2015 Irish Grand National Preview, Trends, Tips
Easter Monday’s Fairyhouse feature is the Irish Grand National, a marathon handicap chase set to be run in muddy conditions.
This is a race which has suited a specific type of horse down the years, ostensibly at least, and in this post we’ll investigate what that type is, and which of this year’s contenders look to fit the identikit.
Irish Grand National Trends
There are lise, damned lyes and stitastics, as someone once more literately said. When it comes to racing trends, one needs to be very careful which factoids one believes. Let’s start with an example of that, before looking at some more meaningful trends.
Last time out finishing position: 12 of the last 18 winners finished in the top six last time out. That’s 67% of the winners and, on the face of it, a meaningful stat. But look a little more closely at the 435 runners to have contested the Irish Grand National in that time, and you’ll see that 67% of them finished in the top 6 last time.
In other words, top six finishers were performing no better (or worse) than might have been expected. This statoid is of absolutely no utility whatsoever, and anyone who tells you it is doesn’t really understand how to arrive at a meaningful trend.
Let’s try another, slightly different, example: the cherry picker.
Age: In the last 18 years of the Fairyhouse Easter special, six winners were aged seven (from 83 qualifying runners). That equates to 33% of the winners, from 19% of the runners. Thus, 7yo’s outperform their expected win rate by almost double.
But taking a single age group in isolation is usually akin to only considering one corner of the picture. It is true that the Irish National has favoured novices and second season chasers – those with plenty more to give than his so far been demonstrated – but we must avoid looking at a single ‘sweet spot’ without its periphery.
In this case, horses aged six to eight have won two-thirds of the renewals since 1997, from just about 50% of the runners. While that looks more material, it’s no more than a bonus point for a young horse, and certainly not the kiss of trends death for one older than eight.
Age is of limited use when looking to whittle the field, though younger horses may be slightly favoured in general.
Weight: This is a particularly tricky one, because the weight allotted to the top weight has changed. It was twelve stone until 2008, but has been eleven and a half stone since then. This has made a difference to the number of horses “in the handicap proper” (or, to put it another way, carrying the correct weight in relation to their official handicap rating).
Regardless of the burden for the horse carrying the number one saddle cloth, every winner bar one since 2000 has carried less than eleven stone. Moreover, eleven of those fifteen winners had a relative feather weight of 10-05 or less. Still, closer inspection of the data reveals this isn’t quite as powerful a statistic as it first appears.
During those fifteen years, 375 runners have contested the Irish Grand National. Just 51 of them (13.6%) shouldered eleven stone-plus. Slightly more than a quarter (26.1%, 98 runners) carried between 10-06 and 10-13; and the remaining 226 runners (60.3%) had little in the way of ballast: 10-05 or less.
Crude maths tells us that the high weighted horses have under-performed by about half (one winner versus 2.04 expected winners); the mid-weight range has slightly under-performed (three winners as against 3.92 expected winners); and the lowest weighted group – also by far the biggest group – has over-performed a bit (eleven winners versus 9.04 expected winners).
Where exactly does that leave us? In all probability, there is a slight advantage to lower weighted animals, but it’s not as pronounced as might be perceived. Moreover, with most of the field each year falling into that category, it does little to help us whittle the Irish National field.
Indeed, this year, there are just three horses slated to carry eleven stone or more, and another ten in the mid-range. The remaining seventeen will have 10-05 or less on their backs.
Official Rating: At last, a statistic that can be taken at face value. Since 1997, just one winner – Shutthefrontdoor last year – was rated higher than 136. And no winner in that time has been rated lower than 121.
105 horses ran in the Irish Grand National during that time and were rated 137+, with another 51 rated 120 or lower. Thus, from 156 runners (35.86% of the total fields), just one winner emerged. Compare that with an expected winner ratio of 6.45.
The flip side, then, is that those rated 121-136 have won seventeen times since 1997, from 279 runners. That’s 94.44% of the winners from 64.14% of the runners. This year, eleven of the 30-strong field is rated 137+ (no runners rated 120 or lower have made the cut).
Maximum winning distance: For a race as demanding as the Irish National, it figures that proven stamina would be advantageous. But how has that played out?
It may be little surprise that those who had failed to win over at least three miles struggled in this three mile five furlong contest. Although this group represented 38% of the runners, they could lay claim to just three winners since 1997 (17%). Of the other 62% of runners who collectively scored 83% of the wins, most had a max win distance of between three miles and three miles two furlongs.
Indeed, that group – which comprised 48% of the runners – managed to win 72% of the Irish Nationals since 1997.
Chase experience: Lastly, let’s look at the number of chase runs contenders had already undertaken. This is really interesting. There seems to be a point beyond which a horse has either already shown he’s not good enough, or is in the grip of the handicapper. That, naturally, needs to be balanced against having enough experience to handle the big field, distance and ground demands of a race like the Irish National.
Let me illustrate that: of the 435 runners to have contested the Fairyhouse marathon since 1997, 82 had five or less chase starts under their belts. Between them, they managed to win three times. That’s 16.7% of the winners since 1997 from 18.85% of the runners. About right.
Those to race fourteen times of more over fences prior to lining up in this accounted for 125 runners (28.74%) and NONE of the winners.
That leaves the group with six to thirteen chase starts to their names. They won fifteen times (83.3%) from just over half (52.41%) of the entries. This group has experience, but not so much that the handicapper knows all about them.
So where does this all leave us? Good question!
The profile of an Irish Grand National winner is not easy to pin down as it first appears. However, by focusing on a horse rated 136 or below, which has won over at least three miles, and has run between six and thirteen times in chases, we might hope to isolate a runner (or two) with a chance.
There is a quintet which matches the trio of criteria: Thunder And Roses, Usuel Smurfer, No Secrets, The Crafty Butcher, and She’s Got Grit.
Irish Grand National Form Preview
With thirty runners, I don’t intend to cover them all (you may be relieved to read). But I will touch on the top of the market and the trendy types highlighted above. Let’s start with the top of the market.
Cantlow is the favourite and likely mount of the retiring Tony McCoy. He was top weight in the race last year, and managed a reasonable 14 length eighth. Having run abominably all season – possibly in part by design – he has a more plausible mark of 136 this year. But he’s never won beyond two and a half miles over fences (three mile hurdle victory), and he’s had fifteen tries. With a suspicion he might bleed in his races too, he’s certainly not for me, McCoy or no.
Willie Mullins’ Perfect Gentleman is attracting some support, and it’s a lot easier to make a case for him than Cantlow. Fourth of 17 in the National Hunt Chase at the Festival, he just ran out of puff over the four miles there, so this drop in trip looks ideal. He’s had five chase starts, meaning he still has scope to improve, and he was second in a Grade 2 the time before Cheltenham. A rating of 140 makes life difficult, but he could make the frame with ground conditions of no concern.
I backed Grand Jesture at Cheltenham, and he ran a screamer to be second to The Druid’s Nephew (who everyone else backed). He was found out in a similar race to this at Christmas, and I suspect he needs terra firmer to show his best.
Los Amigos on the other hand will go through the mud no problem. He does have stamina to prove, though, having never won beyond 2m6f. Second to On His Own in last year’s Thyestes was probably a career best, but that was half a mile shorter than the Irish Grand National, and I doubt he’ll get home.
Another without proven stamina is Empire Of Dirt. Doubtless classy when winning at Naas last time, that was two and a half miles, and it is far too much of a leap of faith to expect him to prevail over more than another mile: he was running on empty at that shorter trip (though gunned to steal an advantage) to fend off Champagne James. Champagne James himself is another highly doubtful stayer, and a very infrequent winner.
Like Perfect Gentleman, Michael Hourigan’s The Job Is Right could make the frame. He was third in the National Hunt Chase, one place ahead of the aforementioned Gent, and ran a fine fourth of 26 in the Paddy Power Chase at Christmas. That was just his third start over fences. He’s up to 140 in the ratings now but that might not be enough to stop him. He’s tempting.
Looking at the identikit quintet, Thunder And Roses is interesting. He has been a clumsy jumper, as when unseating in the NH Chase. He was beaten at the time having made earlier errors, but the ground was probably too quick for him there. All his winning form is on soft, and he was a 22 length victor of a three mile handicap chase over the course in January. Rated 148 by the British handicapper for the National Hunt Chase, he reverts to his Irish mark of 136 here. Somebody has to be wrong (!), and if he jumps round – a fair sized ‘if’ – he’ll take a lot of beating.
Usuel Smurfer has been laid out for this more than most. A winner of a handicap chase at the track this time last year, his mark nudged up to 138 earlier in the season. A couple of moderate runs then dragged it down to 135, and there it stayed, as trainer John Joseph ‘Shark’ Hanlon, opted to run in hurdle race subsequently. Indeed, Usuel Smurfer was good enough to win a big field three mile handicap hurdle, albeit off a stone lower rating.
I’d be doubtful about the trip, and he may just want it quicker, but he has a bit of a chance all the same.
The eleven year old, No Secrets, represents uber-shrewd Tony Martin. Despite his age, he’s only run ten times over fences (No Secrets, not Tony Martin), and he showed plenty of stamina when winning over three miles in heavy ground at Navan, a testing circuit. Although he wouldn’t have the class of some of his rivals, a mark of 132 is viable, and he’ll have no issues with the turf. At 29/1 in a place, he’s worth a small tickle.
Another to have been hurdling is Michael Hourigan’s other entry, The Crafty Butcher. A ‘veteran’ of just six chase starts, the last three in Graded company, his sole win was in a beginners’ chase over two miles. He has won at three miles over hurdles, but all his best form is on yielding ground, and it will be slower – possibly a good bit slower – than that.
Finally, She’s Got Grit may not stay, but mares have a fair record in the race (two wins and four more placed from just 22 starters since 1997, +55 win, +88.25 each way). She’s more experienced than ten chase starts implies, because she ran six times in point to points as well. Whilst the ground won’t bother her unduly, as a daughter of Flemensfirth, I do fear for her stamina at three-eighths shy of four miles.
2015 Irish Grand National Tips
As one might expect, it’s a thoroughly fiendish test of wagering skill. I really like Thunder And Roses, though he’ll clearly need to jump better than he has been. As such, he’s a win only bet – as likely not to complete as to place. And I think The Job Is Right could be good enough to bely a rating of 140, something which has rarely been accomplished, but which Shutthefrontdoor managed last year.
Thirdly, for very small money, No Secrets could be an entertaining play. He ought to stay and his trainer is respected like few others for this sort of caper.
1 pt win Thunder And Roses – 25/1 (Skybet, PP both FIVE places)
1 pt e/w The Job Is Right – 16/1 (bet365, Skybet, Boyle, PP all FIVE places)
0.5 pt e/w No Secrets – 29/1 Betbright (four places)
My view of the key trends is appended below for information.