Michael O’Leary pulls top trio from Grand National as row deepens

Ryanair boss cites ‘horse welfare’ among reasons for withdrawing Don Poli, Outlander and Empire of Dirt

Michael O'Leary has confirmed his trio of top-rated Grand National contenders – the ante-post favourite, Don Poli, the topweight Outlander and Empire Of Dirt – will not run at Aintree in April and the Ryanair boss has cited "horse welfare" among his reasons for the decision.

In an escalating row over the weight allocated by British racing's senior handicapper to horses owned by Ireland's champion owner, O'Leary has added to initial comments accusing Phil Smith of making up the rules and dismissing his rationale for the Grand National ratings as "utter drivel".

Outlander was given topweight of 11st 10lb by Smith, the British Horseracing Authority head of handicapping, when the National weights were announced on Tuesday. Empire Of Dirt (11st 8lb) was third in the ratings and Don Poli was fourth on 11st 7lb.

All three horses were rated higher by the BHA than their official Turf Club marks. The top five rated horses for the world's most famous steeplechase are trained in Ireland.


On Friday O’Leary said there appeared to have been a policy to compress the National weights to encourage better horses to run in the race but that Smith’s figures for this year’s race appeared to do the opposite by raising the weights of the top-rated entries.

He then queried if that was a new policy and if such a new policy was “driven by the fact that the top five rated horses are Irish trained.”

The controversial businessman said that if such a policy was in place then owners should be advised of such so that time and money is not wasted entering these better horses in future.

O’Leary also brought the issue of animal welfare into the argument and referred to the death of his horse Hear The Echo in the 2009 Aintree National in a letter sent to a number of media organisations.

“We have no difficulty entering and running better horses in the Grand National. However this is a four mile and two furlong race where excessive weight is potentially damaging to the welfare of the better horses.

“I will never forget the fate of Hear The Echo whose National weight was considerably higher than his official Irish mark, and who collapsed and died in full view of the stands after completing four miles, one furlong carrying his excessive weight in the 2009 Grand National.

“Horses which are campaigned honestly and openly (as Don Poli has) should not be asked to carry additional/excessive weight in a four mile, two furlong handicap with possibly damaging consequences to their welfare, just because the handicapper wishes to penalise high class Irish entries,” he wrote.

O’Leary ended his letter: “In the interest of both transparency and horse welfare, Outlander, Empire Of Dirt and Don Poli, all of whom have been marked up (not compressed) by Mr Smith, will not run in this year’s Grand National under these raised weights.

“Might we respectfully ask that before the weights close for the 2018 race, Mr Smith explains whether he is going to compress the weights of the top ranked horses or again artificially increase them just for the better class Irish entries.”

The BHA handicapper has discretion in framing the Grand National weights but the treatment of Irish-trained horses in other handicaps has caused controversy this season too, most notably when Rashaan was ruled out of the Betfair Hurdle after being rated 15lbs higher in Britain than in Ireland.

Significantly the BHA does its own ratings of Irish-based horses rather than automatically using the Turf Club’s.

All of it has led to calls for greater unanimity between countries, something the Turf Club’s senior handicapper, Noel O’Brien, agrees with, although he also described each jurisdiction’s entitlement to impose different ratings as “a valuable tool” worth preserving.

“Just as the British handicapper has total say on what ratings apply there, I have the same in Ireland, which is the way it should be,” the highly respected O’Brien said.

“For instance, I interpreted the Irish Gold Cup one way; Phil Smith looked at it a little differently. It’s differing opinions. But at the end of the day each senior handicapper in each country decides what they want to do.

“In future I think it would be good to have more collaboration, and the Anglo-Irish classification gives us a valuable framework for that. But the discretion to change things in each country will always be a valuable tool.

“It would be unusual for me to give a significantly higher mark to an English horse coming here but I can do it. The difference is a lot more Irish horses run in handicaps in England than vice-versa.

“Inevitably it’s the more high-profile handicaps that attract attention rather than the Perths and Ludlows of this world.

“But if you look at recent big handicaps like at Ascot (Wessex Hurdle) and at Newbury (Betfair Hurdle) you have Irish horses running off slightly higher marks and running perfectly respectable races,” he added.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column