Flawed handicap system remains a weighty issue
Handicapper Phil Smith continues to polarise the industry writes Ian McClean
You can't please all the people all the time is a phrase that could have been written with the horseracing handicapper in mind. Or put another way, the three most reliable rules in the world of employment is that coalminers get dirty, lawyers overcharge and handicappers are unpopular with trainers.
The latter is almost certainly going to be the case when it comes to framing the weights for the most famous steeplechase in the world, the Aintree Grand National -- especially with 112 entries to assess this year -- and last Tuesday's unveiling didn't disappoint. Or rather did, in some cases.
The most vocal was Mouse Morris who expressed himself "more than a bit baffled and very disappointed" at the 11-1 allotted to his former Gold Cup winner War Of Attrition. The Tipperary handler concluded: "You certainly couldn't describe his weight as a welcome-to-Aintree message. We've decided we're not going to go as we won't be going where we're not wanted and I don't know how he can justify that weight."
Morris wasn't the only Irish trainer disquieted by the weights with Willie Mullins declaring himself "astounded" at the 11-5 given to his Irish Invader which finished 11th to Mon Mome in last year's race on his last run but is now actually 3lbs worse off with the winner. Charlie Swan was yet another miffed by the handicapper's assessment of One Cool Cookie as 9lbs higher than his Irish mark. "I can't understand how he is that much higher in England," he said.
Of course this isn't the first time senior BHA handicapper Phil Smith has been criticised for his treatment of Irish horses and one wonders if this is simply a question of interpretation.
While handicapping can never be an exact science, since his advent to jumping Phil Smith seems to have attracted his fair share of unsolicited attention from the training fraternity, and not just in Ireland.
Indeed, he ruffled many feathers shortly after transferring from rating sprinters on the Flat at the start of 1999. Toby Balding, the then chairman of the National Trainers' Federation's jumps committee, said shortly after his appointment that Smith had "a totally new way of handicapping. Our real problem is that he's a relative new boy, and a mathematician who's handicapped nothing but Flat horses. I've been getting lots of messages from trainers who think they're hard done-by. It needs to be discussed."
Ten years on in 2009 and trainer Charlie Egerton is far from gruntled about the assessment given by Smith to Darkness in last November's Hennessy at Newbury accusing him of "massaging his ego" and overseeing a "farcical system" that overrates horses of average ability. "The trouble is we have civil servants doing the handicapping, not horsemen," Egerton fumed. "Phil Smith is massaging his ego rating these horses higher than they should be rated. I suppose it is more fun being a handicapper than it is being a schoolmaster."
So it appears that trainer ire is not limited to those with Irish passports. But whatever about the thorny subject of handicapping generally, the Aintree National is a conundrum all on its own. Handicapping by definition is a subjective art, but handicapping the Grand National has taken subjectivity to a whole new level -- especially since the (new) expressed objective of giving higher-rated horses a chance has resulted in the controversial weight-compression at the top of the list. Top-rated entry Albertas Run is officially on a mark of 163, yet will compete off a mark of 158 in April. Given that the original figure of 163 is by its nature a subjective rating, lopping another 5lbs off is lobbing further discretionary licence on an already subjective measure.
That's all fine if you're going to be consistent and knock five pounds off the higher rated horses down to a certain weight but in deciding to reduce Albertas down five, he now joins Madison Du Berlais and Notre Pere as joint top-weight -- neither of whom have been reduced from their official mark, making them effectively 5lbs worse off purely on the basis of a handicapper's whim.
This is the kernel of Mouse Morris' grievance, but War Of Attrition is by no means the only horse affected by this. If we look at the next six horses in the handicap with weights above 11-5, four have been weighted below their official mark, one is left unchanged and one has actually been rated above their current official handicap mark. Meanwhile, amongst all the complaining at too much weight, we have Gordon Elliot aggrieved that his former winner Silver Birch has been allotted too little with 10-5, as he might not make the cut.
The trouble with this apparent inconsistency is that I'm certain Phil Smith, if challenged, would be able to rationalise his decision in every case whilst, on the other side, each individual trainer will be equally adept at highlighting the injustice. As the adage puts it, there are three sides to every argument -- yours, mine and the truth. Perhaps Jim Dreaper demonstrated the most wisdom of all when asked for his reaction to the weight of Notre Pere. "It doesn't matter what we think about it, that's the weight they are going to carry. We'll put up with it."
Meanwhile, we have the Cheltenham handicap weights on the verge of announcement while I understand Phil Smith is currently engaged in a project attempting to put a mark of his own on Arkle, and Flyingbolt and Mill House, for that matter -- using contemporary data -- calling into question the exalted 212 rating accorded to jump racing's shining beacon. Bet that one will all go just as quietly.