RACING: APPLY LOGIC WHILE SHARPENING PIN

Greg Wood questions the popular `lucky dip' theory of finding the National winner
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The Independent Online
There is a snippet of trivia which is an old friend to lazy commentators at this time of year. "How appropriate it is," they chuckle, "that the first National in 1839 was won by a horse called Lottery."

For some reason, they always forget to mention that Lottery was the favourite, at 5-1, and prevailed by a very comfortable three lengths. The idea of the National as little more than a tombola with legs is deeply ingrained, however, re-inforced by countless office sweeps and the occasional surprise result, despite the fact that in the modern era the National is, by racing standards, surprisingly predictable.

Recent changes designed to make the course safer have accelerated the process. Once, the best horses were not risked at Aintree - Arkle and Desert Orchid, for example, never contested the race - but now the field will generally include every good staying chaser in Britain and beyond. This can only make it more difficult for outsiders to cause an upset.

It is reasonably simple to whittle the field down to a handful of names and be fairly certain that the winner is among them. Start at the bottom. All the runners from General Pershing (No 12) to Its A Snip at the bottom of the pile are said to be "out of the handicap." This means that the official handicapper, who sets the weights, believed that to have an equal chance with the rest of the field, they should be carrying less than 10 stone (in the case of General Pershing, for example, 9st 13lb, and for Its A Snip, 6st). The minimum weight in the race, however, is 10st, so that is what they must shoulder. For all but a handful - namely General Pershing, Country Member and perhaps Garrison Savannah - the attempt to beat the likes of Master Oats and Miinnehoma from out of the handicap is hopeless.

We now have 14 names. Several - Royal Athlete, Chatam, Nuaffe - are poor jumpers, and thus most unlikely to win. Others are either out of form - Zeta's Lad - or dubious stayers - Crystal Spirit, General Pershing. It will be most surprising if the remaining shortlist does not include the winner.

The possible effect of the fast going is harder to quantify, but it is worth remembering that few horses go equally well on soft and sound surfaces, and Master Oats, Miinnehoma and Party Politics have run their best races in the mud. Only now can you say a prayer, close your eyes and stick in the pin.

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