I think we can all agree that Saturday’s Randox Grand National at Aintree was an extraordinary race. Extraordinary for taking place in front of almost empty stands, extraordinary for the near-total domination of Irish-trained horses, and extraordinary most of all for the history-making win by Rachael Blackmore on MINELLA TIMES.
What might have been less obvious is that it was pretty extraordinary for the manner in which it was run.
We have archive footage going back many decades to tell us how Grand Nationals tend to be won and lost, and, more pertinently, we have the evidence of the last few years – since modifications to the fences and a re-siting of the start after 2012 – to tell us how they tend to be won and lost these days.
The problem with one-on-one comparisons between races run in different years is that those races tend to be run under different conditions, which affect the speed at which horses can and do travel. So, we need to adjust times and splits to allow for that, which is what I have done.
First, though, a word on the ground for this year’s Grand National Meeting, described officially as “good to soft” but heading towards lightning quick if you believed some commentators. It was much nearer the former than the latter, and that was the case throughout the three days. Indeed, there is an argument to be made that the Grand National Course itself was near to “soft”.
Minella Times’s winning time was slower than all but two of the other seven renewals since the changes: namely, Rule The World’s race in 2016 and Tiger Roll’s in 2018.
It was not that this year’s contest was steadily run, either: quite the opposite. At 101.6%, it resulted in the second-slowest finishing speed % (speed from three out as a % of average speed for race overall) in those eight years, surpassed only by Many Clouds’s attritional Grand National in 2015.
Par is about 106%, and, if you think that is high, it is because obstacles slow down horses significantly, and there are many of them earlier in the Grand National and few of them very late. There are many possible ways to demonstrate what went on. The following shows first the lengths by which the leader in this year’s race was ahead of the 8-year adjusted average for leaders, then a graphical illustration of this in conjunction with the same for Minella Times himself.
The leader in this year’s Grand National – and that was essentially Jett – went remarkably quickly, not just to begin with, but in the middle and right the way until near the end, too. It was not quite out of the Crisp and Richard Pitman playbook, but it was getting there.
The point at which Jett went from going fast to going nowhere, crossing the Melling Road just after the third-last fence, was obvious visually but is even starker in numbers, as the race speed collapsed.
By way of further illustration, the time taken from three out to two out (51.5s) was far and away the slowest in recent years, slower even than the 51.2s in Mon Mome’s year (2009), though unsurprisingly nowhere near as slow as Red Marauder’s 60.1s in 2001.
From 20 lengths ahead of par, the leader was now back bang on it, and that leader was no longer Jett but Minella Times.
The place to be earlier in this year’s Grand National was about 10 lengths and later about 20 lengths behind the leader, not on his tail, but none of the riders could have known that for sure at the time.
As it is, Blackmore did a very good job of judging that right, also, though she was not alone in this. Minella Times varied little from par, even when the leader and others did, except for a few fences just before Jett finally caved in.
Judging pace well on horseback and in the heat of the moment must be a remarkably difficult skill. It is hard enough on my sofa, with a stopwatch, rewind button and carefully compiled pars to hand!
Perhaps the ground is quicker than imagined and you need to be going commensurately faster, or the leader is about run a lifetime best and make you look foolish.
Somehow, Blackmore gets this right far more often than not, and more often than the majority of her rival jockeys.
It is one of the things that sets her apart, and it is one of the things which helped to ensure that Minella Times could do what he did when it was most needed, by him, by her, and by us.
This is about my favourite time of the racing year, as we are still buzzing with the excitement of the big jumping festivals at Cheltenham and Aintree, but ahead of us are the near-boundless possibilities of the flat season, with its classic trials, classics themselves, and a new intake of two-year-olds.
Leopardstown held classic trials on Sunday, two of them by name, for the 2000 Guineas and 1000 Guineas (Irish as well as British), and one by implication, the P.W. McGrath Memorial Ballysax Stakes.
However, it was a performance in one of the supporting races which interested me as much as any.
More of that in a while, but first let’s look at those Guineas Trials, with splits taken from video.
Both races were run in solid overall times, a few lengths faster than the older-horse handicap won by the useful Real Appeal, and both were well-run (the fillies were slightly ahead of the colts to begin with). But some of the individual horses ran better than the result on sectionals, especially Ace Aussie and Notre Belle Bete in the colts’ race and Mehnah in the fillies’.
It usually takes a performance into the 110s to win a 1000 Guineas and nudging 120 to win a 2000 Guineas, so there is nothing to get particularly excited about there, though Notre Belle Bete has put up quite a performance for one making his debut.
The Ballysax time was not so good, but it didn’t stop Bolshoi Ballet being promoted to second favourite for The Derby at Epsom in some places. I have to say I am a bit surprised.
That time looks better once sectionals have been factored in, but he still beat a much-raced 103-rated horse by just a couple of lengths when in receipt of 3 lb. Both Flying Visit and Taipan come out only just behind Bolshoi Ballet, the latter (who had just one previous run and win) having come from further back.
I originally put in the handicap won by Sir Lamorak merely for comparison, but it is of more value than that.
Not only did Sir Lamorak run a time that was 0.88s (about 5 lengths) quicker overall than Bolshoi Ballet, he also ran faster late on than that colt, and he did it while carrying 2 lb more to boot. That’s impressive.
If Bolshoi Ballet is Derby calibre – I am not convinced he is – then maybe Sir Lamorak is, also.
That’s Derby calibre, not a Derby horse necessarily. Sir Lamorak showed a prodigious change of gear to come from last to first in a muddling race (I made his penultimate 1f about 11.7s), but he then proceeded to edge continually left, something which would be a major issue at Epsom.
It will be interesting to see how these various strands of form play out in the weeks and months ahead.