Grand National: Picking a winner is easy as 1-2-3

The art of backing the right horse is simply a numbers game with a foolproof formula. Well, almost...
Click to follow

"It's a bit of a lottery, innit," is the typical view of a novice punter when it comes to the Grand National.

Understandable enough when faced with trying to pick the winner from 40 horses who will be going hell for leather over a stamina-sapping four-and-a-half-mile course filled with frightening obstacles that look like great green tower blocks through the Beeb's aerial camera.

But apply a few simple rules to your betting and the field can be rapidly narrowed down to a much more manageable number. Then you can stick your pin in or look for the name you like, if you really have to.

1. Pound for pound

Let's start with weight. Not the stuff the girls on Ladies' Day spend all year trying to lose so they can look good in a couple of square inches of fabric while braving the chilly wind blowing around Aintree. Rather, how much the horse carries. For several years the British Horseracing Authority's chief handicapper, Phil Smith, has sought to give the better horses a leg-up by allowing them to run off a lower mark than their official rating suggests they should. To no avail. Only once in the past 25 years has a horse won the race carrying more than 11st. That was Hedgehunter in 2005 which carried, ahem, 11st 1lb.

2. Age of reason

Applying the weight rule knocks 15 horses out of the running, leaving us with a much more manageable 25. Another three of those can be ruled out on the grounds of age. They say youth will have its day, but not in the National. The last time a seven-year-old won was Bogskar – way back in 1940. Seven-year-olds just don't have the requisite stamina for the Aintree spectacular. Significantly, no seven-year-old has appeared in the top five in the last decade. So cross out Piraya and Palypso De Creek (most have already, they're long shots) but also The Package. The David Pipe team, winners two years ago with Comply or Die, are unlikely to be taking home the prize with this second favourite, whatever the odds say. The stats suggest that the most likely winner will be aged between nine and 12, but there's been a smattering of eight-year-olds filling the placings in recent years and Bindaree in 2002 proved it could be done, so we shouldn't rule them out.

3. Preparation game

Eliminating the three seven-year-olds gets us down to 22. The next step is to rule out anything that hasn't had a prep run in the previous six weeks (you have to go back to 1985 to find a winner that managed the feat without one). That takes out Royal Rosa (off the track since 20 January), Flintoff (off since December), Irish Raptor (December) Maljimar (December) and the well fancied State Of Play (November). Which leaves 17 contenders.

4. On a run?

From here it starts getting a bit more subjective. However, while a relatively recent run is a good thing, a recent win isn't necessarily and a string of recent wins through the preceding season definitely isn't. National winners tend to be trained specifically with the race in mind and so a relatively gentle preparation is a good sign. Winning races requires a horse to put in close to maximum effort and will ruin a handicap mark by putting a horse up in the weights.

Of course, Comply or Die gave the lie to this, winning the gruelling four-mile Eider Chase at Newcastle before his victory. One of the problems with following statistics is that horses can't count. Still, with 17 runners we need to trim the field a little so (maybe controversially) let's take out Eric's Charm, Beat The Boys, Ellerslie George and Ballyholland, each of which have been expending energy in winning lesser races this season.

5. Staying the course

Cerium, who just sneaked into the race, ran a cracker in fifth last year, but has never won a steeplechase over three miles, which is a big no-no. The idea that you need a two-and-a-half-mile horse for the National is an old wives' tale that most old wives would treat with contempt. National winners need stamina, and lots of it. Applying this trend, then, and we also rule out Conna Castle and the well fancied King Johns Castle (even though he did finish second a couple of years ago in the big one – we're trying to find the winner).

6. Quality control

Class, however, does count. A win in a race rated class one and above is important. So Ballyfitz also goes on account of never having won a class one steeplechase, the same for Character Building and Backstage. We can probably knock out Can't Buy Time, because he's not won over three miles and above at the top level (although he has won lesser races over this distance).

Preists Leap finished 14th last year (beaten 75 lengths) and, while he's won two good handicaps in Ireland, is almost impossible to fancy for this. At 100-1 he's no Mon Mome. Ollie Magern, while a game little horse, does his best work in the autumn at Wetherby and has been on the go all season, not the sort of preparation National winners typically enjoy.

7. On the shortlist

Which leaves: Hello Bud. He's also been running a bit too often for comfort this season, but last year's Scottish National winner (good sign) who is trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies (another positive) is an interesting outsider at 40-1. Snowy Morning, trained by Willie Mullins in Ireland (very good sign) also ticks a lot of boxes. Big Fella Thanks, Paul Nicholls' favourite, finished sixth last year and actually ticks a lot of trends (although a previous run in the National is not necessarily a positive). But he won last time out over two miles four furlongs, and doesn't have the sort of experience over fences you'd like. Nicholls has a rotten record in the race too, despite the champion trainer's incredible firepower. And at about 7-1, he's too short a price to really fancy.

8. And the winner is...

Drum roll please: Arbor Supreme. Another of Willie Mullins' charges, he ticks all the boxes (including a run over hurdles in the season) and at about 18-1 offers tremendous value.

There you are. Easy really. If only horses could read the stats too.