independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Weighty dilemma can't halt National revival

His methods are a tad unconventional but handicapper has put new life in ailing race, writes Ian McClean

Trainer reaction to the weights was interesting. Paul Nicholls cancelled all other engagements for Tidal Bay

You couldn't make it up. The handicapper shows remorseless favouritism to one horse at the unveiling of the weights for the world's most famous steeplechase. The trainer chooses to sidestep all Cheltenham engagements to capitalise on this magnanimity. The horse gets tipped up by Pricewise. The weight of market support forces his price from 25/1 into 14/1 favourite.

Then, 24 hours later, Tidal Bay is discovered to have a stress fracture, ruling him out for the rest of the season.

Fact is often stranger than fiction, but you have to wonder if handicapper Phil Smith was taking his guidance from George Orwell's Animal Farm and its mantra 'all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others' in his treatment of Tidal Bay at the unveiling of the Grand National weights last Tuesday at the Savoy.

The bare-faced inequity of allocating a horse with an official rating of 171 a random, one-time National assessment of 162 is all in the service of the race, apparently, and in recent years it has proven a successful tonic in the rehabilitation of an ailing institution. Towards the end of the 1990s the Grand National wasn't hitting its numbers, it wasn't attracting many high-calibre runners and it frequently had a lopsided look, with many runners competing from well out of the handicap.

In 1998, for example, Earth Summit defeated Suny Bay, which was trying to defy a tanker-anchor 12 stone in heavy ground. As a result, just eight of the 37 runners were in the handicap. Most of the field were a stone or more wrong, while the two most disadvantaged were 30lbs and 32lbs out respectively. The following year Bobbyjo won from a stone wrong and, disturbingly, there were just 32 runners.

It was at that point Smith was given a brief to re-engineer things so that the race would return to maximum and horses would run off their correct mark. It is to the handicapper's credit that he has reversed the rot. He has been assisted in no small way by the dramatic increase in value of the race in recent years. Back in 1990 both the Grand National and Gold Cup were worth the same – £70,000. Today the Gold Cup's prize-fund is £500,000 while the National is almost double that at £975,000.

The handicapper's chief device employed to restore the National has been the compression of the top weights. No longer do horses lumber 12 stone over four-and-a-half miles. Top weight was first reduced to 11-12, and now it is 11-10.

His other mechanic was to offer a carrot to high-class horses to incentivise them to run. So that, in addition to a reduction in the upper weight limit, the horse's actual rating would be softened as a one-off, one-race-only deal. In 2010, top-weight Albertas Run – officially rated 163 – was given a Grand National rating of 158. Last year the ill-fated top-weight Synchronised was officially seven pounds well-in. And so this year Tidal Bay is randomly revealed last Tuesday to be handed a rating of 162 for the National. The rationale for why one horse should be unilaterally gifted a nine-pound reduction was flimsy to non-existent.

Smith is not afraid to depart from convention to arrange things in a manner that strikes him as fairest. Only last month he supervised the downgrading of several Flat champions of years past, having concluded that the statistical base had changed.

Trainer reaction to the weights was interesting. Paul Nicholls instantly cancelled all other engagements for Tidal Bay, a horse which has the beating of the Gold Cup favourite and second favourite strictly on this year's form, realising this was a one-off Charlie Bucket golden ticket to Wonka's chocolate factory for his 12-year-old. Ted Walsh, who has two live chances in the National in Seabass and Colbert Station, with ratings that have seen no such leniency, was described by one reporter at the weights luncheon as "bemused". Now I have seen Ted Walsh as many things over the years, but never could I describe him anywhere he has an opinion as "bemused". I can only assume this was a euphemism on behalf of the reporter.

Even David Pipe's response when quizzed about his satisfaction at the weight of The Package had an edge to it. "He's worse off with some of those at the top of the handicap and that's going to make it harder, but that's what the handicapper does in the National, compressing the weights, and I'm not going to change it."

Allowing that the state of the Grand National has improved dramatically in recent years, and needed to for the sake of the race, what extremity of measure is reasonable to ensure that this is so?

I refer to an extract from the BHA's 'A Guide to Handicapping': 7. To favour the majority at the expense of the minority. If one horse is rated too highly, then that one horse may not have an equal chance of success on its next start. If one horse is rated too low, however, then every horse it races against may not have an equal chance of success on their next start.'

I'm looking forward to the detail of the appendix that explains the "highest rating minus 9 formula" for the Grand National in more detail.

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