Grand National Trends: Age Matters

Sue Smith - Grand National age trendsThe minimum age for horses in the Grand National is now seven-years-old, but what is the optimum age of the winner? Past trends demonstrate a distinctive peak age range and imply that horses of certain ages are best avoided.

We take a look at the past trends and draw conclusions from the pattern of winners’ ages. Are there ages to avoid? Are there ages to bet on? Or is a horse’s age simply an irrelevance when deciding your shortlist of likely Grand National winners? We attempt to unravel fact from fiction.

Forget seven-year-olds

A particularly convincing statistic when you look at the age of past winners is to avoid putting your faith in seven-year-olds. There is a good reason why relatively few runners of this age usually line up for Aintree’s highlight. They have become a lost cause.

The last seven-year-old to win was way back in 1940 when Lord Stalbridge’s Bogskar (25/1) triumphed under Mervyn Jones.

The Grand National has not always been a disaster area for horses of this age. In the 1930s there were a trio of successful seven-year-olds including Dorothy Paget’s racing legend, Golden Miller (8/1), in 1934.

Unfortunately all recent results suggest that they are a total waste of time for punters. They are much more likely to fall or unseat their jockeys than deliver a return.

The closest that a seven-year-old has finished to the front recently was Gordon Elliott’s Tharawaat (125/1) who came eighth in 2012. He was 22 lengths behind the winner, Paul Nicholls’ eleven-year-old, Neptune Collonges. Tim Vaughan’s French bred Saint Are (50/1) came ninth in 2013. He was almost 50 lengths behind the winner, Sue Smith’s eleven-year-old, Auroras Encore.

Consider eight-year-olds with care

Eight-year-olds should be viewed with caution too. Only two have won since 1990, Nigel Twiston-Davies’ Bindaree (20/1) in 2002 and Nick Gaselee’s Party Politics (14/1) in 1992. That gives them a success rate of just 8.6%.

Punters seemed to forget about that statistic in 2012 when they made Nicky Henderson’s eight-year-old Shakalakaboomboom the 8/1 joint favourite. They also ignored Henderson’s failure to win this race.  He gave them a run for their money, taking the lead four from home but, typically for a relatively young horse, faded in the closing stages to finish ninth. He was nearly 30 lengths behind Paul Nicholls’ winner.

The same mistake was made in 2010 when Nicholls’ eight-year-old, Big Fella Thanks, was made the 10/1 joint favourite with Jonjo O’Neill’s ten-year-old, Don’t Push It. He finished fourth, 28 lengths behind Don’t Push It.

If an eight-year-old is the favourite in the Grand National betting, the statistics suggest it is best ignored.

Stay away from horses aged twelve or more if you want a winner

If you choose to support a twelve-year-old you are also pretty unlikely to get a return on your investment. They have shared the unimpressive success rate of 8.6% with horses four years younger since 1990.

It is no coincidence that both victorious twelve-year-olds were saddled by trainers with outstanding track records in the Grand National.

In 2004 Donald McCain junior followed in his father’s illustrious footsteps by sending out Amberleigh House (16/1) to win. He deserved to be close to the top of the betting market, having finished third, beaten 14 lengths one year previously.

He was given an extremely patient ride by Graham Lee (who also partnered him in his previous attempt) enabling him to beat the co-favourite, Jonjo O’Neill’s nine-year-old, Clan Royal (10/1) by three lengths, outstaying him in the last 100 yards. Maybe age also mellowed Lee, who swapped codes and became a highly-successful flat jockey!

Jenny Pitman’s twelve-year-old Royal Athlete (40/1) won the Grand National in 1995. He beat Nick Gaselee’s Party Politics (who won in 1992) by seven lengths. Pitman also sent out the only eight-year-old to win the National in the 1980s, Corbiere who won in 1983.

Whilst twelve-year-olds have rarely taken the top honours in recent years, quite a few have managed to pick up some place money. In 2013 perhaps it was the good to soft going that enabled Martin Lynch’s Oscar Time (66/1) to finish fourth and David Pipe’s Swing Bill (80/1) to finish sixth. Dessie Hughes’ In Compliance (100/1) finished fifth in 2012 when the going was a little faster.

You can safely discount any horse older than twelve if you are looking to pick a Grand National winner. They have a strike rate of zero in our timeframe of 1990 onwards and only two thirteen-year-olds have won since 1886.

In 1894 the appropriately named Why Not, trained by Willie Moore managed to win. The feat was not repeated until 1923 when George Blackwell’s Sergeant Murphy was victorious.

These days, the only way a horse of this age is likely to come in is if we have another 1967-style mass pile-up. That looks very unlikely. All rational thought suggests that you are better off looking for a younger recruit.

Nine, ten and eleven-year-olds have performed best

If you want a decent chance of winning the National, having a bet on a horse aged between nine and eleven-years-old seems to make sense.  Over 80% of the Grand National winners since 1990 have come from horses in this age range.

Ten-year-olds have just got the edge with a 30.4% success rate (which means seven wins since 1990) over nine and eleven-year-olds who have both posted six wins, gaining a strike rate of 26%.

If we consider results from the 1980s too in search of a more decisive trend, nine and eleven year-olds become the most successful, with a strike rate of 27%. The ten-year-olds fall behind by just one win in this extended timescale, posting a win rate of 24%.  There is obviously very little to choose between them.

Past performances suggest that it is logical to back a horse in this age range if you want to pick the Grand National winner – but is it?

Will these Grand National age trends continue?

Now that the Grand National is a marginally shorter race and a significantly less severe test of jumping, will historic age trends continue?  You might think that slightly younger horses should stand more of a chance in future. I doubt it.

Another safety-oriented development was the improvement of the watering facilities at Aintree. It is very unlikely that the Grand National will be run on ground that is any faster than the soft side of good in future. That puts stamina at a premium.

The success of horses in the nine to eleven-years-old age range looks set to continue. If any change can be expected, the ten and eleven-year-olds could well post the best Grand National results in years to come.

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