Generally speaking, it is fair to say that a good horse does not become a bad horse overnight and vice versa. Many horses that are sent off at long prices have demonstrated that they are disappointing, regressive, temperamentally unsound or just plain poor and, consequently, have little or no realistic chance of winning. However, not all outsiders are the complete ‘no-hopers’ that their odds suggest, so the trick is to look beyond recent performances – which, with few exceptions, form the basis of the betting market – and consider, instead, the entire career form of each horse.
Of course, form that is more than, say, a season old needs to be treated with a degree of caution, but viewing the ‘bigger picture’ may reveal a disparity in class, course, distance, going or weight, or even something as simple as a change of headgear, which has a bearing on the outcome of the race under consideration. Most horse races are won by horses attempting little or nothing more than they have achieved in the past, but a horse that has recently won a similar race, under similar conditions, is likely to start at significantly shorter odds than one that did so some time ago. This is particularly true if the latter has raced under unfavourable conditions, for whatever reason, on recent starts. However, this does not mean the horse cannot win again if conditions are, once again, in its favour.
The smallest number of finishers ever in the Grand National was just two, in 1928, and just one of them, 100/1 outsider Tipperary Tim, completed the course unscathed. The only other finisher, Billy Barton, had been left ahead at the fence before Becher’s Brook on the second circuit, but had been joined by Tipperary Tim when falling at the final fence; he was subsequently remounted and completed the course to finish a distant second.
The 1928 Grand National was run in testing conditions, but the main reason just two of the 42 starters finished was a melee at the Canal Turn on the first circuit, which decimated the field. The Canal Turn was, at the time, an open ditch and Easter Hero, who fell, and Eagle’s Tail, who refused, were the main agents provocateur in reducing the field to nine heading out onto the second circuit. At the fourth last fence, just three horses, headed by Great Span, were left standing; hindered by a slipping saddle, Great Span unseated rider at the second last and, when Billy Barton came down at the last, Tipperary Tim was left, at least temporarily, alone to gallop home unopposed.
Nowadays, the safety limit for the Grand National is 40 runners, but the largest field ever assembled was 66 in 1929. A photograph of the start shows the record number of starters stretched out, in one long line, across the entire width of the Aintree track.
The 1929 Grand National was also notable as the first renewal after the filling in of the ditch that had previously preceded the Canal Turn, which had been the site of the biggest pile-up in National history the previous year. Indeed, one of the horses that contributed to the melee, Easter Hero, was sent off clear favourite at 9/2 in 1929, despite carrying the welter burden of 12st 7lb. In any event, Easter Hero finished second, beaten 6 lengths, by Gregalach, who became the second 100/1 winner in the history of the Grand National and, remarkably, the second consecutive 100/1 winner after Tipperary Tim in 1929.
Of the 66 starters, nine horses – including three 200/1 outsiders, Melleray’s Belle, Delarue and Kilbairn – completed the course. There was, however, one casualty; Stort, another 200/1 outsider, nearly unseated rider at the first fence, did so at the third fence, fell, when loose, at the Canal Turn on the first circuit and fell again, fatally, at the twelfth fence.
The ‘Grand National that never was’ took place in 1993 and was so-called because, although seven horses completed the course, the result was subsequently declared void and the race was never re-run. Oblivious to a second false start, the majority of the 39-strong field set off on the first circuit of the National Course and, despite frantic efforts by all and sundry to stop the race, it was not until the sixteenth fence, the Water Jump, that many of the jockeys became aware that they had been recalled by the starter and pulled up.
Even so, fourteen horses headed out ‘into the country’ for a second time. They were eventually led home by Esha Ness, owned by Patrick Bancroft, trained by Jenny Pitman and ridden by John White, who was first past the post at odds of 50/1. Ironically, had the result been allowed to stand, Esha Ness would have recorded the second-fastest time in the history of the National. However, following what the late Sir Peter O’Sullevan called, ‘the greatest disaster in the history of the Grand National’, the race was nullified by the stewards and bookmakers were forced to refund tens of millions of pounds.