Some swear by them, others regard them as worse than damned lies. Statistics are one way of reducing what is in part sensitive art to unfeeling science: the quest for a winner. But if statistics, as cold facts, cannot lie, neither can they tell the truth. Any message is purely in the eye of the analyst.
There is a point of view that holds that every event, from the spin of a coin or the turn of a card to something as complex and many-faceted as a horse race, is a stand-alone, not dependent on anything that has happened in the past or may occur in the future. There is another theory that sequences and patterns exist, that the universe is not pure random chance.
In racing, trends seem to exist, although some may do so as self-fulfilling prophecies. For instance, once that it was discovered that prep runs over hurdles did a Grand National prospect no harm, others followed where Bobbyjo led.
As far as the Grand National is concerned, there are 158 years of information to digest. It is a fact that nine-year-olds have a better record than any other age group, with 35 victories; that 110 winners have come in the bay or brown colour range; that 20 Irish-trained horses have won; that all bar 27 favourites have lost; that only 12 mares have won. All of which information can be factored into judgement, but which may be misleading.
For statistics and the observation of trends both fare better with more knowledge. It is one thing to know that those nine-year-olds, for instance, are working at a strike-rate of 21 per cent; it would be quite another to compare that with their proportional representation.
In the past dozen years 442 horses have contested the National. Sticking with age for the moment, one eight-year-old (Bindaree) has won, four nine-year-olds (Lord Gyllene, Bobbyjo, Papillon and Hedgehunter), three 10-year-olds (Rough Quest, Earth Summit and Monty's Pass), two 11-year-olds (Red Marauder and Miinnehoma) and two 12-year-olds (Royal Athlete and Amberleigh House).
Now get out your anoraks. The nine-year-olds not only have the best record numerically during the past 12 years, but also comparatively. Of that age group, 116 have taken part, which means that 26 per cent of the population have produced a 33 per cent strike-rate. The 105 10-year-olds to have run represent a 23/25 per cent ratio, just about what it should be.
Nine-year-olds, too, are overwhelmingly the best bet to finish in the first four, having claimed 19 of the 48 places available since 1994, a 39.5 per cent strike-rate. Eleven-year-olds have a better-than-average success rate in this department too: 22 per cent, compared with 19 per cent representation.
Irish-trained horses have won four of the past seven runnings after a drought of 29 years, an extraordinary record over the period under scrutiny, during which time just 67 have run, 15 per cent of the total.
Irish-bred horses (258 of them) account for 59 per cent of runners in 12 years and, with nine wins and 21 placings during that time, have a better success rate than representation. Conversely, home-produced animals are doing no better than they ought, 100 runners having yielded two wins and nine places. There has not been a French-bred winner since Lutteur in 1909, but even though the Gallic tribes are now ubiquitous on British racecourses, 75 runners in 12 years have picked up just six places. They are starting to hit the bar, though; the past two runners-up have been French-bred.
As regards colour, there is a slight chestnut bias. Bay horses win more races than any other hue, but that is simply because the thoroughbred population is mostly bays. But of our 442 Grand National runners in the past 12 years, 316 (or 71 per cent) have been bays or browns and nine of those have won. But chestnuts do slightly better proportionately as a group; their three wins have come from 103 individuals, or 23 per cent of runners. Greys have four places from 23 runners.
More facts. National winners tend to carry 10 stone-something. All of the past dozen winners have had winning form over fences over three miles or more, and only four of them (Royal Athlete, Papillon, Bindaree and Amberleigh House) made the race their first success of the season.
On the negative front, there has not been a French-trained winner since 1867, no horse as young as seven has won since Bogskar in 1940, or as old as 14 ever. No grey has won since Nicolaus Silver in 1961, and no horse has repeated the feat since Red Rum.
Statistically, the one who ticks the most boxes is last year's sixth, Nil Desperandum. Hedgehunter is bay, Irish-bred and Irish-trained, but against that he is 10, he has not won since he took the race last year, and he must carry top weight. "Statistics and history do seem to be against him," said his trainer, Willie Mullins, yesterday, "but I have to say he is in very good order. But don't expect him to take the sight out of your eye in the parade ring. He is at his best when he looks like he needs a break."
Trevor Hemmings' rangy, rugged gelding became the first for 21 years to carry more than 11st to victory, but the framing of the handicap is undergoing a sea change that favours the better horses and, as his Gold Cup runner-up spot demonstrated, he is now a class act.
3 Cornish Rebel
Longshot Colnel Rayburn