If you're the only racing fan in your family or circle of friends, this time of year is one fraught with danger. The once-a-year punters are getting ready for their day. Very soon they will be in touch, and they will ask you expectantly: what is going to win the Grand National?
The annoyance of this is that the National is popularly regarded as just about the hardest race on the calendar to pick the winner of. Were you to ask a bookworm to sum up War And Peace in a sentence, say, or tell a wine enthusiast that you'd like advice on the best vines to plant in West Yorkshire, you'd rightly be laughed out of the room. However, we racing fans are expected to crack our toughest puzzle, to the point that a Timeform employee's professional reputation can be on the line if the appointed creature comes down before first Becher's...
Of course, we secretly like to play up the difficulty of the National. In reality, it's a high-end handicap chase in which the only specialist requirement is the ability to both jump and stay a little better than your average chaser. We're helped further by the fact that increasing numbers of those that line up on the day have previous course experience, which takes out much of the guesswork over which horses will be suited by the famous spruce fences.
You don't need to look far among this year's contenders to find horses that have already tackled the course. Among the favourites alone, On His Own, Seabass and Cappa Bleu all ran in the race last year. The last two named filled minor places, yet current market leader On His Own's race ended in more inglorious circumstances with him falling at second Becher's. The facts don't tell the full story, however, as On His Own had jumped extremely well up to then, just behind the leaders at the time, and was instantly earmarked by many for the 2013 renewal. Things have seemingly gone to plan in the meantime, his reappearance in the Boyne Hurdle deliberately delayed with the National in mind and his winning performance in that race pleasing to say the least. On His Own is generally hard to fault and there's a case to be made for him being shorter than his current [10.0]. If you're getting a few on side in the National, On His Own definitely warrants being among them.
As mentioned above, Seabass and Cappa Bleu made it to the end last year (albeit in very different ways, as we'll come back to) so we don't have to speculate quite so much on their chances of a more fruitful second shot at the National. Seabass was prominent all the way under Katie Walsh, tying up only late in the day to leave the final, thrilling chapter between Neptune Collonges and Sunnyhillboy. Seabass is generally a tough and straightforward type, who jumped very well on the whole that day. Did he do just a little too much too soon? Possibly. But did he do so to the extent that you'd fancy him to win from a 5-lb higher mark this time? Probably not.
Watching Cappa Bleu in the 2012 National was much like watching State of Play in the 2009, 2010 or 2011 editions. Both carried the colours of William Rucker, were trained by Evan Williams and stayed on well to make the places under Paul Moloney; and each time those to back them might well have furrowed their brow at how much their fancy had been left to do. Moloney's habitual deliver-them-late style generally doesn't suit the demands of a Grand National, with the vast majority of those that take a hand in the finish right up with the pace by the time the field jump three out. Last year, Cappa Bleu was still eighth jumping the last, but passed stout stayers like Ballabriggs and Hello Bud on the run-in to make fourth.
In mitigation, Cappa Bleu is generally ridden that way, but if you wanted further evidence that it's a fine balancing act, look at his latest outing at Ascot. Racing from the same mark he'll carry at Aintree, Cappa Bleu travelled best of all in a modestly-run three-mile race, but with a slight error three out he conceded first run to Vino Griego, never really looking like clawing the deficit back but staying on pleasingly nonetheless to draw clear of the remainder, two and a half lengths behind the winner. Vino Griego, of course, has since finishing second in a Cheltenham Festival handicap, so this tale serves to advertise how well-treated Cappa Bleu could be as much as it is one of caution over his rider's patient approach.
If you want a masterclass in how to deliver a horse late, your normal go-to man would be Paul Carberry, whose ride on King John's Castle in the 2008 Grand National must rank among the best not to win the race in recent times. Carberry has a National win to his name (on Bobbyjo in 1999) and is one of the most sought-after bookings for any hopeful. His ride this year is uncertain, but it could Chicago Grey, Carberry's National ride last year who now finds himself top of Timeform's weight-adjusted ratings for the 2013 renewal after success in a Grade 2 in Ireland last time. That improved performance has been put down to a breathing operation, but it was also the biggest move forward in a quietly-creeping campaign that would make even Carberry proud. A few runs in which Chicago Grey shaped as though better for the outing, punctuated with a promising showing in a Cheltenham handicap won by Monbeg Dude (who later won the Welsh National under an exemplary Carberry ride), were signs that he was in fair heart all along, yet he finds himself now 9 lb lower than in last year's National. Chicago Grey's jumping is something of a worry, though he can hardly be blamed for last year's departure (brought down fifth) and may have just about the best man aboard to get him round safely.
Finally we come to the most eye-catching of our selections, as he's currently available at [44.0] in the ante-post betting. Like a few already mentioned, he's trained in Ireland and ran in last year's National (as well as that season's Becher). However, what sets Rare Bob apart is that, despite his price, he's ahead of all but Chicago Grey on the weight-adjusted Timeform ratings at the time of writing.
Rare Bob's campaign so far has had a touch of the Chicago Greys about it, the overriding impression throughout 2012/3 being that he's building up to something. It's not difficult to guess what that something might be given he has been taken to a couple of the self-same races he ran in before last year's National, in which he was brought down at the fifth before himself bringing down none other than Chicago Grey.
On his previous visit to Aintree, Rare Bob struggled with bottomless conditions when coming home a well-beaten fifth in West End Rocker's Becher, but he jumped very well on the whole and was still in touch turning in before he dropped away. Stamina is unproven, though he's yet to race beyond 25 furlongs on better ground, and with man-of-the-moment Bryan Cooper likely to take the ride, Rare Bob is likely to be much shorter than current odds at some point between now and half past four on National day.
That's about it in terms of the analysis, but what about our original quandry? What should we be telling our loved ones to back in the Grand National? Covering a few of the more popular types, here's a handy guide:
The father- Your lugubrious old man/uncle etc. tends to get more perverse enjoyment from an unlucky loser than actual enjoyment from a never-in-doubt winner. The horse for him is clearly Cappa Bleu: watch him fly home after losing his pitch at second Canal Turn!
The mother/girlfriend- Apologies for the generalisation, but the image of this person, whatever their gender or relationship, should strike with most: they can jump a little when a horse on the TV screen falls; they sometimes ask why their horse "isn't winning" (has been held up); they often like greys. Chicago Grey for them, then, though you might want to explain in advance not to worry: that man Carberry knows precisely what he's doing.
The Uni mate- He'll send you a message on Facebook, precisely 364 days after his last correspondence, ribbing you again about that "nag" you gave him last year. You don't fancy this schtick yet again come April 2014, so have him back On His Own, or Seabass each-way.
The part-timer- This one can exchange pleasantries about 'Saturday' racing, and probably knows the rough outline of the market leaders' profiles. They might even have backed one of the favourites already, so throw them Rare Bob to add some piquancy to their ante-post portfolio.
You- This is probably what you're really here for. You've heard the cases made for all of the above, and if you just like the warm glow of satisfaction that comes with backing the National winner then feel free to stick all five in; but for a more conventional two-against-the-field approach, make it Cappa Bleu and Rare Bob, who simply look to be the best value at current prices.
Now, about those vines...
Back Cappa Bleu @ [16.0] & Rare Bob @ [44.0] in the Grand National