William Hill issued a profit warning the week after the Cheltenham Festival, where a string of winning favourites left punters about £80m ahead on the week. And they may need to issue another after next Saturday’s Grand National, when Many Clouds, the 8-1 favourite, will have an outstanding chance to become the first horse to win the race for a second time since Red Rum in 1974.
The National has been transformed since Ginger McCain’s exceptional chaser finished first, first, second, second and then first again in five renewals between 1973 and 1977. The fences are softer and the distance has been cut by nearly a quarter of a mile, but above all, the quality of the horses taking part, and thus the competitiveness of the race, has improved substantially. Few, if any, horses race from out of the handicap and all but a handful of the 40 runners will go to post as plausible winners.
As a result, it is no great surprise the list of multiple winners of the race has been stuck on seven for more than four decades. The 42-year gap since a dual winner is already the longest in National history and it is now more difficult for a horse to win the race once, never mind twice. Yet Many Clouds is an excellent bet to buck the trends, because unlike most horses that return to Aintree after winning a National, he needs to find very little improvement on a performance 12 months ago that owed very little to chance.
Like Red Rum in 1974, Many Clouds will set off under top weight. Like Red Rum, he is also a nine-year-old, who won his first National at the right age to arrive back at Aintree at the peak of his powers, and potentially improved.
Unlike Red Rum, who carried 10st 5lb to victory in 1973, Oliver Sherwood’s runner has only 1lb more on his back than he did 12 months ago. Many Clouds will run off a rating of 166, up six from last year when he was one and a quarter lengths ahead of Saint Are at the line, but if anything, he has looked like an improved performer this season during a four-race campaign designed solely to get him back to Aintree in peak form.
“Just to be mentioned in the same breath as Red Rum is extraordinary,” Sherwood says. “But the one thing with him is that he’s been there and done it. He’s got round and he’s got copious amounts of stamina.
“I would think the race is almost certainly harder to win nowadays. Red Rum was a brilliant horse but it was much more of a lottery in those years than it is now. If you look at the quality of the race nowadays, compared to 30 years ago, there’s much more quality in it now and it isn’t so trappy. That’s got to be a positive.
“The National is the National because of a) the fences and b) the numbers in the race. There’s 40 runners, and you’ve only got to have one fall in front of you and your race is over, but it’s less of a lottery now.”
Many Clouds has yet to renew acquaintance with the National course’s unique obstacles and some horses simply do not warm to the experience second time around. Sherwood’s runner has been back to this course, however, finishing a four-length second to Don Poli in a Listed event over Aintree’s standard Mildmay course in December when he was giving the winner 5lb. That form was franked when Don Poli finished third behind Don Cossack in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
“I’m worried about 39 others in the race but we’ve been there and done it, which is a huge positive with him,” Sherwood says. “Others have got to prove it. Many Clouds ticks all the boxes.
“If he has a clear run and gets into the rhythm that he did last year then yes, he’s going to be bang there, God willing. You can’t answer that question [about returning to the National fences] until he goes there and jumps a few but I’d be very surprised and disappointed if he didn’t.
“The whole season has been built up towards this. I was very pleased with his last run [at Kelso]. I’d say it was the first time he was 100% fit this season and his whole demeanour was good, his enthusiasm was first class and his jumping was exemplary.”
Random disaster can strike at any moment at Aintree and there are also plenty of young, improving horses in the field with less weight on their backs. But if Many Clouds can avoid the fallers and jump with his usual, flawless accuracy, he should be there with every chance at the final fence and has the class and stamina to get the job done from there.
He is a decent bet to do so even as the only horse in the field currently at single-figure odds. It is also worth bearing in mind many bookmakers are likely to push him out to 10-1 or bigger at some stage on Saturday morning, if only for 15 minutes, to get punters into their shops or on to their websites.
The biggest danger to Many Clouds could be The Last Samuri, who was switched from Donald McCain, Ginger’s son, to join Kim Bailey, who won the race 26 years ago with Mr Frisk, at the start of the season. He has improved steadily in three runs since, and warmed up for Aintree with a 10-length defeat of The Druids Nephew, who was going like a possible winner in last year’s National before an unfortunate departure five out.
Gallant Oscar, who has enjoyed the most careful of preparations at the shrewd Tony Martin stable, will also be in the running if he takes to the fences, while Morning Assembly, who was placed at Grade One level as a novice only five runs ago, is a 33-1 chance who deserves serious consideration.
Greg Wood’s Grand National selections
1 Many Clouds
2 The Last Samuri
3 Gallant Oscar
4 The Druids Nephew
Best outsider Morning Assembly