Aintree in April is perhaps the one location and time which comes to mind before all others when it comes to the sport of horse racing. Jumps aficionados may prefer the Cheltenham Festival, whilst for flat fans it may be Royal Ascot which tops the bill, but for the general public there is simply no race to compare to the historic Grand National. Be it in terms of TV viewing figures (around 500m worldwide), newspaper column inches or betting turnover, this magnificent Merseyside spectacle stands tall above the rest.
The World’s Greatest Steeplechase
Even for those who can scarcely tell one end of a horse from the other, this race represents the one occasion when the punting bug bites hard. From your work colleagues to your old Aunt Ethel, and everyone in between, the chances are high that a good proportion of the people you know will be having a punt on the race which is the biggest steeplechase in the world, bar none.
No doubt there will be a wide array of reasons behind the avalanche of wagers which descend upon the race each year; ranging from liking the name or the colours, or supporting the female jockeys, to quite literally sticking a pin in the newspaper, or perhaps even a little form study for those that fancy themselves as pros in the making.
No doubt each of the above approaches will have their advocates, but the focus of this article is how well would we do by simply backing the favourite?
The Grand Lottery?
Conventional wisdom has it that we would be mad to back the market leader in a contest held over a distance of 4m3½f and featuring 30 fences standing between the competitors and glory. Not just any old fences either, with the likes of the formidable Chair, Becher’s Brook and Canal Turn – whilst a lot more forgiving these days – still dwarfing the obstacles encountered in a standard chase contest. And that’s not to mention the big field and ensuing traffic problems which go hand in hand with forty animals, each weighing around a tonne, negotiating their way around the course.
Considering all of the above, it is perfectly understandable that the race is viewed by many as the ultimate lottery of a horse race. Hard enough to complete the course after all, let alone win the thing.
The very first Grand National winner way back in 1839 was possibly a pointer towards just how difficult it would be to solve this race, with that inaugural champ going by the name of none other than “Lottery”. How very fitting and a decent guide to the test punters would face for the next almost-200 years!
However, the aforementioned Lottery just happened to be the best chaser of his generation, and started clear favourite for the race. Perhaps his success wasn’t quite so random as his name would suggest after all, with his win certainly providing a good start for those who like to support the market leader. But how have things panned out for favourite backers in the intervening 180+ years?
Impressive Strike Rate For The Jollies
One area in which the market leaders have proven the lottery theory wrong – and proven it wrong pretty emphatically – is in terms of the strike rate the favourites have enjoyed over the years. Were this a truly random 40 runner event, we would expect the favourite to win the race no more and no less than any other random runner in the field i.e. one time in 40. When we look at the actual results though, the favourites have fared considerably better than this.
There are a handful of renewals in which the starting prices of the winners seem to have been lost to the sands of time, but even discounting these we do still have 168 editions of the event in which price data is available. Using the 1 in 40 criteria – relating to the race being truly random – we would expect the favourite to have come home in front in four of these renewals (4.2 times to be exact). In reality the favourites or joint favourites have claimed top spot on no fewer than 28 occasions i.e. close to seven times more often than randomness would suggest.
Even throwing out the seven editions to have been claimed by a joint favourite rather than a clear favourite, that still leaves us with 21 wins from 168 renewals, equating to exactly 1 in 8 wins for the jolly – still far greater than 1 in 40. Whichever way you look at it, the favourites do have a better chance than the average runner of winning this race – and a significantly better one at that.
But, of course, that should hardly come as a surprise. Much as we might say the National is a lottery, that is more a turn of phrase. The favourite is a favourite for a reason, whilst the multiple horses that go off each year at 100/1 or more clearly have much less chance of winning that most of the field.
But Still A Losing Betting Proposition
Backing the favourite in the Grand National, just as in any other horse race (and indeed any event at all), will give you the best chance of backing the winner, but will it be enough to show a profit over time? Unfortunately, it isn’t as easy as all that as we shall see.
For ease of calculation when examining the overall profit and loss for favourite backers over the 168 renewals under consideration, we have used the criteria of staking one full point on a clear favourite, and one-half point on each horse in the case of a joint favourite. This enables consistency in only staking one unit per edition of the great race.
So, once all the pluses and minuses have been entered into the ledger, what does that total of 28 wins from 168 editions equate to? The answer is an initially disappointing loss of 9.17 units.
Whilst that return is certainly a little underwhelming at first glance, it begins to look more impressive when considered from a return on investment perspective. A loss of 9.17 units from a total stake of 168 units staked equates to an ROI of 94.5% or a loss of 5.5% of total stakes.
A 5.5% loss for the punter is of course a 5.5% profit for our friend the bookmaker. But how does this figure compare to how much the good old bookies would generally expect to make from the race? The answer is pretty favourably as it turns out.
Looking at the 10 editions of the race between 2010 and 2019, and using the bookmakers’ overround figure as our measure, we can see that the expected profit (margin) for the bookmakers ranged from a low of 48.7% in 2016 to a high of 62.6% in 2019. Both figures are obviously way above the average loss of 5.5% expected from backing the favourite.
In summary, we won’t get rich from blindly back the market leader in the Grand National but, in the absence of any other information, doing so will give us our best chance of backing the winner in any given year, and also minimise our losses in the long run.
Tougher Over Time?
Another pair of commonly held beliefs about the National are that “it isn’t the race it was”, and the related “it is now easier for the favourite to win”. The first of those statements is undoubtedly true, particularly since the softening of the cores of the fences in 2012. That certainly isn’t a bad thing though, and is in fact something the sport should be applauded for from a horse welfare perspective. More cynically, it was something that was probably necessary in order to preserve the race’s future.
The second statement however looks to be on far shakier ground. The reasoning behind the argument that the race has become easier for the favourite to win is partially linked to the fact that the fences aren’t quite so formidable these days. The theory goes that with less chance of a fall, it is now that much more likely that the most favourably handicapped horse – i.e. the likely favourite – in the race will in fact come home in front.
It is hard to argue with that in principle, but as we can see from the below chart, the argument doesn’t really stand up on the stats. The pattern is far from conclusive, but when looking at the average winning SP, and number of winning favourites per decade since the race began, it would seem that, if anything, the SP has increased over time, whilst the number of winning favourites has fallen.
One possible reason for this is the fact that the race has only grown in popularity over the years, resulting in more and more owners and trainers wishing to enter their horse. This, in combination with the fact that the average class of the contenders has increased as the years have gone by – and particularly since the improved safety measures were put in place – has led to a more compressed higher class handicap.
That means a race in which the difference in ability between the best and worst runners in the field perhaps isn’t quite what it was in years gone by – resulting in a closer, and even tougher to call contest.
The above evidence isn’t strong enough to really draw any hard and fast conclusions – the most recent edition (2019) was won by red-hot favourite Tiger Roll after all – but anyone expecting an increasing strike rate from the market leaders compared to that witnessed in years gone by may well be disappointed.
Grand National: The Long and The Short Of It
Having now looked at the general pattern of the race in terms of the number of winning favourites, starting prices of the winner and how these trends have changed over time, we now conclude by highlighting those winners from the extreme ends of the price spectrum i.e. the longest and shortest priced winners in the history of the event.
From Tim To Treadwell: The National’s Biggest Shocks
The jewel in Aintree’s crown hasn’t been averse to a shock result or three over the years, with a lucky 13 winners having defied odds of 50/1 or greater since that inaugural edition way back in 1839.
Four of those came home in front at 50/1, four at 66/1, but the 100/1 shots have fared even better than that with five wins in total. As of 2019, no runner sent off at bigger than 100/1 has ever landed the prize.
|2013||Auroras Encore||Ryan Mania||Sue Smith||66/1|
|2009||Mon Mome||Liam Treadwell||Venetia Williams||100/1|
|1985||Last Suspect||Hywel Davies||Tim Forster||50/1|
|1967||Foinavon||John Buckingham||John Kempton||100/1|
|1966||Anglo||Tim Norman||Fred Winter||50/1|
|1963||Ayala||Pat Buckley||Keith Piggott||66/1|
|1949||Russian Hero||Leo McMorrow||George Owen||66/1|
|1948||Sheila’s Cottage||Arthur Thompson||Neville Crump||50/1|
|1947||Caughoo||Eddie Dempsey||Herbert McDowell||100/1|
|1932||Forbra||Tim Hamey||Tom Rimell||50/1|
|1929||Gregalach||Robert W H Everett||Tom Leader||100/1|
|1928||Tipperary Tim||Mr Bill Dutton||Joseph Dodd||100/1|
|1908||Rubio||Henry Bletsoe||Fred Withington||66/1|
Kicking things off for the 100/1 shots was 1928 winner, Tipperary Tim – a horse whose rider William Dutton was given the send-off of, “Billy boy, you’ll only win if all the others fall!” by one of his friends. Well, whether that tale is apocryphal or not, the rest did all fall down, leaving good old Tim to saunter home at his leisure in the biggest race in the world. We didn’t have long to wait for our second 100/1 winner, with Gregalach defying that triple figure price in 1929, whilst Caughoo joined the club in 1947.
Then in 1967 came the most well-known 100/1 winner of them all; a horse so famous he now has a fence in the great race named in his honour – Foinavon. Approaching the 23rd obstacle of that 1967 edition Foinavon was travelling well enough, but some way behind the leaders, when utter chaos ensued as a horse by the name of Popham Down (you couldn’t make it up!) opted to veer across the fence rather than jump it, causing just about the whole field to pull up.
Not Foinavon though. Seizing his opportunity, jockey John Buckingham spotted a gap and jumped the fence. 17 rivals did eventually clear the 23rd and give chase, but Foinavon was away and gone.
Last but not least in our tale of centurions comes the 2009 hero, Mon Mome. Going for trainer Venetia Williams and jockey Liam Treadwell, the first French-bred winner in exactly 100 years stormed around the elbow to score by 12 lengths.
Good Things: Piggott In The Record Books Again
At the other end of the spectrum we have the 1919 winner Poethlyn, who as of 2019 remains the shortest priced winner in the history of the race, having delighted post-war favourite backers when coming home in front at odds of 11/4. The man in the saddle that day was to have a significant impact on the racing world in years to come. Grandfather of none other than one of the greatest flat jockeys of all time in Lester Piggott, Ernie Piggott was the man doing the steering back in 1919.
Overall the race has seen a total of 50 winners return a single figure SP – with 20 of those coming home in front at 5/1 or shorter. The most recent of which was, of course, the brilliant Tiger Roll who successfully defended his crown in 2019 at odds of 4/1.
Here is a list of the last 10 winning favourites (including joint or co-favourites):
|2010||Don’t Push It||10/1|
|2008||Comply Or Die||7/1|
So, that’s 10 winning favourites in the last 70 editions of the race, with 7/1 the most frequent winning-favourite odds. However, with six winning jollies doing the business since 1996 are we seeing a change in trends, or is this just variance? Time will tell but overall it certainly seems there are worse options available than backing the favourite, perhaps with some smaller each way bets on long-odds outsiders.