The Grand National is the most famous horse race in Britain.
Over the years, betting has become synonymous with the National as professionals and amateurs alike place everything from four-figure wagers to once-a-year 50p bets.
Run every April at Aintree Racecourse near Liverpool, the Grand National is a huge part of British culture. A huge 40 runners take part, racing over 4¼ miles and jumping 30 fences for a prize fund of £1 million. More than 600 million people watch the event on live TV from more than 140 countries around the world.
Here, we walk you through how to choose a horse in the Grand National. We also look at what types of bets you can place and how, we also look at the rules of the race and its illustrious history thus far.
Choosing a Grand National Horse
Picking out our Grand National horses in order to place a bet each year is a national pastime.
The Grand National is Britain’s single biggest betting event of any type. Every year in April, around £400 million is bet on the race from a combination of 50p each-way bets at the betting shop, six-figure bets placed online and at the track and everything in between.
Why is the National such a huge betting event and why does it tempt us all into having a wager? As well as it’s long history, the fact that fully 40 runners take in 4¼ miles and have to jump 30 of the most testing and unique fences on the British racing scene makes picking the winner incredibly hard. That’s why it’s such a challenge.
Also, the competitive nature of the race means that winners can come in at 10/1, 14/1, 33/1 or even 100/1. It’s the thought of winning a bet at those odds that attracts us all to it.
So, it seems like such a lottery. Surely, you can just stick a pin in the paper and back whatever horse you choose at random? Not quite!
In the past, it was actually a little easier for professionals to pick out Grand National bets. The bottom horses essentially weren’t good enough and the top horses simply carried too much weight to cope.
That meant we were left with a core group of around 10-12 horses with just the right amount of class, carrying a manageable weight to see out the 4-mile+ trip. Training and veterinary techniques are now so much better, so it’s best to keep in mind what you can look for in order to pick out your Grand National horses.
What Matters for National Horses
There are a number of factors that handicappers and punters should keep in mind when picking out a Grand National horse.
The main punting factor for all bets, not just in the Grand National. You want to know that your horse is in form leading up to the race and/or has the past form to justify backing it.
In the case of 2021 winner Minella Times for example, he had won in September and finished second in very competitive races in December and February leading up to the National.
Tiger Roll was a Cheltenham Festival winner in March while One For Arthur was a last-time-out winner at Warwick in the Classic Chase.
Your Grand National horse doesn’t need to have excellent very recent form, but you won’t want a horse that is eligible for the race but hasn’t hit the places or won a race over the past couple of years as this suggests that it may simply have lost some of its ability.
Grand National horses have to be of a certain minimum age anyway before they are allowed to compete, however a horse can still get into the race without the requisite experience.
We say this as, even when eligible, some horses come into the National having spent their time jumping easier fences elsewhere, or having only run regularly in smaller fields. This would leave them vulnerable over the tough Aintree obstacles and we don’t know that in the rough and tumble of a 40-runner race, that they will definitely cope with the hot conditions.
As per the above, horses aren’t allowed to enter the Grand National with insufficient chasing experience. That said, just because they tick enough official boxes it doesn’t mean we consider them all to be great jumpers.
In the National Hunt sphere, it can never all be about speed or even stamina. No matter how sharp a horse is on the flat, jumping is the name of the game and a bad jumper can lose ground at each and every fence with a poor leap or an awkward landing.
There is no published rating for how good a jumper each horse is perceived to be. So, when looking through the form be careful to check on how each horse’s jumping was described. Despite being winners, those exhibiting regular mistakes at fences are best avoided for betting purposes in this race.
Remember that there is a clear distinction between a horse’s rating and their published weight. While the weight they now carry is less important as in the past, more on that below, their handicap rating or ‘mark’ remains of significance.
As handicappers and pro punters, we always look for horses we believe are better than their official handicap mark. A horse may have run in recent times to marks of 142, 139, 146, 149, 125. Overall, there is an upward trend there and in the right conditions we may believe the horse is now ready to run to a mark of approximately 155.
If, however, they come into the Grand National on a rating of 146, then we’d consider them to be potentially “well in” as they may have up to 9lbs in hand versus their handicap mark.
Each horse is given a weight to carry relative to their handicap rating. Finding those you believe are better than their rating, regardless of the physical weight carried, is a key punting metric.
Some Grand National contenders may be given prep runs over less than three miles, often over hurdles rather than fences. This is simply to keep them fit and sharpen them up for the big race.
In terms of key pieces of past form however, we really want to see National horses that have stayed well and won over a minimum of three miles over fences.
There is a sweet spot to aim for too. Horses winning over 2½ miles but having appeared to have struggled over longer trips may be considered by punters to not have the requisite stamina.
On the flip side, those having won very recently over four miles, such as at Cheltenham or in the previous season’s Grand National or Scottish Grand National, may now be handicapped up to their best over the distance or may have had plenty taken out of them by the extreme effort.
Those winning good quality races over 3¼, 3½ or 3¾ miles for example are likely to have the required stamina levels while also maintaining the energy and potential for improvement over this trip.
Another thing to keep in mind regarding stamina is the going. Not that many Grand National horses are ground dependent, but those that have stayed longer distances on good ground only may struggle to get home if there is any rain around on the day.
Value for Money
Winners, not based on form and ability but purely on price, can come from anywhere in the National field. In recent times, winner SP’s have ranged from 4/1 to 100/1. It remains very important to get good value for your Grand National bets.
In 2019, Tiger Roll went off at 4/1 favourite when winning for the second time but he was a real exception. It was obvious that he had an outstanding chance in the race.
At the very next Grand National in 2021, the bookmakers looked to squeeze the market again and consistently shortened up Cloth Cap. He got to as short as 7/2 favourite at one point, a ridiculous price, but something that can trick amateur punters into thinking he must be a good thing ala Tiger Roll.
A 33/1 shot in the Grand National may have just as strong a chance as an 8/1 shot. Remember not to go for bigger-priced horses just because of their odds, but also don’t let a big price put you off if your form, experience, jumping ability, stamina and handicap rating boxes have all been ticked.
What Doesn’t Matter (As Much)
In a sense, everything matters, but if we looked at every single individual barometer or benchmark for 40+ horses the race would have been and gone before we had a chance to place a bet.
Here are the things that matter just a little less when picking out a Grand National horse.
It was said in the past, albeit colloquially, that horses of a certain breeding “can’t win the National”. Nothing of the sort is true.
Many used to believe that French-bred horses couldn’t win the race or that those bred for the Flat and therefore shorter distances cannot win.
In fact, by the time a horse is old enough and experienced enough to qualify for the Grand National it has proven itself as a staying chaser regardless of breeding.
Days Since Last Run
In past times, some punters considered long break to be a big negative for a horse as it wouldn’t be fit enough to perform at 100%. Conversely, some National punters believed that a 50+ day break was essential to ensure the horse is fresh.
Neither is strictly true these days. Every horse is different and training techniques being as they now are mean handlers can get horses extremely fit at home.
If the ground was to come up soft, a horse carrying 11st10lbs around this extreme distance could indeed struggle regardless of class.
There is no doubt that if most National winners will still carry under 11st, but that is more to do with horses at that sort of rating having improvement in them whereas those at the top of the weights are more or less at their peak.
The weight itself is not the problem. Horses are handicapped for a reason. If you find a bang in-form runner carrying well over 11st and you feel they may even have improvement in them, do not let the weight they carry put you off.
We consider owners, trainers and jockeys as ‘connections’ of the horse. In the case of the Grand National, it matters far less which humans are connected to a runner in terms of their chances of winning the race.
True, some connections are more successful than others. But when top-class horsemen are connected to a horse you like then you have more than likely shortlisted the horse anyway owing to its own abilities.
The point it, you wouldn’t back a horse in the Grand National that has no strong form, no great jumping ability and unproven stamina just because it is owned, trained and ridden by top-class connections.
Types of Grand National Bets
There are two main things to consider in terms of your Grand National bet ‘type’; where to place your bet, and what bet to choose.
Starting with the where, your chief options are:
- Bookmakers – these come in the form of betting offices on the high street, online bookmakers and bookies at the track if you’re lucky enough to be at Aintree on the big day. Bookies will offer ‘fixed odds’, i.e., 7/1, 10/1, 33/1 against your horse.
- Exchanges – on the exchanges, you bet against fellow punters rather than against a bookie. Odds will be displayed as decimals in this case which includes a one-unit stake, making an 8/1 shot 9.0 and an 11/2 shot 6.5. A small commission will be taken from your profit if you win.
- Tote – the Tote offers pool betting. All the money in the race is in one pot, with winnings shared out among all those with winning tickets. Odds will change constantly depending on how many tickets go one your horse, though a final dividend to a £1 stake is published after the race. If you have £5 on the Tote on a winning horse at 16.38, then your return would be £81.90.
There are various bet types to place with each of the above.
- Win – the simple ‘win’ bet is the most popular out there. Should you back a Grand National horse to win and it finishes second or worse, the best it lost. If you back a runner at 16/1 for £10 and it wins, then your total return is £170.
- Each-Way – an each-way bet is two bets in one; win and place. This costs twice the stake. In the case of the Grand National, all of those finishing in the first four are placed though some bookmakers will offer specials such as 5, 6 or even 7 places. A £5 each-way bet costs £10 in total. If the horse finished placed, then only that section of the bet is successful (at 1/4 of the odds). If your horse wins, both the win and the place bets are paid out as winners.
- Place – some bookmakers accept place bets as a single, though this is usually the domain of the Tote. A separate place pool is offered from the win pool. If you back a horse with £10 to place at odds of 5.50 and it finished 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th, then your successful return would be £55.
- Accumulator – you could add your Grand National bet to an accumulator with a bet or bets from other races. A win or each-way accumulator is possible as a double, treble, 4-fold or above.
- Forecast – forecasts and tricasts are possible. On the Tote, this will be called an Exacta. This involves you picking out two horses to finish 1st and 2nd, or 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the correct order. It’s very difficult to get right but can lead to huge payouts.
Ordinarily, many professional punters place win bets only. Each-way bets aren’t always great value and over the course of time, had successful each-way bets been placed as win bets then the profit would be greater overall even with fewer trips to the payout counter.
The Grand National however is once a year and unique. In this case, each-way bets are best. Many punters bet on two, three or even more horses each-way in the Grand National knowing that winning means big profit, but even getting a couple of horses into the places means a fair return and that not all stake money is lost.
Rules of the Grand National
To the once-a-year punter, the National is just a huge bunch of horses jumping fences. To racing professionals however, there are a set of rules we all need to keep in mind before the final Grand National field can be decided upon.
The Grand National is a National Hunt Handicap Steeplechase. National Hunt racing is the official name of ‘jumps’ racing, a sphere in which runners either take on smaller hurdles, or larger fences. Steeplechases, or simply ‘chases’, are run over the larger fences.
In this case, the fences are quite stiff and testing and include a mixture of ditches and plain fences. At Aintree, both the Mildmay and Grand National courses are in action, this race naturally being run over the latter.
The runners take on a total distance of four miles, two-and-half furlongs. Over two full laps of the National Course, those completing the field will jump a total of 30 fences.
The race is a handicap, i.e., runners are assigned different weights to carry based on their official rating and it is for those aged seven and over only.
The National is run at Grade 3 level, officially the third-highest level of jumps racing despite it being the most famous race on the circuit.
Number of Runners
While Aintree is very wide, there remains a safety limit. In this case, up to 40 runners can take part in the Grand National which is still the most seen for any race in Great Britain.
The huge number of runners is what makes the Grand National the most competitive event in British racing, and also what makes it so appealing to those betting on the race and taking part in sweepstakes.
Ostensibly, the Grand National is run under the normal rules of racing which are administered by the BHA – the British Horseracing Authority. However, due to the uniqueness of the race’s conditions and its testing nature, the official handicapper sets the weights separately.
Ordinarily, if the top-rated horse in a race is rated 165 and carries 11st10lbs, then a horse rated 152 would carry 10st11lbs and so on. For the National, various other factors including jumping ability, staying ability, form and past Aintree performances are taken into account by the chief handicapper.
They will then use these factors to tweak the weights slightly, with the weights for the race announced in advance. These cannot then change, though horses will revert to their normal handicap rating thereafter.
Under normal racing rules, if a horse is pulled out of the Grand National after the final declarations are made then they are declared a non-runner. In this case, the final field is announced after 10am on the Thursday before the race.
To keep the field to 40, reserves are also declared. The best four horses to not quite make the cut, according to their official rating, are listed as reserves 1, 2, 3 and 4. If a non-runner is declared, then the first reserve comes into the field to take its place.
Should there be five or more non-runners or a horse is pulled-out immediately before the race, then there may be under 40 runners in the race but this is not the ideal. Since reserves were allowed in the race in 2000, a total of 10 have run in the Grand National.
As jumps races are started by the runners walking towards a tape rather than standing in stalls, starts are often disrupted.
This happens in many major races owing to overeager jockeys or horses wanting to spring into action owing to the many opponents around them and greater crowd noise.
Tensions run high at the beginning of the Grand National. Jockeys want to get their horses into just the right position before heading to the first fence as the starter raises his flag and calls in the field.
If the starter is not satisfied with the line and how the runners are approaching the tape, he can ask them all to take a turn which is known as a false start.
False starts are common in National Hunt racing and especially the Grand National, though new rules mean we see less disruption now than in the past. Back in 1993, the National was a called void race after 30 of the runners carried on with some finishing the course despite a second false start being called.
A dead-heat in racing is an unusual eventuality, but it does happen. That being said, it remains highly improbable in the Grand National. Getting two horses to jump 30 fences over four-and-a-quarter miles and getting to the line at absolutely the same time would be a very unlikely scenario.
Should it happen, then both horses are declared winners. The first and second-place prize money is then added together and split equally between the two.
Every jumps trainer in Britain and Ireland wants to be involved in the Grand National. Most licenced yards may have anything from a single horse up to 15 horses they may aim at the National before the season begins.
Hundreds of horses are considered for the race at the beginning of each season, but only 40 can ultimately make the cut. Various declaration stages are used to scratch any horses which are now not being considered, perhaps because they have received an injury or are now being aimed elsewhere by their stable. Entry stages are:
- Entries Closed – official entries close during the first week of February.
- Weights Revealed – two weeks after entries close, the handicapper reveals the weights.
- First Confirmation Stage – 5-6 weeks before the race, 126 horses will remain.
- Second Confirmation Stage – 2-3 weeks before the race, 96 horses remain in the field.
- Final Confirmation Stage – 5 days before the race, all of those intending to run are named.
- Final Declarations – 2 days before the race, the final 40-runner field plus 4 reserves are known.
Before February, lively ante-post betting markets are published on the Grand National. The runners are based on educated guesses as to which runners may take part. Often, trainers and owners declare publicly that they intend to head to the National if making the cut.
Only certain horses are allowed to enter the Grand National. The following criteria must be met for an entry:
- Horses must be aged 7 or older at the time of the race.
- Horses must have run in three or more recognised steeplechase races and must have finished in the first four of a race run over three miles or more.
- Horses must be of a certain minimum standard. They must be rated at least 120 by the official handicapper. Those rated lower than this may still enter if, when the handicapper finalises the weights, they are satisfied that their performances merit a mark of 120 or more.
About the Grand National
It should probably go without saying that the Grand National is the richest jump race anywhere in Europe. As of 2017, the race was worth a total of £1 million in prize money and while the purse took a hit because of coronavirus, it is due to stick to those levels for some time to come.
As well as being an important race for the industry, the Grand National is also firmly entrenched in British culture overall. Office and pub sweepstakes are commonplace around Grand National time, while those who would usually not bet place their only wagers of the year on this race.
The Grand National has also been a huge TV event since it was first broadcast in 1960. Around 600 million people watch the race in 140 countries every year. The race also generates upwards of £400 million in betting revenue, making it the country’s single biggest betting event annually.
The course used for the Grand National is unique. Only used a few times each season, it features much stiffer and more difficult fences than those found at other tracks elsewhere.
Some of the fences are now very well known in their own right, viewers being well used to hearing the runners being called over the Canal Turn, The Chair and Becher’s Brook during race commentary before heading round ‘The Elbow’ and up towards the line.
While the race’s origins go all the way back to 1829, in 1839 Lottery became the first winner of what was then called the Grand Liverpool Steeplechase. The event was later renamed the Grand National.
Back then, the runners had to jump over a stone wall, cross a stretch of ploughed land and then finish over two hurdles.
The race was switched to being a handicap event in 1843. Prominent handicapper Edward William Topham, who also has a top Aintree race named after him, was responsible for this and therefore for making the event what it is today.
The Topham family in fact owned huge amounts of land around Aintree and, in 1949, bought the course from Lord Sefton. Both the Topham Chase and Sefton Chase are now major events at the track each year.
Just a few horses have won the Grand National more than once. Over 40 years ago, Red Rum recorded the first of his three wins in the race that together made him the most famous horse in British racing history. To this day, he is the only horse to have won the event three times and he is in fact buried near the finish line of the National.
Aintree features two courses; the Mildmay Course and the Grand National Course. The latter stages both hurdle and chase races and opened in 1839.
Though going through some times of lower popularity since its inception, for a long time now the Grand National has stood tall as the most famous race Britain and one of the most famous anywhere in the world with major events, such as Red Rum’s third win, cementing its place in cultural and sporting history.
In 1979, jockey Bob Champion was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He was given just months to live by his doctors. Despite that, he recovered and was passed fit to compete in the 1981 Grand National.
The aptly-named Champion rode Aldaniti in the race, a horse that had been known to have been deprived when younger and had himself recently recovered from chronic leg issues. The pair made a poor start in the ’81 National, but ultimately fought on and won the race by 4½ lengths to a rapturous reception.
1993 saw “the race that never was”. After two false starts, thirty of the 40 runners continued to race, ignoring waving flags and seeing out the race. Ultimately, the race was declared void and no bets were ever paid out.
In 1997, a series of bomb threats led to the Grand National being cancelled on the Saturday. Horses and jockeys reconvened the following Monday to complete the race.
In more recent times, Cheltenham Festival favourite Tiger Roll wrote his own name into the history books. He became the first horse since Red Rum to win the race twice, taking it in both 2018 and 2019.
Favourite for the 2020 edition, Tiger Roll’s charge was halted when coronavirus hit British racing with the event cancelled for that year. It was replaced by a Virtual Grand National which could be bet on, featuring computerised versions of the National’s most famous participants.