The British Horseracing Authority’s chief handicapper Phil Smith has launched a robust defence of the weights he has allotted to Irish-trained horses in the Randox Health Grand National after Gigginstown House Stud racing manager Eddie O’Leary questioned the handicap ratings assigned to a number of the organisation’s entries.
Trainer Gordon Elliott was quick to rule the Gigginstown-owned top weight Outlander out of the race when the weights were revealed at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum on Tuesday night.
Stablemate Don Poli, who carries the same maroon and white silks, is disputing favouritism for the race with The Last Samurai, one of 16 entries in the race for the owners.
Formerly trained by Willie Mullins, Don Poli has been placed in Grade One company on his most recent starts, finishing third in the Stan James Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown on Sunday.
O’Leary claimed Don Poli was now doubtful for the race, telling the Irish Independent: “We'll run very, very few in the race. Don Poli is doubtful, while Outlander is ruled out.”
Gigginstown won the world’s most famous steeplechase last season with Rule The World.
O’Leary insisted that “fear of having a big weight” prevented a repeat bid, despite the horse’s history of pelvic injuries being cited as a major factor in the decision to retire him last seasons.
Don Poli’s actual rating for the National is 163 - an average of his Irish mark of 161 and his British mark of 165.
With several runners every year for the race campaigned in hurdles races and/or over inadequate trips in the run-up to the race, the BHA has afforded Smith discretion in how allocates the weights.
However, Smith was keen to address the issue when interviewed on At The Races earlier, saying: “First of all, Rule The World - he [Eddie O'Leary] wouldn't know what I gave him because he's retired and wasn't entered in the race this year, so that's a little bit of speculation.
"I've got a funny feeling Don Poli is currently favourite in the race - they've twigged he is 2lb lower and not 2lb higher and they are pretty shrewd operators, I think" - Phil Smith
"But let's go with Don Poli and all those other horses at the top - they're actually 2lb lower than I had them, not 2lb higher and that's the first piece of misinformation.
“Let's take Don Poli, he was rated 165 in last year's end-of-season Anglo-Irish jumps classification. That was agreed by both myself and Noel [O'Brien, senior Irish National Hunt handicapper].
"Since then, Don Poli has finished second in the Lexus and third in the Irish Gold Cup, so I still have him on 165. For running two cracking races in Grade Ones, I still have him on 165. I've compressed him by 2lb, as I have all the other top three or four horses.
"It is all built around Don Poli being 165, it's straightforward, not difficult at all.
"All of those top horses have been compressed by 2lb. I think the bookmakers have clearly twigged that, because I've got a funny feeling Don Poli is currently favourite in the race - they've twigged he is 2lb lower and not 2lb higher and they are pretty shrewd operators, I think.
"We keep our own Irish ratings, the question is should we? From our handicapping point of view, we spend around an extra 18 hours a week, that's about three hours a week for each of our six jumps handicappers - that we don't have to do - to keep separate Irish ratings. We do it because we want our handicaps to be as competitive as possible.
"It's the same with all ratings organisations - are Timeform's exactly the same as ours? Of course they're not. You often get different interpretations of races, that's just the way of the world.
"Ours are different from Ireland, it doesn't mean they are right or they are wrong. The most important thing is to be consistent with yourself.
"We have to merge two entirely different cohorts into one large handicap. Of course, we can take the lazy way out and say 'let's put them in off their Irish rating', and years and years and years ago we used to do that, with amazingly successful results for Irish trainers, and so English trainers said to us 'we think you should keep your own Irish ratings'.
"The thinking behind that is we will be treating those horses and handicapping those horses the same way as we do with the English. That's an explanation as to why we do it."