Millions of people around the world who seldom give a thought to horses will make an exception on Saturday for Britain’s most popular race, the Grand National steeplechase. For many, it will be the only time they bet on a horse race all year.
Unfortunately for them, the Grand National is the hardest race in the world to predict.
Last year’s winner, Noble Yeats, was 50-1, and he was hardly out of the ordinary as a long-shot champion. Since 2000, there have been nine winners who were 25-1 or more, including a 100-1 shot, Mon Mome, in 2009.
When Tiger Roll won in 2019 at 4-1, he was the shortest priced winner in a century. The shortest price ever for a winner, 3-1, came in 1862 (not a typo). For this year’s race, no horse has shorter odds than 6-1.
Even in fictional depictions, the horses have big prices. In the 1944 film “National Velvet,” Elizabeth Taylor rides a horse named The Pie in the Grand National at 100-1 odds (we won’t spoil it by telling you if she wins).
So what makes the Grand National so difficult to predict?
The race has a huge field.
Forty horses regularly line up for the Grand National. Obviously, with more horses to choose from, it is harder to pick the winner. But the enormous field also creates traffic problems that can cause even the fastest horses to run into trouble.
In 1967, a pileup at a jump gave an unexpected lead to an unheralded horse named Foinavon, who had been in 22nd place. He went on to win at 100-1. The fence where the chaos took place is now named for him.
It has high, challenging jumps.
There are two ordinary kinds of jumping races in Britain: hurdles, with obstacles three and a half feet high, and steeplechases, with obstacles at four and a half feet. But in the Grand National, horses jump over fences as high as five feet, though some have been made a little lower in recent years.
These bigger fences often cause falls, which has made the race a target of animal rights activists. The challenging jumps mean the horse you bet on, even if it is a favorite, can unseat its rider, or refuse to jump, knocking out your “sure thing.”
Moreover, these larger fences are found only at Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool, the site of the National, and used for only a few races a year. Because horses have so few opportunities to race over the larger fences, many of the horses in the field will have tried them perhaps only once before, or never. A horse who has been successful in ordinary steeplechases may turn out to be unable to deal with the higher fences. Or maybe it will handle them with ease. It’s difficult to know.
It is one of the longest races in the world.
While most championship steeplechases are from two to three miles, the National is a bit more than four and a quarter miles. Unless entrants have raced in the National before, they will be trying such a long distance for the first time.
And every yard of that distance matters. Even when a horse has cleared the final jump in the lead, and its backers have started to mentally count their winnings, there is still a quarter-mile to go, and the leader is not infrequently passed in this last stretch.
In the most celebrated incident, Devon Loch, owned by the Queen Mother and ridden by the future mystery writer Dick Francis, was 50 yards from victory when he suddenly leaped into the air and landed on his belly for reasons that remain unknown. He was passed, and his backers got nothing.
Horses take many different routes to the Grand National.
In most horse races, it is not uncommon for many of the horses to have raced one another several times in recent months, giving a good sense of which ones are better than the others. But horses come to the National from all over, making it harder to compare them. Most of them race just a few times a season.
Among the contenders this year, some have experience in the National, others have stuck with ordinary steeplechase races, some have raced primarily in Ireland or France and one contender, Galvin, has started just once this year, in a cross-country race, a hybrid steeplechase that includes challenges like climbing up and down mounds of earth. Picking a winner from that array is a challenge.
The better horses get a handicap.
As a way to make races more competitive, steeplechasing organizers have historically handicapped the best horses in many races, including the National, by making them carry more weight than their competitors. Noble Yeats, last year’s 50-1 winner, is back this year, but despite showing he can win the National, he will not be the favorite. This is in part because his success means he will carry 165 pounds this year, 15 pounds more than he carried to victory in 2022.
There is no race quite like it.
American bettors might cite the Kentucky Derby as the most difficult race to predict in the United States. It is the only American race with a field as big as 20 horses. Many of them have not raced against each other before, and almost none will have gone the Derby distance of one and a quarter miles before race day. There have been many big upsets over the years, including Rich Strike at 80-1 last year.
The Derby, like the Grand National, attracts more casual wagers than any other race in its country. In part, this is because it is the most famous race of the year. Its unpredictability may also add to its appeal for those looking for a big score.
But the Derby is not the National. A 20-horse field is nothing like a 40-horse field. Most horses in the Derby carry the same weight. And the mile-and-a-quarter distance isn’t dramatically different from a mile and an eighth, which most of the contenders have run.
Most of all, though the Derby is a tough race, its horses don’t have to jump over anything. As a result, short-price horses like Justify (3-1, 2018), Nyquist (5-2, 2016) and American Pharoah (3-1, 2015) frequently win it.
So the National remains the most challenging test for the thoroughbred handicapper. If you want to play it this year, many bookmakers around the world will take your action.
Just don’t count on getting anything back.