Comment: Gigginstown will get little sympathy in Grand National weights row
Thursday 16 February 2017
One of the biggest certainties in racing is that year in, year out, someone is going to grumble about the weight allotted to their Grand National entry.
The difference this time is it is one of the biggest owners in the game, Gigginstown, who have thrown their toys out of the pram.
They are so unhappy with the calculations of Phil Smith, the handicapper, that they have described Don Poli, the ante-post favourite, as a doubtful runner. In addition, Eddie O’Leary, racing manager for his brother, Michael, has said “very, very few” of their 16 entries will run in the race.
Most owners would love the prospect of having one horse good enough to enter for the Grand National, let alone a battalion of 16, and there will be little sympathy for the O’Leary brothers in what amounts to a dispute over a half-tonne animal carrying a couple of extra bags of sugar here or there.
What a shame the late Ginger McCain is not around to air his views. The legend of Red Rum was built around him defying the handicapper’s attempts to anchor him, including when humping 12st to victory in 1974.
Don Poli has long appealed as tailor-made for Aintree - being a sound jumper with a touch of class who looks like he could gallop for forever. He also has the physique to carry big weights and, in ten of his 12 races over fences, has carried at least 11st 10lb - the maximum a horse can carry in the National these days.
Gordon Elliott’s charge was awarded a mark of 163 after winning the RSA Chase in 2015, when trained by Willie Mullins, and, two years later, after fluctuating between 161 and 167, he is back on that mark for Aintree after finishing a close third in the Irish Gold Cup on Sunday.
O’Leary’s main gripe is that, in recent years, Smith has compressed the weights to encourage connections of the very best horses to run.
For example, two years ago Many Clouds was allowed to run off a mark of 160 when his rating at the time the weights were announced was 165. In other words, Smith gave him a 5lb gift and the much-missed star made the most of it.
Twelve months before that, Tidal Bay received a handicap mark 7lb below his official rating and, in total, the first nine horses in the list of weights were favoured.
This year, Smith has been less generous and Gigginstown, who won the race last year with Rule The World, have been the chief sufferers because they have three of the top four in the weights in Outlander, Empire Of Dirt and Don Poli.
Smith did not have a standout horse to deal with this time and had a record 34 horses rated 150 or more to juggle. Never before has he had so many high-class individuals on his hands, so why favour one over another? For what it is worth, Don Poli is actually up to 165 after his latest effort, so he is theoreticallly 2lb well in.
The other unecessary complication is that Britain and Ireland operate with different handicap ratings. Why they cannot be drawn together to operate as one has always been a mystery.
This was highlighted at Cheltenham's Trials Day last month when Gordon Elliott, the trainer of Don Poli, entered 16 horses for the handicaps on the card. He ran only one, but it did give him a peak at what marks his horses would get come the Festival meeting in mid-March.
Much more concerning than the weights given to the Gigginstown horses, is Smith's treatment of Vieux Lion Rouge and Highland Lodge.
They were split by a short head in the Becher Chase at Aintree in December, with The Last Samuri and Ucello Conti on their heels.
In the aftermath, Vieux Lion Rouge was pushed up 4lb; Highland Lodge 3lb; The Last Samuri 2lb; and Ucello Conti 1lb.
Yet, without running again since, Vieux Lion Rouge has gone up another 3lb, while Highland Lodge, remarkably, is 8lb higher. The marks of The Last Samuri and Ucello Conti have stayed the same.
Watch the finish above and wonder how Smith has come to those conclusions.
Clearly, he wanted to allot marks to Vieux Lion Rouge and Highland Lodge that would guarantee them a place in the race. Had he not done so, Vieux Lion Rouge would be 57th on the list and Highland Lodge would be languishing 76th.
But is that fair? The pair might run at the expense of another horse who, unknown to him, might relish relish the demands of Aintree and, in case, horses who excel at the track on one occasion do not always do so another day. Saint Are and Alvarado fell early on in that Becher Chase, having been placed in the Grand National before.
Modifications to the fences and a £1 million purse have undoubtedly helped attract the cream to the National.
For the time being, though, things have turned a little sour.