For many in National Hunt racing, the Grand National remains the pinnacle of the sport.
Of course, many of horse racing’s biggest prizes are to be found at the Cheltenham Festival, but some owners and trainers are focused solely on the Grand National – that’s why they try to turn their horses into staying powerhouses capable of handling the size and variety of jumps on the Aintree course.
It’s why so many horses are entered by their connections into the Grand National field – for the 2021 renewal, for example, a staggering 103 entries were made at the initial declaration stage.
These days, the Grand National field is capped at 40, and so less than half of those entered actually take to the Aintree turf. It’s the job of the handicapper to cut the entries down, and they select the 40 they feel are best placed to take on the challenge.
But the British weather being what it is, an unseasonably warm and dry spring – or a late monsoon-like downpour – can see connections declare their horse to be a non-runner….at which point, the Grand National reserves get their chance to shine.
What are Grand National Reserves?
Consider the Grand National reserves as like substitutes in football: they get the nod when another horse is declared a non-runner.
That could happen days in advance of the April showpiece or the day before the race, so those tasked with managing each reserve need to be on their toes in case they get the call up.
There are typically four reserves selected, and these are given a defined order by the handicapper – so, the first reserve would enter the field first should a declared runner withdraw, and then the second and so on.
You will often see reserves listed in the Grand National betting odds too, although anybody backing them is best served to seek out ‘non runner, no bet’ offers so that they are protected should their selection not make it to the start line.
Why Were Grand National Reserves Introduced?
Quite simply, the organisers of the Grand National want the race to contain 40 horses – no more, no less.
The reserve list is designed to achieve that, with non-runners easily replaced by those waiting in the wings, who are given their own rating by the handicapper (usually they are the bottom weight).
A reserve can be called up any time from when the final field is announced early in April, up until 1pm on the Friday before the Grand National.
How Often Do Grand National Reserves Get Into the Race?
Because of the prestigious nature of the Grand National, unsurprisingly owners aren’t too keen to declare their horses a non-runner for the extravaganza.
So there’s only been eleven occasions since the year 2000, when the reserve list was introduced, in which a reserve has been called upon:
In both 2004 and 2018, the condition of the Aintree track led to multiple reserves getting a chance to shine. In the former, an unseasonably dry spring left the course with a going rating of good, and the anticipated speed of the race saw Tyneandthyneagain and Red Striker withdrawn.
In 2018, a series of heavy rain showers left the Aintree track in a heavy condition, and that saw three reserves called up to the race – one of them, Walk in the Mill, was then withdrawn himself the day before the Grand National!
How Do Grand National Reserves Perform?
For the most part, Grand National reserves perform in a manner that can best be described as mediocre.
Grand National Reserves Finishing Positions – 2000 to 2021
|2001||Merry People||Unseated||John Queally||Garrett Cotter||66/1|
|2003||Bramblehill Duke||Fell||Venetia Williams||Brian Crowley||200/1|
|2004||Bramblehill Duke||Unseated||Venetia Williams||James Davies||200/1|
|2005||Native Emperor||Unseated||Jonjo O’Neill||Dominic Elsworth||100/1|
|2008||Ardaghey||Fell||N. Twiston-Davies||David England||100/1|
|2010||Royal Rosa||Unseated||Howard Johnson||Wilson Renwick||66/1|
|2018||Thunder And Roses||Pulled Up||Mouse Morris||J J Slevin||33/1|
|2018||Delusionofgrandeur||Pulled Up||Sue Smith||Henry Brooke||50/1|
|2018||Walk In The Mill||Non Runner||Robert Walford||–||–|
|2019||Just A Par||Pulled Up||James Moffatt||Aidan Coleman||100/1|
In 2001, one of the bookmakers’ favourites – Inn at the Top – was withdrawn due to the putrid racing conditions, which saw just four horses complete the course. The reserve, Merry People, unseated jockey Gareth Cotter at the famous Foinavon fence.
In 2003, Bramblehill Duke got a chance to shine as a late replacement for Kingsmark, and the 200/1 shot gave a good account before falling at fence number two on the second lap of the track.
A year later, Bramblehill Duke was again a late call-up – this time he unseated rider James Davies at Becher’s Brook, and in 2005 Native Emperor – in for Turnium – unseated Dominic Elsworth at Valentine’s fence.
The 2008 Grand National saw Ardaghey replace Opera Mundi, who was withdrawn on the Friday before the race, and Nigel Twiston-Davies’ horse fell at the fourth fence.
In 2010, Gordon Elliott did the noble deed of not entering his first reserve, Silver Birch, so that his chum Graham Wylie could enter second reserve Royal Rosa in place of the withdrawn Abbeybraney. The horse unseated Wilson Renwick at the fourteenth fence.
In 2018, a record three reserves – Thunder and Roses, Delusionofgrandeur and Walk the Mill all got the nod to replace Minella Rocco, Vicente and Beeves respectively. Walk the Mill was then declared a non-runner on the Saturday morning, while the other two were pulled up despite lasting more than half of the race.
And in 2019, Just a Par replaced the injured Mall Dini in the 40-horse field. He was pulled up just prior to the 28th fence.