Saturday 23 September 2017

Maverick Smith meets match as O'Leary's stars all skip Grand National

Michael O’Leary is prepared to back up his words with meaningful actions. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile
Michael O’Leary is prepared to back up his words with meaningful actions. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile

Johnny Ward

When the brewer John Smith's sponsored the race, somebody took a stance on the man who puts the weights together and wryly wondered would the name be changed to 'Phil Smith's Grand National'.

In Ireland, the two senior handicappers, Noel O'Brien (jumps) and Garry O'Gorman (Flat), are keen racegoers and feel it beneficial to meet the masses.

That said, they certainly do not court publicity, which hardly seems what a handicapper should be aspiring to.

So when Smith made what Michael O'Leary derided as one of "his frequent PR appearances" on TV last week, it's hard to know whether to laud or criticise him - and this is before he opens his mouth.

Smith gives the impression that nothing could rattle him, and Matt Chapman had the cage shaking like a weathered washing machine.

Chapman was an at-times brilliant interrogator and goaded Smith in a manner that makes good television.

However, at other times, he got horses mixed up and made points so dubious as to tilt the balance back in Smith's favour.

Smith on occasion made pragmatic enough cases for his handicapping of Irish horses, which has been the subject of contention for many years now. It reached a zenith in the controversy stakes this week when Gigginstown said it was withdrawing its main players from the National.

Bizarre

Smith could find an argument in a portaloo and his manner is far from endearing. He could get away with that if he were not apt to make bizarre points to back up what effectively is his opinion on the ratings of horses.

At one stage, he defended Noel O'Brien, while saying the Irish ratings were of no relevance to him - pretty contradictory.

The example of Rashaan (15lb higher in Britain) was mentioned, which the Scouser without any sense of irony part-justified by the horse subsequently winning on the all-weather.

He attempted to defend Don Poli's mark by his being favourite for the race, which is ludicrous, prompting the Ryanair boss to respond in only the way he can: "So that's how you run your handicapping system, based on what some ante-post spivs think?"

In 2010, O'Leary said: "I don't have any time for Phil Smith and all the bloody excuses he comes out with every year. . . I am never ever going back to Aintree with a horse weighted too highly again."

As a result, Outlander, Don Poli or Empire Of Dirt will not run there even though the rating discrepancies are relatively trivial - Eddie O'Leary has confirmed all three will be taken out at the next stage.

Ultimately, the problem with the National is Smith's discretion to do what he wants: that will never be anything other than troubling.

One can argue O'Leary is over the top but his basic point that Smith makes it up as he goes along is essentially correct.

He consistently punishes horses trained by Gordon Elliott, which is statistically proven, while his defence of putting would-be Kim Muir hope The Crafty Butcher on a lower British rating was far from convincing. He says that a notion of anti-Irish bias is nonsense, but then he completely ignores our handicapping system.

Cue Card, superb on Saturday, has no worries about Smith. Yanworth's performance in winning was more than satisfactory, considering his little hiccup going into the race. He can take Champion Hurdle beating.

Nearer to home, the fact that only 6,000 will be able to attend the Irish Derby this year means that the under-renovation Curragh is clearly not fit to stage it. Questions must be asked as to whether a change to Leopardstown is possible, however unlikely. There were 25,255 at the 2015 renewal.

RIDE OF THE WEEK

Donegal's Oisin Orr gave the quirky Sheisdiesel a confident steer in the three-year-olds' handicap at Dundalk, the 4/1 chance winning by three parts of a length. A really promising jockey.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"This means a lot and we threw everything we had at the race. My son Conor was great friends with Ronan and he's done most of the work with this horse."

- Pat Fahy after winning Saturday's Gowran bumper, which honoured young Ronan Lawlor, so tragically killed in the Fahy yard some years ago.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

If Michael O'Leary would just stop running all his horses on their merits he wouldn't have an issue with the handicapper

- Vincent Finnegan (@weakintheknees) of Irishracing.com on the weights debate.

GAMBLE OF THE WEEK

The Denis Ahern-trained Goodthynemilan was backed overnight at 25/1 and sent off 7/1 at Clonmel in the amateur riders' handicap hurdle, rewarding each-way players by finishing fourth on Thursday.

Upping the ante

Thenewest race of the Cheltenham festival is the Dawn Run Mares' Novice Hurdle, which last year was won by Limini, having been put forward as one of the bankers of the Festival at the many preview nights.

Willie Mullins has won every renewal of the senior mares' race since its first edition. He is expected to win that again and he should take the novice contest - he has four of the first five in the ante-post betting - too.

Airlie Beach is a standout 5/2 with BoyleSports and that is a really solid wager.

Let's Dance is second-favourite but the suspicion lingers that she will be switched to another race.

Airlie Beach has won all seven races in which she ran and, considering that and her performance in the Royal Bond when last seen, she has remained below the radar in a sense.

It was not a vintage Royal Bond but her performance against the geldings that day was exceptional.

She can jump left so Cheltenham will suit, she will relish the hill and Ruby Walsh can probably dictate the pace. What can possibly go wrong?

BET: Airlie Beach in Mares' Novice Hurdle, 3pts win 5/2

Irish Independent

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