Every year the Grand National captures the imagination of punters all across the world and millions of people flock to their local bookies to place a bet on racing’s most famous spectacle.
The four-mile war is the most daunting punting puzzle on the calendar and finding the winner is almost as challenging as the National course itself. Every year, horse racing fanatics spend hours on end ploughing through the form on offer trying to get an edge on the layers in the ante post market only to see their horse shirk away from the gruelling marathon and the unforgiving Aintree fences.
Not only is it the most difficult race of the year to pick a winner, it also represents the perfect opportunity for the bookies to strangle any value out of the market and the starting prices of the horses at the head of the betting are often far shorter than they should be. Blue Square are currently offering customers a free bet on the race and they are just one of the firms that will remover their offers on Saturday morning.
Which leads us on to last year’s sensational winner Don’t Push It who landed one of the biggest gambles in Grand National history when he bolted up at 10/1 under the hands of Tony McCoy. The champion returns to Aintree to defend his crown and there would be plenty of delighted punters if McCoy could land the race for the second year on the bounce. Don’t Push It is up just 5lbs in the weights after his success last year and you have to wonder whether that would have been enough to stop him twelve months ago?
The answer is probably no and he is sure to be popular on the day of the big race, but he is about to bump into a number of very serious Grand National contenders and What A Friend looks like he could prove too good for his rivals running off 156 and 15lbs well in.
Paul Nicholls’ eight-year-old has plenty going for him heading into Saturday’s big race and it has been no surprise to see him heavily backed ever since he finished fourth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup last month. That was some performance and he seemed to enjoy the decent ground along with being fitted with blinkers for the first time after looking far from straightforward on a number of occasions in his career.
Hugely talented but equally quirky, What A Friend travelled supremely well at Cheltenham and he was finishing so well at the finish, he nearly collared Kauto Star for third after Denman and Long Run had secured the first two places. The four of them finished well clear of their rivals and the time and quality of the first three would suggest that the race is one of the best Gold Cups for some time.
As a result of that performance What A Friend was handed an official rating of 171 by the handicapper, meaning that the superstar will carry 15lb less that he should do (off a mark of 156) relative to the other runners when he lines up on Saturday.
There will be plenty of punters that believe the actual weight What A Friend has to carry in the National will offset his huge advantage and many will believe that the handicapper has little to worry about with the gelding having to carry 11st 6lbs over a frightening 4m4f.
However, ever since the compression of the weights the classier horses are really beginning to assert themselves in the Grand National and the first two home in 2010 and the first four to finish in 2009 all carried eleven stone or more, including Don’t Push It who powered to success under 11st5lbs last year.
Make no mistake about it, What A Friend is one of the classier horses to have contested the race in recent times and he has some serious form to his name. After finishing second to the legendary Denman in the Hennessy Gold Cup as a six-year-old, he tasted back-to-back Grade One victories with a gutsy display in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown before winning the totesport Bowl at Aintree at the end of last season.
This season has been less impressive after two uninspiring performances in the Betfair Chase at Haydock and the Aon Chase at Newbury. Those disappointing appearances came on ground softer than ideal (despite the fact he won the Lexus on soft) before he bounced back to his best in the Gold Cup three weeks ago and Nicholls has always had the National as a long term target for the Sir Alex Ferguson-owned chaser. It was thought that he would be aimed at the race next year, but his tremendous display at Prestbury Park has left him so well treated it would be foolish not to head straight to Aintree.
Despite looking incredibly quirky and unsure in some of his races in the past, interestingly, What A Friend has never fallen in a race in his career and Nicholls has described him as a fantastic jumper in the past. Obviously it is impossible to say whether any horse will enjoy the daunting fences at Aintree, but he looks as though he has the natural ability to learn quickly if he isn't convinced and Daryl Jacob’s emergence as a fine jockey should ensure that if he does clout a few early on he is in capable hands. The flat track at Aintree is also likely to suit the selection and his victory in last year’s Aintree Bowl is proof that the mission to Liverpool should hold no fears.
With good ground essential and looking highly likely, What A Friend looks almost too good to be true heading into the race and he has far more positives surrounding him than negatives. Question marks about his attitude, his trainer’s record in the National and his quick reappearance after Cheltenham are probably the reasons he is not favourite, but when you look at the weights and see how much he has in his favour he looks like he could turn the Grand National lottery into a fantastic day for his backers.
If the thought of backing a 14/1 shot doesn’t capture your imagination and you fancy betting on a horse at a bigger price, the alternative to What A Friend could come in the shape of Dermot Weld’s Irish raider Majestic Concorde.
Weld’s eight-year-old was given the green light for the Aintree showpiece after he impressed with a schooling session at the Curragh on Tuesday and, similar to What A Friend, he looks one of the classier horses lining up in Saturday’s forty horse field.
100 rated on the flat, he still looks unexposed over fences and has only been over the larger obstacles twice in the last year. His master trainer is sure to be worried about his lack of experience, but he certainly knows how to place his horses and despite being hit with an 11lb hike in the weights for his success at Leopardstown at Christmas, he looks to have plenty of untapped potential.
His victory in the Paddy Power Chase on heavy ground will give confidence to those who have question marks over his stamina and his fluent jumping and the fact he has been kept fresh for the race will ensure that he runs his race at a very nice price.
Nick Wilby’s Grand National tips:
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