The Grand National is a handicap and that means horses carry weights according to the official handicapper’s opinion of their respective merits. The best horses carry more weight than those with apparently less ability.
The handicapper is a single man whose job it is to frame the weights of the race. His theoretical aim is to create a 40-runner dead-heat for first place. So it is little wonder that it is so hard for punters to pick the winner. But what are the trends?
Not long ago you were virtually throwing your money down the drain if you chose to support a horse that was carrying 11 stone or more in the Grand National weights. But recent results suggest that that rule no longer applies and that the reverse could even be true. We look back at the weights carried to victory in the past and look for patterns that can help inform your big-race selections in the future.
The 11 stone barrier
In the 20 years prior to 2005, backing horses carrying less than 11 stone paid dividends for punters. Only one horse managed to cross the line first with such a burden, the David Elsworth (pictured) trained nine-year-old, Rhyme ’N Reason in 1988. Ridden by Brendan Powell, he carried exactly 11 stone to victory and was well fancied to do so. He was sent off as the joint second favourite at 10/1.
The majority of winners in those two decades shouldered significantly less weight. Horses carrying 10 stone 7lb or less accounted for 65% of the victors. In the 1990s two winners romped home with the minimum weight of 10 stone, Steve Brookshaw’s Lord Gyllene in 1997 and Tommy Carberry’s Bobbyjo in 1999. The highest weight carried to glory in that decade was 10 stone 8lb. That was the load carried by Martin Pipe’s Miinnehoma (owned by comedian Freddie Starr) in 1994.
It was Hedgehunter, trained by Willie Mullins, who managed to break the 11 stone barrier in 2005. Another nine-year-old, he carried 11 stone 1lb to victory and was sent off the 7/1 favourite under the Grand National specialist jockey, Ruby Walsh. No horse had succeeded when carrying more than 11 stone since 1983 when the Jenny Pitman trained eight-year-old, Corbiere, successfully shouldered 11 stone 4lb.
Horses carrying lesser burdens had dominated in earlier years with the notable exception of Red Rum. After his win in 1973 (when carrying 10 stone 5lb) the handicapper did his utmost to prevent him taking the spoils again. He failed. The then nine-year-old National legend trained by Ginger McCain managed to lug 12 stone all the way into the winner’s enclosure. But Red Rum was the exception that broke every rule in the book.
A new era of success for more heavily weighted horses
Four years after Hedgehunter’s victory the ‘11 stone barrier’ was comprehensively overcome. Venetia Williams’ 100/1 outsider in the Grand National betting odds, the nine-year-old French-bred Mon Mome, carried 11 stone to victory under Liam Treadwell in 2009. He beat David Pipe’s Comply or Die by 12 lengths.
The 10-year-old Comply Or Die was understandably more fancied in the odds at 14/1 under Timmy Murphy. The partnership had won the previous year when carrying 10 stone 9lb. The handicapper had consequently clobbered him with 11 stone 6lb.
The third placed My Will, trained by Paul Nicholls and ridden by Ruby Walsh, was a length further back. My Will, another nine-year-old French-bred, was the second favourite at 8/1 and carried 11 stone 4lb. Evan Williams’ State Of Play was fourth by 17 lengths. Ridden by Paul Moloney, he was saddled with 11 stone 2lb.
The first horse home that year with less than 11 stone was Paul Murphy’s 100/1 outsider, Cerium. He finished fifth under Keith Mercer with just 10 stone 5lb.
In 2010 the Jonjo O’Neill trained Don’t Push It took the champion jockey, AP McCoy, to his landmark first Grand National victory. The 10-year-old was sent off as the 10/1 joint favourite carrying 11 stone 5lb. He beat Dessie Hughes’ 11-year-old Black Apalachi by five lengths. Black Apalachi was also fancied at 14/1 under Denis O’Regan. He carried a pound more than the winner.
The handicapper burdened Don’t Push It with the top weight of 11 stone 10lb in 2011. He was sent off the 9/1 second favourite and put in a heroic performance to finish 14 lengths third to Donald McCain’s 10-year-old Ballabriggs. Ridden by stable jockey, Jason Maguire, Ballabriggs was saddled with 11 stone.
The trend continued as another outstanding weight carrying performance was posted in 2012 when Paul Nicholls saddled the 11-year-old French-bred, Neptune Collonges with 11 stone 6lb. Partnered by Daryl Jacob, the 33/1 shot gave Nicholls his first and long awaited National winner, beating Jonjo O’Neill’s more fancied Sunnyhillboy (16/1) by a nose. No horse had won with that much weight since Red Rum in the 1970s.
That four year run of winners carrying 11 stone plus came to an end in 2013 when Sue Smith’s 66/1 outsider, Auroras Encore, won under Ryan Mania, carrying just 10 stone 3lb. But a run of disappointing form since he came a very close second in the Scottish National in June 2012 had led to a 13lb drop in his handicap mark.
The only placed horse with more than 11 stone was Rebecca Curtis’ Teaforthree. He was nine lengths third with 11 stone 3lb. The second placed Cappa Bleu, trained by Evan Williams and ridden by Paul Moloney, carried 10 stone 11lb. The fourth placed Oscar Time carried exactly the same weight under the amateur jockey, Sam Waley-Cohen. It was not exactly a return to form for lightly weighted horses.
What weights may be carried to Grand National glory in future?
Twenty years before Mon Mome’s victory (when horses carrying 11 stone plus filled the first four places) there were often only a couple of horses carrying more than 11 stone. When Little Polveir won in 1989 for Toby Balding carrying 10 stone 3lb there were only two horses in the Grand National weights with 11 stone or more. That scenario is unlikely to happen again.
There are usually plenty of highly rated horses at the top end of the weights carrying 11 stone plus and the general consensus is that it takes a classy horse to win Aintree’s marathon these days. Now that the course has been made a slightly less severe test of jumping, the proven staying chasers are more likely to survive the obstacles.
Following horses in the bottom end of the weights is unlikely to be profitable in future – unless there is a high quality runner with disappointing recent form that could be back to its best on the day. That is unlikely to happen on a regular basis but watch out for horses from yards that have been under-performing and have suddenly hit form.
Horses carrying top weight are still unlikely to win. Supporting horses saddled in the weight range from 10 stone 11lb to 11 stone 6lb has to be the way forward if you want a return in the Grand National.