How to Pick the Winner at the Grand National?

Grand National Course

The Grand National is the biggest race of the year in many ways, with more people choosing to bet on the Aintree classic than any other race.

Whether you are a betting newbie or a racing pro, the riddle of picking the winner of the Grand National is always tough to solve. A huge field, a mammoth test of more than four miles, perilous and unique fences (just the 30 of them) and the huge crowd make this a test like no other.

That is to say, it is a challenge unlike any other and that assessment applies to the horses, the jockeys and those betting on the Grand National.

So, where to start?

Form and Stats

Horse Racing Form

When trying to pick the winner of a standard race, form and stats would usually be the obvious starting point. However, with many that bet on the Grand National being newcomers or only occasional bettors, they may feel they are unable to fully understand the available stats.

Indeed, they may be right, because the job of the punter is to find value, which is to say odds on a horse that are longer than they should be. Given the bookies use the same stats and information to generate the odds, it’s clear that beating the bookmakers is no easy task.

Moreover, many betting experts propose that with so many horses involved and such testing and unpredictable conditions, the National is a lottery. By this, they mean that attempting to pick the winner is a thankless task, with the role of luck more important than anything else.


Horse Before Race
Credit: Simon_rees Flickr

In some ways it is fair to say that studying the form at the Grand National may be a less than fruitful way to spend one’s time. The higher class, more predictable racing of the Cheltenham Festival may be different but for the National, trusting to luck is perhaps almost as likely to be successful as anything else.

That said, looking at trends is almost certainly still worthwhile. Trends look at what past winners have had in common in order to narrow down the field. Trends are a good tool to find the winner but not necessarily value, as, again, the bookmakers are more than aware of the trends. By this, we mean that if you find a horse that ticks all the right boxes, the chances are its odds will be relatively low.

Cause or Coincidence?

Winning Horse Trends

There is also a danger with trends that we can mistake the signal for the noise. Lots of trends exist and we can analyse races in any number of ways to create others. It is easy to mistake coincidence for causality. For example, if we spot that 65% of winning horses have three or more vowels in their name, in reality any rational person can easily see that this has no impact on who will win the race. On the other hand, there are very good reasons why younger horses might not do well, or more obviously why horses at odds of more than 50/1 tend not to win.

Another issue with trends is where do we draw the line? Do we consider every running of the Grand National? Just the last five years? 10 years? Or what? Many changes have been made to the National course and fences over the years so we’re looking at the last 20 years. This gives a good balance of maintaining a reasonable sample size and staying relevant to this year’s conditions.

From that point of view we would highlight the following trends that are worth noting:

  • Age – 60% of the 20 winners from 1997-2017 have been nine or 10 and only one older than 11, with none aged seven
  • Weight – four miles is a long way, especially with soft ground. 16 of the same 20 winners carried 11 stone or less
  • Long Odds – although long odds winners are very possible, 14 of the 20 horses studied have started at 25/1 or lower
  • Short Odds – that said, in that period we have had just four winning favourites and only seven winners shorter than 14/1

To summarise, if you can find a nine or 10 year old, carrying less than 11 stone at odds of around 18/1, that could be your horse. If you like its name.

Back it Because You Like the Name

Two in the Pink

For the vast majority of people betting on the Grand National, it is a bit of fun. As such, with there being so much uncertainty and unpredictability, we wouldn’t put anyone off backing a horse because they like its name. Or its trainer’s name. Or its colours. Or its owners name.

Betting a fortune on 13 year old at 100/1 might not be wise, even if it is called Jack’s Revenge and shares a name with your son, who was born on the day of the race. But a few quid each way? Why not?

Someone who may or may not work here actually has a pretty good National record on this basis: One For Arthur in 2017 because friends had children called Arthur; Papillon in 2000 because they’d just read the book of the same name; Bobbyjo in 2009 because they have friends called Bobby and Jo; Party Politics in 1992 because a general election was imminent; and Seagram in 1991 because they sponsored the race.

It might work, it might not, but given beating the oddsmakers on a race like the Grand National is so tricky, why not?

There are loads and loads of betting tips sites out there for this race too, so you could always consult them, but never pay for them. Moreover, if anyone claims to have a red hot tip for the National or a banker, take it with a pinch of salt. Or two.

Grand National Facts

Just for fun…

  • Rich – this is the richest jumps race in Europe, with more than £500,000 to the winner
  • Old – it’s also got plenty of history, having first been run in 1839
  • Popular – around 600m people in more than 130 countries watch the Grand National each year
  • Legend – Red Rum is one of the most famous horses around and won the National in 1973, 1974 and 1977
  • Cavalry – Back in 1929, 66 runners went to post. Now that’s a serious cavalry charge