The Cheltenham Festival might be the National Hunt meeting that leaves hardened punters weak at the knees, but there can be no doubt which renewal revs the engine of more fair-weather bettors.
The Grand National, one of the most eagerly awaited races anywhere in the world, will take place on April 14 on Aintree’s famous stretch, and already trainers and connections are considering their assault on the £560,000 top prize.
This week has been key to the evolution of the 2018 renewal with the release of the weights, which determine how heavily or lightly each horse in the field will be handicapped.
What is the significance of that? Well, we usually expect a middle weight, somewhere in the 10-06 to 11-02 range, to prosper: only one horse has won at lower than that mark since 2002, while Many Clouds at 11-09 was something of an anomaly at the other end of the spectrum.
So, accounting for form, the going and a variety of other factors, it is actually the handicap mark which will steer punters’ betting decisions as much as anything else.
Here are some of the key pointers arising from the weights, and what they might mean for the Grand National betting market:
The very early ante-post favourite is Blaklion, who will go off at a mark of 11-06.
Neptune Collonges won at that weight in 2012, although we would generally consider that to be on the heavy side and a reflection of the horse’s rating. Not that that’s worrying trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies mind you, who has compared his charge to Red Rum.
“I don’t know if I’m being a bit silly, but he reminds me a bit of Red Rum,” he said. “He is small and very neat over his fences and after watching him jump round there twice, he doesn’t seem to make a mistake.”
The nine-year-old started as the favourite in this renewal last year, and finished fourth after leading four out. He’s enjoyed a decent start to this campaign too, demolishing the field in the Becher Handicap Chase last time out after finishing second to Bristol De Mai in the Charlie Hall Chase.
Total Recall (14/1)
Arguably more appealing for punters is the next best, Total Recall, who will go off at 11-01.
The nine-year-old will be well fancied if he stays fit after a sparkling performance in the Ladbrokes Trophy, and he followed up with a routine win in the William Fry Handicap Hurdle.
He is young in the game after enjoying only three outings since joining the Willie Mullins yard, and punters should be aware that he could move up through the weights: Bristol De Mai and Definitly Red looking unlikely to make it to Aintree. Anything above, say, 11-03 would be a serious hindrance to his chances.
Definitly Red (20/1)
The whispers are that this horse will skip the National after being handed the top weight of 11-10.
He is rated at 167 by the BHA, so the top handicap is not a surprise here, but with other fish to fry – trainer Brian Ellison has confirmed he will go off in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham – punters are advised to give him a wide berth.
It would be a shame if the Irish gelding has to miss out at Aintree given that he has trounced the field in both the Cotswold Chase and the Many Clouds Chase in his last pair of starts, but do have him in mind when eyeing up the Gold Cup market.
The Last Samuri (20/1)
The Last Samuri, currently rated third best by the market, has been handed a handicap of 11-04.
“The Last Samuri’s weight is what we were expecting given his rating. If the weights stay as they are and don’t rise, I think he would have more of a chance,” trainer Kim Bailey said.
“I have been very happy with him since Cheltenham and he will have a prep race somewhere between now and Aintree. We have got several options, but there are no firm plans as we will have to see what the weather does first.
“The Last Samuri doesn’t need to have a prep race, but we are lining up to have one at the moment.”
Cause of Causes (25/1)
The release of the weights can, naturally, have a knock-on effect to the market, and one horse who has already seen a movement is Cause of Causes.
Opening as a 33/1 chance, Gordon Elliott’s fancy has shortened to 25s after an agreeable handicap of 10-12 was handed out on Wednesday.
Second in last year’s National, Cause of Causes is so good at Cheltenham that you suspect that might just be Elliott’s focus. The ten-year-old has a trio of wins at the Festival to his name, and it will be intriguing to see him perform there before parting with any hard-earned cash ahead of Aintree.