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This is no National Lottery

It’s great to return The Sight Is In End with one of the truly great one-off sporting events imminent. Not much gets me more excited than a Grand National, in fact I don’t mind admitting I’m a bit of an obsessive when it comes to the world’s greatest steeplechase.

One thing annoys me terribly at this time of year, and that’s everyone referring to the Grand National as a ‘lottery’. Phrases such as ‘you’d have as much chance of picking the winner if you just stuck a pin in the newspaper’ become very common in the run up to a National, and it’s just not true! Sure, it’s tough to pick a winner, no one would argue otherwise, but you can certainly reduce the 40-strong field to a much more manageable number before you start getting your pins out.

And that’s what I’m going to attempt to do for you here in my Grand National preview, not so much advise you where to put your money, but steer you clear of the nags on which it would be thrown away.

As much as many ‘experts’ are loathe to admit it, there are some very common trends among Grand National winners which are impossible to ignore – and, importantly, these trends can expose big problems for some much-fancied runners.

Weight

The most major factor to look out for in the National is the horses weight. It’s at around 11 stone that the straw is placed that breaks a horses back in a National. Only one of the last 24 National winners have carried more than 11 stone – that was the exceptional Hedgehunter in 2005, and he was carrying 11st 1lb, just fractionally over. No more than about half a dozen 11 stone plus horses have even been placed (that a finish in the first 4) in a National in the last 10 years.

With each further pound of weight, the task becomes more impossible. There have only been 5 occasions on which the winner has carried more than 11st 5lbs in over 150 years of races, and two of those were Red Rum.

One thing you might hear mentioned this year is that the bigger weights have a better chance than usual due to a ‘compressed handicap’. What that means is the difference between the top and bottom weight is smaller, and as such the advantage to those with the smaller weights is not so great. They said this last year. In fact over the last 5 years or so, the handicap has become increasingly compressed, the number of horses carrying 11 stone plus has increased, as has the weight of the lowest ranked runner – and we are still yet to see it bring any advantage for the big weights.

If I was being conservative, I would say that 11st 3lb is the absolute maximum I would consider, and even then I’d still favour the runners carrying under 11st. Using 11st 3lbs as the cut off point, we can rule out the following horses for this years National:

Hedgehunter, Hi Cloy, Knowhere, Mr Pointment, Turko, Madison Du Berlais, Simon, Opera Mundi, Iron Man, Fundamentalist.

Age

One of the biggest no-no’s when selecting a National horse is to choose one that is not of the optimum age. It’s 67 years since the National winner did not fall between the ages of 8 and 12, on that occasion the winner was younger than 8 – you have to go back more than 80 years to find a winner older than 12. There are no real old-timers in this years race, but you can definitely rule out the following young pups, whose time may come one day, but not this year. These are all under 8 years of age:

Turko, Madison Du Berlais, Opera Mundi, Iron Man, No Full, Bob Hall, Milan Deux Mille, Nadover.

Generally, 9 and 10 year olds are much more successful in the race than anything else. 11 year olds have less success, but are definitely not to be ruled out. 8 and 12 year olds can win, but these are rarer occurrences. So 9-11 year olds are to be favoured ahead of 8 and 12 year olds. Interestingly, the hot favourite for this years race, Cloudy Lane, is an 8 year old. The 2002 winner Bindaree is the only 8 year old to win in the last 14 renewals.

The French

Horses which are bred or trained in France are cursed in the Grand National. There have been one or two recent French-bred runners up, but there has been no winner bred across the channel since 1909. There have been two National winners trained in France, and the last of these was in 1867.

So steer clear of the following gallic raiders:

Turko, Madison Du Berlais, Opera Mundi, Iron Man, Butlers Cabin, Vodka Bleu, L’Ami, No Full, Mon Mome, Kelami, Milan Deux Mille, Nadover.

Stamina

You can never be completely sure if any horse will still be full of running after 4 and a half miles, because there aren’t that many races run over such a marathon distance. But you do at least want a horse who has proved itself to have some reserves of stamina. The accepted distance a horse needs to win over to prove himself a decent stayer is 3 miles. So any horse that has never won over that distance must surely be a major doubt for 4 and a half miles. This eliminates the following:

Madison Du Berlais, Iron Man, Fundamentalist, Contraband, No Full, Bob Hall, King John’s Castle, Tumbling Dice, Milan Deux Mille, Nadover.

Are you keeping up? Well so far we’ve got rid of 22 horses, leaving you with 18 to choose from. Still tough work, but not as bad – and there are yet more stats which can help us reduce the field still further.

Class, experience, form and preparation are all factors which have linked recent National winners. All of the last 10 National winners had won a chase worth £17000 or more, and had run in at least 10 chases in their career. Other common criteria include at least one win in the current season, and to have been given a preparative race over hurdles – this suggests a horse which has been prepared specifically with the National in mind, and all the last 5 National winners have had this last factor in their favour.

Based on all of the above, I have chosen the following half-dozen horses which have everything going for them to run a big race in this years Grand National:

Comply or Die – Of all the fancied horses, this is one who really justifies his support. A recent winner of a classy 4 mile plus chase at Newcastle when carrying top weight, he comes to the race at the perfect time, as a 9 year old, running off a nice weight of 10st 9lbs and has good form against the favourite, Cloudy Lane. He’s the leading chance of 5 from the top-drawer Pipe stable. Has the perfect National winner’s profile.

Point Barrow – Remember him? He was joint favourite for last years race, but got no further than the first. He is less fancied this year, and yet there would appear to be no more reason to oppose him. Falling in the National is no barrier to making up for it at a later stage – last year’s winner Silver Birch fell in the 2006 race – and falling at the first can often be down to the chaotic way in which the horses dash for this obstacle. The horse won the Irish National in 2006, and that is a race which has proved itself an excellent Grand National trial in the past. It also suggests he’s in his best form at this time of year. Currently available at around 20-1, he could be the value of the race.

McKelvey – Second last year, and running on like a train despite picking up an injury towards the end of the race. Has done everything to prove that he can win a National, and as a 9 year old he now reaches the peak time to prove it. Does have to carry an extra half stone compared to last year but at dead on 11st, it shouldn’t be enough to rule him out. If the luck is on his side it could be his day this time.

D’Argent – Don’t worry about the name, he’s not French. This is the only National runner from the bang in form Alan King stable, and he is a horse likely to give you a great run for your money. Fantastic 11 year old stayer with proven class and stamina. Has a style of his own when it comes to jumping, which may be a concern over these giant fences, but it usually proves effective for him. If he stays on his feet, he’ll be running all the way to the finish.

Philson Run – Age is not on his side as a 12 year old, but last year’s 4th is not to be ignored. He’s looking to emulate 2004 winner Amberleigh House as a 12 year old winning the race the year after being placed, and he’s just the type that might do it. You won’t find a more reliable jumper and stayer in the field, and although I think he’ll find one or two too quick again at the finish, he’s a fantastic each-way bet.

Backbeat – My favourite outsider in this years race. He perhaps needs to take a big step up in class to win this, but I can see no reason why he won’t be placed. Another horse at a good age and weight, and this one is regarded as one of the best jumpers around – not the type of talk to be ignored at Aintree, as anything likely to get around safely could have a chance. Currently at around 66-1, he represents fantastic each way value.

And why I don’t like some of the big fancies this year:

The reason that Cloudy Lane will go off a comfortable favourite for this race, is that he has had a couple of serious recent wins that came too late for the handicapper to get his hands on him – which means he’s carrying far less weight than he should be for his current rating. I oppose him because I don’t think he’s done nearly enough to justify such a short price. Favourites don’t have a great record in the National, and neither do 8 year olds. Those facts are enough for me to favour others ahead of him.

As for last years third, Slim Pickings, if he didn’t have enough up the run-in carrying a light weight to beat Silver Birch and the injured McKelvey last year, I can’t see how he won’t find at least a couple too quick for him again carrying 11st 3lbs this time. I think he ran the race of his life last year, and might have missed his chance. I see no value at the price of around 11-1.

Another big fancy is Bewley’s Berry, who was going like a dream last year when he hit the floor at Becher’s second time round. He’s proven he can jump all the fences by finishing 2nd in the Becher Chase twice, but he just strikes me as a bit of a bridesmaid. For such a fancied horse, he has never actually won anything approaching a top class chase. We also never got to see what he had left for the finish last year due to the fall, and his previous form suggests he just starts to run out of steam a bit in the real marathons. If he gets round he could be up there, but he won’t win.

So, to my idea of the winner of this years Grand National. Forced to pick one, it would have to be Comply Or Die.

Good luck to everyone, and feel free to leave comments after the race if I have proved myself to be talking rubbish!

Jamie.

STOP PRESS:

Opera Mundi is now a non-runner for the race, (had no chance anyway, see above) and has been replaced by Ardaghey.

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Going global, but not to Acapulco…yet? Premier League consider ‘international round’

The inevitable has happened. After the Miami Dolphins and the New York Giants successfully (ruined Wembley’s pitch, some would say…) brought the NFL over here, the Premier League have announced that they are considering an ‘international round’ of fixtures. Although why mention ‘consider’ is anyone’s guess. To announce they’re considering it seems like a euphemism. All twenty Premier League clubs have agreed to the proposal.

The Premier League season would be extended to 39 games, could involve extra travelling for already exhausted players, and adds an extra air of gravitas to a league that is now going truly global.

The Premier League are walking a fine tight-rope. Many fans complain that ticket prices are still too high, yet clubs have provisionally agreed to take the game away from them, rather than trying to take it closer to fans. As Mihir Bose, the BBC sports editor so rightfully put it, “it’s chance for the Premier League to showcase its product around the world.”

Don’t forget, though, that the Premier League have actually flirted with this idea for a very long time. The Premier League Asia Cup must now be officially viewed as a yearly experiment to gauge the popularity of the English game abroad. It’s obvious the Premier League were happy with the results.

This move shows the power of the new batch of Premier League owners. American investors like the Glazers, Hicks and Gillette, want to see a return on their investment as soon as possible. By taking their franchises (a term that I think we’ll need to get used to as time progresses…) global, it makes it more likely that this will happen sooner.

But what this also shows is how powerful other nations have become to the future of English top-flight football. By taking the game abroad, the Premier League assures its survival for time to come. It can bank on continued TV deals at mesmurising costs, and will definitely ensure that it gets the best players in the world from Asia, the Middle East and North America — the three big continents where Premier League football is most popular.

I’m sure we’ll have much more to say on the matter in due course.

Imagine if relegation fights or championship battles were eventually decided in a city thousands of miles away, though? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

David.

   

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Match Report: Stoke City 0-0 Newcastle United

Stoke City 0-0 Newcastle United

FA Cup: Third Round

Britannia Stadium, Stoke-on-Trent

Att: 22,681

It was built up as the match that could determine Sam Allardyce’s fate as Newcastle manager; it now holds more significance, but for now at least, Allardyce remains safe.

Meanwhile Stoke, while being pleased in keeping the Premier League outfit at bay, forcing the replay and with it the extra cash needed to boost their attempt in reaching the top flight, will be somewhat disappointed with the goalless draw after playing the better football and having a 67-minute Jon Parkin header cleared off the line – a minute after he arrived as a substitute.

It was an astute tactical decision by Tony Pulis, still under pressure by some Stoke fans despite their current 4th position in the Championship, which was almost enough for Stoke to claim a famous win. Parkin’s intimidating (to say the least) stature was a nuisance for the Newcastle defence, and also caused a goal-mouth mêlée seconds after his headed effort, which Liam Cresswell couldn’t capitalise on.

Parkin came on for Malian international Mamady Sidibe, who looked deeply annoyed at being substituted. He had a right to be, as he was industrious and selfless, and did all he could to try and be inventive in a game that lacked a lot of it.

He used his towering presence to assist with defending, but was also threatening with his vision and through-balls to Ricardo Fuller that constantly questioned Newcastle’s Abdoulaye Faye, who was composed throughout the 90 minutes.

But ominously for Allardyce, Newcastle and Fabio Capello’s England, Michael Owen is a long distance away from his best. The loneliness of being a long distance away from your best showed, as he cut an at-times isolated and beleaguered figure in the cold and wet of Stoke-on-Trent.

Owen was sluggish, rusty, and struggled to generate any sort of basic pace, impetus or threat. On 55 minutes, Owen failed to connect with a clear chance after Steven Taylor’s header hit the post and goalkeeper Steve Simonsen was left stranded. Allardyce eventually gave him the full ninety minutes, but he’s going to need many more not just for his sake, but for his club and Allardyce himself.

Damien Duff, who filled in for the ill James Miller, is also some way off his best; while Mark Viduka had a frustrating evening, with his only decent effort coming after 18 minutes thanks to a Charles N’Zogbia ball into the penalty area. N’Zogbia was the pick of the Newcastle players, and worked extremely hard on the left-hand side to pressurise an occasionally uncertain Simonsen with an array of crosses.

Newcastle were almost saved from an awkward replay as substitute Andrew Carroll’s desperate lunge at an N’Zogbia cross hit the post.

Allardyce looked pleased as the final whistle went, but the tie has now gained even more significance, for a loss at St. James’ would surely signal the premature end of Sam Allardyce.

That’s if it doesn’t happen beforehand, that is.

David.

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Here to save us all – The FA Cup.

Here we are once again in the first week of the new year, a very appropriate time for football’s annual shot at redemption: The FA Cup, to begin in earnest with its third round.

These are dark days for football. Greed is a necessity for success; rampant violence, criminality and generally vulgar behaviour amongst players are tolerated by the biggest clubs; the rich/poor gap is wider than ever, and trophy winning is reserved for a priveleged few. In addition, satellite TV continues to saturate the airwaves with an insane number of matches, and erode the atmosphere at grounds by bamboozling the already over-fed supporters with its bizarre range of kick-off times.

It’s all a far cry from the days that this particular weekend in the football calendar always reminds us of. Yet it is surely the FA Cup that provides the rest of the footballing nation with its one chance to get their own back; to redress the balance; to turn back the clock and yet dream of a brighter future, even if only for a day.

This is of course because anything’s possible when the Premiership megacelebs and the part-time cloggers get thrown into the mix together. In truth, giant-killings, which in the past were almost inevitable, are now very few and far between, due to the increased professionalism of the bigger clubs (at least on the pitch). But there’s always a chance, and my goodness how football needs someone to prove that to us this weekend.

Nowadays, that chance tends to present itself as the big clubs increasingly treat the early rounds of the cup as an annoyance, and large amounts of first-teamers get dropped. Whether you call it arrogance, or a panicked desire to wrap players in cotton-wool with that we-dare-not-miss-out-on-all-that-cash Champions League fixture on the horizon, it still provides David with the chance of a lifetime to slay Goliath.

Some may argue that it rather takes the shine off a giant-killing when the famous team appears to have announced with its team selection that it doesn’t care. I disagree. Firstly, you can still bet your life that the favourites don’t want to lose, and secondly it makes no difference to how good the score sounds in the classified check.

Manchester United‘s adoption of this risky strategy has seen them involved in a couple of spectacular near-misses in recent years. They could surely have fielded a 5th team that could beat Exeter City in 2005, and yet back to Devon they all went after a 0-0 draw. Having failed to learn from that mistake, United promptly made it again 12 months later at Burton Albion, where they once more escaped humiliation in a replay.

Another such near miss brings us nicely onto this years fixtures. Two years ago, when Luton Town were 3-1 up and playing Liverpool off the park, live on the BBC, the classic cup upset appeared to be on the cards. Liverpool spoiled everyone’s fun by storming back to win the game 5-3. The two clubs meet again on Sunday, with Luton now in a far worse position; threatened with relegation to League Two, and finances in a mess. Yet their impressive home record this season demands respect, and with Liverpool‘s manager appearing to think that the aim of his job is to get his best players on the pitch as rarely as possible, who knows what set of misfits The Hatters might come up against?

Let’s look at where else we can pin our hopes for a dose of footballing equality:

The other three members of football’s royal family all have fascinating draws. It says a lot about the state of football today that if Aston Villa, currently plumbing the depths of 7th in the Premiership, were to turn Manchester United over at home, it would be regarded as a major giant-killing. It would probably come as an almighty shock to Villa fans as well, given their team’s abysmal recent record against the champions. Nevertheless, it’s by far the best chance we have of seeing one of the big four sent packing early.

You can bet that Burnley is one of the last places Arsenal would fancy spending a sunday afternoon. Yet however intimidating an atmosphere the Turf Moor fans create, it’s difficult to see the Premiership leaders slipping up here. The new Burnley manager Owen Coyle once famously helped a second division Bolton dump Arsenal out in a replay at Highbury, but is yet to get his side going in the short time he’s been in charge, despite being dubbed ‘the new Bill Shankly’ by his chairman.

No game this weekend quite encapsulates football’s plight like Chelsea v QPR. This one is fascinating for all the wrong reasons, as it brings together football’s two richest clubs. Chelsea, the cup holders, have earned their status thanks entirely to the riches of Roman Abramovich. Poor west London relations QPR are now making an attempt to catch up with the Joneses; not content with the billions of Formula 1’s hierarchy, Rangers have recently brought on board an Asian businessman with even deeper pockets. They are however yet to spend any of this loot, meaning their chances of winning this local derby are still extremely remote, but their surging league form of late suggests the players may be playing with a greater incentive (I wonder what that could be?). Couple this with Chelsea‘s injury crisis, and maybe it’s not so clearcut.

The remaining non-league sides Chasetown and Havant & Waterlooville have seemingly impossible tasks against in-form welsh outfits Cardiff and Swansea respectively. In fact you could say they Havant a prayer. Sorry.

Realistically, we will probably have to settle for slightly smaller potatoes, in the shape of mid-table Premiership sides slipping up. Here are the third round fixtures I think have the best chance of producing a surprise result:

Bristol City v Middlesbrough – This is a repeat of a fourth round tie from last season, when Boro needed penalties to see off the league one version of City after twice narrowly escaping with a 2-2 draw. Since then, City have been promoted and are finding the Championship a breeze, where as beleaguered Boro edge nearer to the Premiership trap-door. Southgate is a sitting duck.

Huddersfield v Birmingham – Huddersfield are yet again failing to meet expectations in League One, languishing in mid-table. Which leaves them in a perfect position to put all their energies into this. With no promotion on the horizon, The Terriers’ large following, in their excellent stadium, will be desperate to make the most of the big occasion. Alex McLeish‘s side, with a must-win relegation battle in the league to fight, will not appreciate this distraction.

Ipswich v Portsmouth – A tie in which something has to give. Ipswich unbeatable at home, Pompey saving all their best for the road. If it goes to a replay, we’ll be no nearer sorting it out, given Harry Redknapp‘s side inability to find the net at home, and the Tractor Boys still searching for a first away win. The Premiership quality should be the difference, but anything can happen here.

Stoke v Newcastle This is the ‘you-wouldn’t-want-to-be-in-his-shoes’ game of the weekend. Sam Allardyce needs this game at the moment like he needs, say, his best central midfielder to get banged up for a fortnight. Surely it’s too soon for Joey the jailbird to make an appearance here – if he does he will be a brave man, because the Britannia Stadium, both its players and spectators, will be merciless. If Newcastle escape with a draw they’ll be absolutely delighted.

Jamie.

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Science Report

This blog may be only a few days young, but passionate debate is already breaking out – which is very pleasing to see. Here, Harry wishes to further expand the readers’ horizons with a brief discussion of astrophysics informed by careful observation of the sporting scene.

Science Report

There is growing evidence for the theory of an ‘Oscillating Universe’ based on a recurring event in the North of England.

Every few years it seems that Football Club experiences a run of poor form and dire results. Initial Fan Disquiet is soothed by the reassurances of Loyal Chairman that Beleagured Manager’s job is safe.

However, results remain bad and Fan Disquiet is exacerbated by the news that Talented Youngster is making eyes at Big Club, who may be about to swoop. Furthermore, Wantaway Foreign Striker tells the press in his home country that Beleagured Manager is rubbish and he hates living in Large City, where it rains all the time. Wantaway Foreign Striker and Talented Youngster are joined by Crap Crocked Midfield Has-been, and the pressure on Beleagured Manager increases.

Grumpy Fan With Beard is interviewed on local radio and suggests that Football Club’s faith in Beleagured Manager may be misplaced. Loyal Chairman is forced to change his tune when he finally opens Football Club’s bank statements and notices the size of their debt.

Suddenly Beleagured Manager is dispensible, and even Loyal Chairman himself may be forced aside by the arrival of Rich Benevolent Foreigner With Questionable Past. Rich Benevolent Foreigner With Questionable Past duly takes over and installs Football Genius as manager. Football Genius goes on a spending spree and acquires Brazilian Dynamo, Wing Wizard and assorted others, although Proper Striker eludes him.

Football Club become a thousand times better than they have been for ages and ages, and Football Genius proves to be an excellent manager. Longsuffering Fans appear to have found the panacea for all their woes, but they have failed to consider Manifest Destiny A.K.A Certain Ultimate Misery And Dissappointment.

Just as the pigs in Animal Farm kick out the farmers only to become farmers themselves, surely Football Genius will slowly evolve into Beleagured Manager. There will be Initial Fan Disquiet. Grumpy Fan With Beard will receive a phone call from the BBC…

Harry.

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