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Hawk’s Saturday Selections: The Grand National at Aintree

April 6, 2013

Scroll down for my selections

Although I wouldn’t consider myself the biggest fan of jumps racing, I do believe the Grand National steeplechase at Aintree in England is my favourite horse race worldwide every year.

I’m not sure what it is about the race. Perhaps it is the incredible spectacle of seeing a large field tackle such a gruelling and challenging course. Perhaps it is the feats of these remarkable horses and jockeys which leaves me awestruck. Perhaps it is the fact the race is as close to a lottery as is possible in horse racing.

Whatever it is, it is theatre at its best. And with joint efforts between animal groups and the British Horseracing Authority, here’s hoping this race is as safe as possible while still providing an enthralling race.

I was lucky enough to be at Aintree, just outside Liverpool, last year to witness both the highs and the lows of the Grand National. It was an experience I’ll never forget, one which fuelled a desire to see even more of the world’s great races.

I had wanted to get to Aintree after watching the previous few Grand Nationals. However, it was finally seeing the tremendous battle between Crisp and Red Rum from 1973 on Youtube which finally convinced me I wanted to get to see the race live.

Here is my article about that most famous of Grand Nationals.

The Grand National is not a great viewing race trackside, by any means. The best view is from the comfort of one’s loungeroom. There, you can see the field jump the death defying Becher’s Brook or that freak of physics, the Canal Turn, without having to brave the bitterly cold conditions merely to squint to see the big screen.

However, the atmosphere of Aintree makes it worth attending at least once. The atmosphere is very similar to a Melbourne Cup. In fact, the main difference was the scouse accents screaming “C’mon!” as opposed to the Australian cheer.

Last year’s Grand National was also the same day as a critical FA Cup semi-final at Wembley between local rivals Liverpool and Everton. As a result, all the bars on track were packed with fans of both teams.

We were lucky early in the day to see Sprinter Sacre go around in the Grade 1 Maghull Novices’ Chase (2m). Given his efforts since, that was a privilege we probably didn’t appreciate at the time.

The race was delayed for 10 minutes when Synchronised dumped Tony McCoy before the start and travelled about half a lap of the National course (sadly, he was one of two fatalities during the race). There were also a couple of false starts before the tapes finally released and the field began their journey.

It is an incredible race to watch with a crowd – the gasps and cheers were the perfect complement to such an action-packed race.

As they passed the elbow, I thought Sunnyhillboy had it safely in his keeping. But somehow, after being under immense pressure, one of the two horses I’d backed, Neptune Collonges, rallied to make it as tight a photo as you’ll see.

After 7200m, it would come down to a nose. And I punched the air when the course announcer told the breathless crowd that the grey had won the race at his final run.

I was walking on air as I made my way behind the grandstand post-race.

But then I saw a distraught woman, screaming and struggling down a flight of stairs. I later found out she was connected to one of the runners that had died. It was a haunting reminder of the dangers of the race.

I left the track soon afterwards with mixed feelings about my day at Aintree.

However, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and I now look back wistfully at my time in the north of England.

This year, I’ll be watching from my office in Sydney, hoping that one day I can make it back to Aintree for the great race.

Here are my selections for the Grand National:

Race 5 – GRADE 3 GRAND NATIONAL CHASE (4m 3f 110y – approx 7200m)

Before I give my selections, have a look at young British racing writer Calum Madell’s horse by horse guide to the Grand National. I feel physically sick after writing my Melbourne Cup preview every year, and that’s only 24 runners. 40 runners? Herculian. Big effort from him! Click here to go to his brilliant write up:

I think history can be created tonight in the form of the first female jockey to win the Grand National – with Katie Walsh set for victory aboard SEABASS. She rode the perfect race last year, settling just behind the leaders. She made her bid for glory approaching the last, but she was passed by SUNNYHILLBOY and Neptune Collonges as they passed the elbow.

Now a 10 year old, he will take great improvement for having a run over the National course last year at his first run at Aintree. He may be a slight query to see out the entire trip, but if Walsh can give him the same ride as last year, I expect him to go close. His two runs this preparation have been great heading towards this race, both at Fairyhouse in Ireland – one over 2 miles, the other over 3m 1f. Both times, he has stayed on well without threatening the leaders.

Unfortunately, he’s likely to start favourite – and in a 40 horse field, it is so tempting to bet against him. However, he looks the logical one to me and three of the last 10 winners have been vying for favouritism so I have put him on top.

BALTHAZAR KING is a very good jumper, who is definitely well seasoned for this. The trip looks to be no problem at all based on his efforts in recent events at Cheltenham. His best runs have come when the horse is fresh (last run was November, so definitely ticks this box) and he gets ground to suit. If I wasn’t so keen on the favourite, I’d have him on top.

The classiest horse in the race is IMPERIAL COMMANDER, a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner. However, he has only had four runs since that Cheltenham Gold Cup win, hardly the preparation you’d want for a Grand National. That said, I think class is vital in this race these days. Much like the Melbourne Cup, where weight compression sees better horses winning the race, the Grand National has seen the standard of race improve in recent times. There are a lot of queries against his name, no doubt, but he’s worth including as he’s likely to get out to a very good price.

At odds, ACROSS THE BAY is the best roughie. After his failure two starts back he had a throat operation. He won a hurdle at Haydock in mid-February, and now gets back to the bigger fences where he looks better suited. Probably a bit better with more give in the ground, but at his current quote he’s one I’m definitely considering. He also comes from the yard of Donald McCain, whose father Ginger trained four Grand National winners. Donald himself trained BALLABRIGGS to victory two years ago. Forty years after Ginger McCain’s Red Rum won the first of his three Grand Nationals, it would be a fitting result if this horse won for McCain Jr.

Next best is ON HIS OWN, who ticks a lot of boxes (nine years old, trained in Ireland, good form, travelling well before falling last year) while at odds I reckon WEIRD AL can run a race at big odds – if he can actually get to the finish line, that is. He has only finished one of his last five starts. The start before that, he finished 3rd to Kauto Star, before starting 8/1 in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. If he brings his best, he’s one at odds that could shock.


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