Handicappers' Corner: Grand National revisited

Teaforthree still tops Timeform's ratings
Teaforthree still tops Timeform's ratings

With the world's most famous race less than a fortnight away, Phil Turner takes a second look at the Grand National ratings.

"Long Run (c167) is another runner hoping to buck historical trends as he bids to become only the third horse- after Golden Miller and L’Escargot- to win both the Gold Cup and Grand National."

When the Grand National weights were announced in early-February, this wise old sage opined that "much can change between now and April 5th", alluding to the fact that plenty of live contenders would emerge in interim now that they didn't need to protect their handicap marks.

So much for experience, eh? Unusually, very little has changed at the head of the Timeform ratings since the National weights were announced at Abbey Road Studios over six weeks ago, with 2013 third Teaforthree (Timeform rating c157) heading the 73 entries that remain following the latest acceptance stage last week. Teaforthree, of course, has been seen out twice since the weights were announced, finishing a narrow second to Restless Harry at Ascot before finishing down the field in the Cheltenham Gold Cup (not unduly punished once held having shaped okay for much of the way).

In truth, neither of those runs told us anything new about Teaforthree, so it could be argued there has been an overreaction in the ante-post betting market (he is currently 10/1 clear favourite). That said, it bears repeating he looks a very solid option in what possibly isn't the strongest of Nationals, particularly as he'd long appealed as an ideal Aintree horse even prior to his game third (off a 2lb higher mark than this year) 12 months ago.

Two other Grand National hopefuls, Triolo d'Alene (c157) and Katenko (c156?), finished behind Teaforthree in the Gold Cup. Of that pair, the former makes more appeal, particularly as he has winning form over the National fences (2013 Topham winner) and did have an excuse at Cheltenham- he was hampered two out and also reportedly suffered from a breathing problem (he'll be fitted with a tongue strap at Aintree).

His chance isn't an obvious one from a handicapping viewpoint, though, and it could pay to side with a few that sat out the Gold Cup. Admittedly, Rocky Creek (c159p) would have pitched up at Cheltenham this year but for a late training setback (ringworm), whilst trainer Paul Nicholls had previously voiced concerns that the 2014 National may come a year too soon for the gelding. His change of big-race target could actually prove to be a blessing in disguise, as he possesses many of the attributes which often guarantee a good showing at Aintree, notably the fluent manner in which he usually travels and jumps.

By contrast, the 2014 National could well come a year too late for another Nicholls inmate Tidal Bay (c167), who was forced to miss last year's renewal through injury. At first glance, the statistics certainly don't bode well for the mercurial veteran: no 13-year-old has tasted National glory since Sergeant Murphy in 1923, whilst Red Rum (in 1977 and 1974) was the last horse to carry top weight to victory. Those lengthy droughts aren't quite so daunting as they may appear, however, as relatively few teenagers have actually tackled the race during that period (thereby radically reducing the statistical chance of one winning it), whilst the BHA assessor regularly favours those towards the head of the weights nowadays and Tidal Bay is clearly one of the best-handicapped runners in the field despite having to carry 11-12. A bigger concern is the fact he got no further than the tenth (in 2011) on his one previous try in the race.

Long Run (c167) is another runner hoping to buck historical trends as he bids to become only the third horse- after Golden Miller and L'Escargot- to win both the Gold Cup and Grand National. Like Tidal Bay, his connections ruled out Cheltenham at an early stage this winter in order to concentrate on Aintree, instead warming up with a relatively straightforward win over Knockara Beau in a minor event at Kelso last month. In common with Teaforthree, that performance told punters nothing new in terms of form, but it is worth stressing that Long Run would be clear top-rated with Timeform if able to recapture his very best, whilst there has been enough in his recent performances in Grade 1 company (notably when fourth in the Betfair Chase) to suggest much of that ability remains. Indeed, the switch to a handicap and Aintree's unique fences (over which his jockey Sam Waley-Cohen can boast an excellent record) could well spark that sort of revival.

Cross-country specialist Balthazar King (c152) completed the course in 2013, though paid for early front-running exertions when fading into fifteenth. Whether he'll receive a more controlled ride this year is open to question, but it cannot be denied that he is in the form of his life this season and, for all it was a cross-country race, put up a good weight-carrying performance to score at the Cheltenham Festival, where Big Shu (c147) finished a close third.

Willie Mullins, of course, ruled the roost at Cheltenham but won't be mob-handed at Aintree, where he seems to be pinning his hopes on Prince de Beauchene (c148), who was ruled out of the 2012 and 2013 renewals through injury when amongst the ante-post favourites both times. The gelding has stood more regular racing this time around and, although yet to hit the heights of previous campaigns, is potentially well handicapped if able to do so.

Similar comments apply to Same Difference (c145?), who has yet to find his form this season but hinted at a revival last time and is likely to appreciate the less testing ground we are currently enjoying. Ground conditions are unlikely to be an issue for Mr Moonshine (c150), who represents the same connections as last year's shock winner Auroras Encore and has proven form over the National fences. He could go well for a long way, though is likely to prove vulnerable to stronger stayers and/or better-handicapped runners late on.

As a result, our shortlist at this stage from a handicapping perspective would be Long Run, Teaforthree and Same Difference.

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