04/07/2011 3:36PM

Handicapping the Grand National


Racing's greatest spectacle, the Grand National Handicap Chase, presents its monumental self at Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool on Saturday for the 172nd time (the 173rd time if you count the void running of 1993). With 40 horses jumping 30 of the jumping world's most daunting fences over a distance of 4 1/2 miles, it is not surprising that many bettors, even in England, defer to the blind man's bluff sytem of finding a winner. In reality, while handicapping the race is fraught with difficulty, it is not the impossible task it appears to be.

Employment of the much underused handicapping tool that might be termed "process of elimination" can cut the 40-horse field down to a workable seven or eight. After that, it comes down to racing luck, a factor more important in the Grand National than any other race in the world.

How to separate the wheat from the chaff? First of all, remember that the Grand National is a handicap. This year's highweight, defending titleholder Don't Push It, will carry 164 lbs. The low weights this year, Arbor Supreme and Royal Rosa, will tote, by comparison, a feathery 143 lbs. There is a reason for the difference: the highweights are much more accomplished than the low weights. After whittling the field down to seven or eight, it is wise to eliminate both such types that might remain, as the better horses are carrying too much while the low weights just aren't good enough.

There are five handicapping tools that aid in whittling the field down to size. They are, not necessarily in order of importance:

1- Current form
2- Ability to stay the distance
3- Ability to handle the ground
4- Any positive form over the Grand National course
5- Connections

If a horse has been running poorly of late, it is probably not going to win the Grand National any more than it is going to win a 6-furlong maiden. Even with the prestige of the Grand National, there will be some horses in the race whose recnet form is poor. One such is Don't Push It himself. Since winning last year's renewal, he has been out of the money in all three of his starts, beaten a total of 97 1/2 lengths racing against lesser. Throw him out along with any number of others, like Vic Venturi, who unseated his rider when close up at the 20th fence last year, the ex-French Or Noir de Somoza who won three Grade 1 jump races in France, and Niche Market, who blundered at the 12th and was eased when when well beaten at the 24th fence last year.

Staying every step of the 4 1/2 miles is imperative. Unfortunately, there are no other races in Britain or Ireland that are that long, so look for horses that have performed well between 3 1/4 miles and 4 miles. A number of horses in this race have never been beyond 2 1/2 miles. Even if their form is good at those reduced distances, you are generally safe in eliminating the lot of them. Even horses whose best distances are 2 1/2 miles to 2 3/4 miles are candidates for the betting waste basket.

The going in Europe is always more of a factor than it is in America. Horses that prefer good to firm or firm ground generally tend not to act on soft ground, and vice versa, while heavy ground specialists generally require heavy ground. On Wednesday, the going on the Grand National course was good to soft, soft in places. With fine weather expected between now and Saturday, it would be wise to look for horses that like it good to soft or good.

This might eliminate Silver By Nature, a horse whose form has been excellent of late as he has won three Grade 3 handicap chases at 3 1/4 miles in his last six starts. Remember that the Grand National is itself a Grade 3 handicap, so on the form score, he must be included. He was also second in the 3 3/4-mile Welsh National Handicap Chase at Chepstow in December 2009, so he is a candidate for staying 4 1/2 miles. Two of his Grade 3 wins, however, came on heavy ground, while the third was on soft. Unless the heavens open unexpectedly on Friday or Saturday at Aintree, Silver By Nature will not get that kind of ground.

Only five or six races a year are run on the Grand National course, which is distinguished from standard British and Irish chase courses by the difficulty of its spruce fences. High, fat and intimidating, they include Becher's Brook at 4 feet, 10 inches tall but with a landing drop of 6 feet, 9 inches. The Canal Turn is 5 feet high and requires a sharp 90-degree left-hand turn immediately after jumping. Both of those fences are jumped twice. Directly in front of the grandstand sits The Chair. It is 5 feet, 3 inches high and is preceded by a 6-foot ditch. It and the following Water Jump are the only fences in the race taken once.

So any good form over the Grand National course must be taken into account, especially form in the Grand National itself. State of Play, third in last year's running, is back again but he has not run since then. Hello Bud won the listed 3 1/4-mile Becher's Chase on the Grand National course two starts back in November. You might want to consider him but take note: he has been pulled up in two of his last three starts, each time going longer than 3 1/4 miles.

Utiliziing these processes of elimination, I have whittled this year's Grand National field down to six.

What A Friend is coming off a very good fourth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup behind Long Run and previous Gold Cup winners Denman and Kauto Star.

Big Fella Thanks was fourth in last year's Grand National, beaten 28 lengths while getting 7 lbs. form Don't Push It. This year he is in receipt of 9 lbs. from Don't Push It who, as we said earlier, is off form.

Ballabriggs is the form horse. He won five races in a row between 2 1/2 miles and 3 1/4 miles and was second last time going 2 7/8 miles at Kelso. While this will be his first try in a graded chase, his form is so good he cannot be ignored.

The Midnight Club is highly consistent, having finished in the first three in 11 of his last 13 outings, all of them chase races. he is also the winner of one of the key races in the Grand National run-up, Fairyhouse's 3 1/8-mile, Grade 2 Bobbyjo Chase.

Backstage was in touch in last year's race when he lost his rider after a collision with a loose horse at the 20th of 30 fences. He has prepped with a pair of 3-mile victories against lesser in point-to-point contests in Ireland.

Oscar Time was third in the Bobbyjo last time and second in last year's Irish Grand National at 3 5/8 miles.

Using the factor of connections, i.e., trainers and jockeys with Grand National and other big race experience, we can retain What A Friend, who is trained by Britain's leading jumps trainer Paul Nicholls. The Midnight Club is trained by leading Irish conditioner Willie Mullins and will be ridden by Ruby Walsh, who won the 2000 Grand National aboard Papillon and the 2005 edition on Hedgehunter. Oscar Time is owned by Robert Waley-Cohen and will be ridden by his son Sam, the pair who were responsible for Long Run's recent triumph in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

So now we have it down to three. You can find our selection in Saturday's edition of the Daily Racing Form.

William Hill's odds on the principals on Thursday were: The Midnight Club 8-1, What A Friend 10-1, Backstage 12-1,Big Fella Thanks 12-1, Oscar Time 12-1, Ballabriggs 14-1, Don't Push It 14-1, Silver By Nature 14-1, Quinz 16-1, Niche Market 18-1, Arbor Supreme 20-1.

Meanwhile, final Grand National entries and form can be found on the Racing Post website, racingpost.com. The 3-day Grand National Meeting opens on Thursday. Post time for the big race itself on Saturday will be 11:15 am EDT. It will be televised live on HRTV.