With Cheltenham now behind us, or about to be behind us, by the time you read this, the focus turns to Grand Nationals: the Aintree one in early-April, of course, and the Scottish one in late-April, but before that the Midlands version at Uttoxeter on Saturday.
While many of the very best chasers will have been in action at this week’s Festival, the Midlands Grand National has attracted more than a few noteworthy winners over the years, including The Thinker in 1987 and Synchronised in 2010, respectively a year and two years before they won the Cheltenham Gold Cup, no less.
If all 22 declared runners stand their ground in this year’s race it will be the co-largest field in history and outright largest this century. What is very likely, however, is that a good number of those starting will fail to finish. A remarkable 48% of starters in the last decade have ended up being pulled up, with another 8% non-completers for other reasons.
This comes with its own problems for analysis, for how are pulled-ups and fallers etc meant to be treated in terms of “finishing position”? My approach is to recode all pulled-ups as joint-last (so that if there were three pulled-ups in a 10-runner race they would all be treated as finishing ninth) and fallers etc as beating/being beaten by 50% of their rivals. It works, I think.
Against that backdrop, the following are some of the key trends for the Marston’s 61 Deep-sponsored race this time round.
So, the 10-year trends favour eight-year-olds and nine-year-olds over younger or older, lower-weighted horses taken overall, horses which finished second or third on their previous starts, those reappearing after an absence of 43 to 84 days and (somewhat counter-intuitively) those without a win in the season under review.
However, while there are quite a few findings there, none of them is especially strong, let alone coming close to “ruling out” anything in isolation.
Among the stronger contenders are Prime Venture, Back To The Thatch, Get On The Yager and Ballymalin, all of whom get four “ticks” along the way. Ballydine, Jammin Masters, Jetstream Jack and Sandy Beach come in on three.
Other, more immediate, factors to consider are the likelihood of an honest pace – Milansbar and Chef d’Oeuvre have consolidated Timeform EPFs of 1.6 and two others figure on 2.1 and 2.2 – and trainer form.
Christian Williams (Potters Corner) is on 66% and Neil King (Milansbar) on 65%, while Charlie Longsdon, David Dennis and Sophie Leech have been in the doldrums as judged by % of rivals beaten in handicaps from the beginning of February to the beginning of this week.
One piece of form that deserves more than your passing interest is the The Last Fling Handicap Chase over three miles, three furlongs, and 127 yards, at Haydock on 30 December.
Chef d’Oeuvre was the winner that day, by two and three quarters of a length from Back To The Thatch, with Dell’ Arca a further 12 lengths back in third and Ballymalin a well-beaten fifth.
The impression that was strong form was borne out when the winner came third off an 11-lb higher mark in the Grand National Trial on the same course in February and fourth, fifth and sixth all improved their Timeform performance ratings next time also.
The upshot here is that Chef d’Oeuvre now meets Back To The Thatch on 9 lb worse terms, while Dell’ Arca reopposes on 7 lb better terms and Ballymalin (who is out of the handicap at Uttoxeter) gets a 2 lb swing, neither of which should be enough.
Back To The Thatch is a pretty well-handicapped horse, in other words, and, as we have seen, he has got a few of the trends in his favour.
He also promises to stay very well – his pulled up effort here 12 months ago came on the back of shaping well until falling in a gruelling Eider Chase – and all of his form is in the mud. The longer break since that excellent Haydock run is one of those things that the trends suggest is to his advantage.
Obviously, there are lots of threats, not least the patiently campaigned Ms Parfois and good last-time winners Dawson City and Arthur’s Gift, but it is arguable whether they will be able to give weight to the fresh-faced Back To The Thatch if he runs his race.
The way to tackle this race is to bet each-way rather than win only, with the win book at 133% at best early prices but just 109% per-place assuming four places (and you may be able to get more).
1 pt e/w BACK TO THE THATCH at 14/1, ¼ odds first four places