in history, controversy and – most importantly – romance.
For years the conventional wisdom was that the winner of the first Grand National – run in 1839 – was the aptly-named Lottery. However, the sport’s historians now say that the race was first run in 1836 and won by The Duke, ridden by Martin Becher, after whom the iconic Becher’s Brook is named.
The race was transferred to Gatwick during the First World War, and in 1928 came a race that is simply unthinkable today. 41 of the 42 runners fell, leaving 100/1 outsider Tipperary Tim to come home alone.
The drama of that race wasn’t matched until 1956 when the Queen Mother’s Devon Loch mysteriously collapsed with the race won. And then came 1967, when another 100/1 outsider, Foinavon, won the race thanks to what Irish commentator Michael O’Hehir famously described as “a right pile-up” at the fence after Becher’s Brook, now known simply as “the Foinavon.”
By the 1970s the Grand National appeared to be on its last legs. There was uncertainty over the ownership of the course and every race was billed as the last one. The race was probably saved by a horse – the legendary Red Rum who won the race three times and finished second twice from 1973 to 1977.
1981 brought the story of Bob Champion and Aldanati – later made into the film Champions – and since then the National has brought us false starts, bomb threats from the IRA and another 100/1 winner in 2009 when Mon Mome won by 12 lengths to leave punters scratching their heads…
Over the years the fences on the National course have been modified, notably to remove “the drop” from the landing side of some of the fences, which made horses more likely to fall. The race organisers also take pains to water the course, meaning that the race is unlikely to ever be run again on firm going and that Mr Frisk’s course record of 8 minutes 47 seconds set in 1990 is unlikely to ever be beaten.
Despite that the National remains a fearsome test, requiring jumping ability and stamina, especially if – as looks possible this year – there has been a lot of rain and the going is soft. It is the only race in the world where the fences are almost as famous as some of the winners: we’ve mentioned Becher’s Brook above and there is also the Chair (the highest fence on the course and jumped just once) and the Canal Turn, where the horses have to turn 90 degrees to the left immediately after jumping the fence.
So if you are looking for the winner this year, where should you look? Maybe the stats can provide a guide…
The best age group for providing the winner is between 8 and 10. The Grand National is a tough test for a horse younger than eight and by the age of 11 horses are starting to lose the speed which is essential in a modern Grand National.
It used to be the conventional wisdom that a horse couldn’t win the race carrying more than 11 stone: that doesn’t seem to be the case nowadays, as the increased prize money continues to attract classier horses to the National. Neither does previous experience of the course appear to be the essential it was once considered to be.
Despite the romance of Tipperary Tim, Foinavon and Mon Mome recent winners have been priced at shorter odds. Three of the past five winners have been returned at 25/1.
Could it be a first for Katie?
Last year’s winner, One for Arthur, was Scotland’s first winner of the race since 1979. But there could be an even bigger piece of history made this year as Irish jockey Katie Walsh bids to become the first woman to ride the winner. Katie finished third on Seabass in 2012, but now rides Baie des Iles: and what was that about romance? The horse is trained by her husband and has been backed from 40/1 into 16/1 this week.
So we could see history made tomorrow afternoon. 40 runners will line up, but there can only be one winner. The main thing, obviously, is that all the runners and riders come home safe and sound. But you cannot watch the Grand National and not have a bet: for me, it will be Captain Redbeard and Seeyouatmidnight.
Postscript: When the Fun Stops…
As the gambling ads endlessly – and rightly – remind us, when the fun stops, stop. As above, I will be having a bet on the Grand National, but I will not be betting more than I can afford to lose – and I certainly will not be betting with as much confidence as Tanzanian gambler, Amani Stanley.
At 6:15 pm last Saturday Amani was a happy man. Ilkay Gundogan had just scored Manchester City’s second goal to give them a two-goal lead in the Manchester derby. City was only 45 minutes away from winning the Premier League title – and Amani was on course to keep his wife.
So confident was City fan Amani that he had bet his wife on the result of the game, signing an agreement with his friend Tony Shilla:
I hereby promise to give away my wife for an entire week to my brother Tony Shilla if Manchester City doesn’t win the league title against Manchester United. I’m of sound mind and I’ve not been coerced into this agreement.
And as the teams went off at halftime, what could possibly go wrong? City were two up, and they had played United off the park. Former United player, Gary Neville, commentating on Sky Sports said he “couldn’t bear to commentate” on the second half.
Never was the cliché ‘a game of two halves’ more appropriate. United came out a different team in the second half. Inspired by Paul Pogba finally playing like a man worth £89m, United turned the game around. Two goals in two minutes from Pogba brought it back to 2-2. And then Chris Smalling volleyed an Alexis Sanchez free kick into the net. 3-2 to United with 20 minutes to go.
The United defence held firm, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola shook hands, the red half of Manchester breathed a sigh of relief and City were made to wait for the title.
6,900 miles away in Tanzania it appears that Amani Stanley and Tony Shilla also shook hands, with – as the Nairobi News reported – Amani being more than willing to honour the bet. Unfortunately, there are no reports – as yet – on what Mrs Stanley thought of her husband’s wager…