With the Grand National fast approaching, Keith Melrose reveals which riders are the most effective over the famous spruce fences...
You don't hear the term 'polymath' used very often any more. It was coined to define the indefinable thinkers of the Renaissance and last deployed in a sporting context, during the time of university professors-cum-England cricketers, FA Cup-winning Viscounts and dentists riding the Grand National winner.
The last of those hasn't happened as far as I can gather, but it may arrive in our time. Well, sort of: Sam Waley-Cohen isn't actually a dentist, he just manages a chain of dental practices. He's not quite aristocracy either, but then again he did purportedly take a hand in Prince William and Kate Middleton reconciling a few years back. Perhaps most incredibly of all, he could also ride a National winner.
Waley-Cohen has come close before, partnering Oscar Time to a second-placed finish in 2011's Grand National and fourth last year. Oscar Time's name won't reverberate outside of National Hunt circles but that of Waley-Cohen's mount this year, Long Run, will.
It's been asked all through Long Run's career: what more would he have achieved in partnership with a professional jockey? Now I've no intention of stymieing a good pub debate, but the broad-brush answer of 'some, but not much' almost certainly covers it.
A Geraghty or a McCoy might have had a little more success on Long Run over park fences, but who could have achieved more over Aintree's National course than Waley-Cohen with the mounts he's had? The answer, it turns out, is no one. Not even Ruby Walsh.
Timeform's jockey ratings have only been in the public domain for a little over a year, but already they've predicted the rise of Brian Cooper and the arrival of Mikey Fogarty, the latter having ridden nine winners including one at the Festival since he was interviewed by our Chief Correspondent at the end of February. The latest conclusion drawn from the figures is that you want to be with Sam Waley-Cohen above all others at Aintree.
Let's get the caveats in first. Any measure taken over the National course, which is used just five times every season, is always going to be susceptible to the vagaries of the small sample size. Also, one of the five races, the Fox Hunter, is restricted to amateur riders. In this sphere Waley-Cohen unsurprisingly excels (no other amateur is in the top 30), though maybe not by as far as you'd think: he notched up two wins and a second with Katarino, but either side of that double act his record has been unspectacular.
These points of mitigation are one thing, but take another look at the table. This is no bunched finish and Waley-Cohen no Lord Windermere: he and Walsh are pair-clear in their records over the spruce. Walsh gets the plaudits he deserves for his excellent Aintree record. Waley-Cohen doesn't.
Moreover, injury is going to force Walsh out of this year's race. Were Waley-Cohen not booked for a ride and Walsh 4 lb ahead of anyone else, most would shrug and deem it fair enough; no trees uprooted, no wheel reinvented. As it is, Walsh will be absent and Waley-Cohen is 6 lb clear. He's an outlier that shouldn't be discarded given what Timeform's jockey ratings have served up already.
In practice it could all become irrelevant, of course. The axiom runs that the Grand National is the ultimate test of both horse and rider and it's easily conceivable that Long Run's staccato jumping will see him and Waley-Cohen fail irrespective of the latter's powers. What else, then, can we take from the ratings?
It tells us that Daryl Jacob will be missed by Paul Nicholls, for one. Jacob's record, which includes a win on I Hear Thunder in the 2006 Grand Sefton in addition to his famous success aboard Neptune Collonges in 2012, puts him up with the best. Still, connections of Tidal Bay won't be complaining too loudly as scheduled rider Sam Twiston-Davies has a comparable record to Jacob for all he's never finished better than fifth in the big race.
Contrast with Noel Fehily, provisionally booked on Nicholls' Rocky Creek, who could only feel that Aintree owes him one. His only finish in the National was a distant fifth on Risk Accessor in 2006, while he suffered a broken leg when falling from State of Play in 2012. His position of 25th in the list is telling, as he's within touching distance of the top 10 across the whole National Hunt diet.
It's also worth pointing out that Barry Geraghty comes out significantly higher over the National fences than he does in general terms. Since winning the 2003 Grand National aboard Monty's Pass, Geraghty has finished in the frame four times in the big race, a record that only Paul Moloney can match. Geraghty also teamed up with this year's National ride, Triolo d'Alene, to win last year's Topham, his first success over these fences since Monty's Pass.
It almost goes without saying that you wouldn't be advised to pick your Grand National horses on the strength of jockey ratings alone- your correspondent for one wouldn't profess to remotely fancy Long Run, Tidal Bay or Triolo d'Alene for this year's race. The ratings exist to put hard evidence behind what you might already perceive to be true or, even better, dispel any prejudices you may have. If one of those was that an amateur polymath can't win the Grand National in this day and age, you may want to think again.