Held each year over the Christmas holiday period, the Welsh Grand National has the distinction of being the first Grand National of the jump racing season. It sets the pace for the Grand National at Aintree, the Irish National at Fairyhouse, and the Scottish National at Ayr, all of which take place as the season is drawing to a close.
Sponsored by Coral bookmakers since 1973 and formally known as the “Coral Welsh National,” this Grade 3 National Hunt chase covers a grueling 3 miles 5½ furlongs. The racecourse at Chepstow, Wales is renowned for its severe undulations and soft-to-heavy turf, with 22 fences to jump in total. The race is conducted as a handicap for 4-year-olds and up.
A History of Winners
The very first running of the Welsh Grand National was in 1895 at the Ely track in Cardiff, which remained its home until the course closed in 1939. The race was suspended throughout World War Two, resuming only in 1948, when the Caerleon Racecourse was selected as its new venue. However, financial difficulties were encountered, so Chepstow came forward as the race host a year later.
Since then, the venue has produced many memorable performances, not the least of which was the “three-peat” of trainer/jockey David Nicholson, who rode to successive victories in 1959, 1960 and 1961. Bonanza Boy, mounted by Peter Scudamore, is the only horse in recent history to win the Welsh National back-to-back. That occurred in 1988-89 as the launch of an incredible array of first-place finishes for trainer Martin Pipe, whose steeds took the prize three more times in 1991~93.
The latest double winner was trainer Paul Nichols with Silver Birch in 2004 and L’Adventure in 2005. The former horse went on to win the Grand National in 2007. It has come to be expected that the winners of the Welsh Grand National will always be strong contenders throughout the National Hunt, not just for a single season but often for many years forward.
Race Days at Chepstow
The left-handed oval track at Chepstow hosts a number of major jump racing events, including the Winter Afternoon Raceday in late November and the Winter Wonderland Raceday in early December, but none is more anticipated than Welsh National Day, shortly after Christmas. Supporting events that day include the Grade 1 Finale Junior Hurdle and the Grade 2 Championship Bumper.
The track presents a true test of both horse and rider in the Welsh Grand National. Some have referred to the terrain as a “bog,” owing to the soft winter ground. Along the course there is a mile-long straight, where five fences placed close together demand precision leaps. The last five furlongs present an undulating run, a final open ditch to cross, and an uphill dash to the finish. Great stamina is required to finish let alone win.
Spectators are treated to a parade of the runners in front of the grandstands just before the race begins. The field usually includes somewhat more than 20 entrants, and the pageantry is really something to behold.
Wagering and Free Bets
Because the Welsh Grand National takes place at the earliest stage of the season and in the middle of winter, it favours horses that are fresh and those that that like a lot of cut in the ground. And despite being a handicap, it tends to be a very open race, with the horses stretched out like long-distance marathon runners by the end. Odds can shift greatly depending on weather conditions right up to post time.
Winners at long odds are certainly not uncommon here. In 2008, Notre Pere rambled home ahead of all chasers at 16/1. In 2009, Dream Alliance claimed victory at stakes worth 20/1. The ante post betting odds can be highly attractive, allowing for shrewd hedge bets on race day.
Free bets offered by bookmakers are quite plentiful in the weeks leading up the Coral Welsh National. For example, in 2010 Irish bookmaker paddy Power advertised free bets of up to £100 for new account registered, while vc Bet countered with a £125 free-bet promotion and bet365 touted one worth up to £200. Other big bookmakers, such as boylesports, ladbrokes, william hill, and Totesport, put up free bets in the £10, £25, and £40 range, presenting a great opportunity to profit fright from the very start of the jump racing season.