Britain's senior handicapper has offered a robust defence of the Aintree Grand National weights he published on Tuesday after criticism by a leading Irish owner who threatened to withdraw his best horses from the race.
Phil Smith insisted his team at the British Horseracing Authority do "a hell of a job" in ensuring Irish horses, taken as a group, have the same chance as home-based runners in British jumps handicaps.
Smith was responding to frustration voiced by Eddie O’Leary, who manages the racing interests of his brother, Michael, the Ryanair chief executive, whose maroon colours were carried to victory in last year’s Grand National by Rule The World.
O'Leary complained Outlander, Empire Of Dirt and Don Poli had been rated 2lb higher in the National than would be justified by their ratings in Ireland, where they are trained and run most of their races.
Accusing British officials of isolationism on the subject, O’Leary said: “A handicapper is meant to be impartial. What I’d call the National now is a pre-Brexit, post-Brexit handicap. We’ll run very, very few in the race. Don Poli is doubtful while Outlander is ruled out. Empire Of Dirt won’t go.”
O'Leary added, in comments reported in the Irish Independent, that Rule The World was retired in part because of the additional weight he was expected to be given by the British handicapper.
Michael O’Leary has railed against Smith’s handicapping practices, saying in a 2010 interview: “The Irish horses are getting penalised going over there, because for five or six years we had a very good record in the National . . . I am never, ever going back to Aintree with a horse that is weighted too highly again.”
It might be said Rule The World’s success tends to belie such concern but Smith did not make that point. Instead, during a combative appearance on At The Races, he said Irish runners in British jumps handicaps have maintained a strike rate of 11 per cent over the last eight seasons, compared to 10 per cent for British-trained runners.
“Now, I’ve got no problem with it being higher,” Smith said.
“They’re not going to send horses over that are out of the handicap, are they, which have got less of a chance, so that’s going to cater for the 1 per cent. So actually my team do a hell of a job keeping that figure around 11 per cent in jumps handicaps over eight seasons and this is the ninth season and it’s still at 11 per cent . You couldn’t get more consistent handicapping than that.
"There are plenty of Irish horses that come over here and win. Do you think Irish horses have been short-changed at Cheltenham over the years?"
Smith repeatedly challenged his interviewer, Matt Chapman, to state his own position on the vexed subject of Anglo-Irish handicapping, and accused Chapman of fudging his responses.
“Well, I’m not the one murdering the Irish racing fan,” Chapman muttered. “No, I’m the one giving him an equal chance,” countered Smith.
Smith said that, properly understood, his National weights give an advantage to the five Irish horses at the top of the weights.
All five are rated higher in Britain than in Ireland but Smith has lopped 2lb off their official ratings for the purpose of the Aintree race in April under his longstanding policy of improving the chance of top weights in the National. The highest-weighted English horse, The Last Samuri, is also the highest-weighted horse who gets no benefit from Smith’s compression this year.
“I think the bookmakers have clearly twigged that, because I’ve got a funny feeling that Don Poli’s currently favourite in the race,” Smith said. “They’re pretty shrewd operators, I think.”
Don Poli heads the market at a best price of 18-1. Guardian Service