Things We Learned » National weights

National weights

Grand National weights, here we go again. We know, we know, the handicapper compresses the weights at the top of the handicap in order to encourage the classier horses to take their chance in the race. And there is no doubt that it has had an effect, that high-class horses have been attracted to run in the race in recent times.

We have been here many times before. Every year the reasons for compressing the weights get an airing, and every year they fail to convince. We heard them again on Tuesday at the announcing-of-the-weights lunch, specifically in relation to the fact that Tidal Bay will race in the Grand National off a weight that is 7lb lower than his official mark. We heard that these handicap marks were based on horses’ three-mile form and that the Grand National, run over four miles and three and a half furlongs, is a different task.

But wasn’t Tidal Bay’s mark achieved after his run over three miles and five furlongs on heavy ground in the Welsh National? Interestingly, the winning time for that race was 7mins 54.9secs. The winning time for last year’s Grand National was 9mins 12secs. So it’s a 16% difference, similar to the difference between a two-mile-four-and-a-half-furlong chase and a three-mile chase.

And isn’t a horse’s handicap mark a horse’s handicap mark? If a horse achieves a rating over two miles, doesn’t he race off that rating in a three-mile chase? And if the National has a specific handicap because of the distance of the race, why don’t the Scottish National or the Midlands National or the Eider Chase have specific handicaps as well?

We also heard the one about, if Tidal Bay raced off his correct weight of 168, he would have to run to a mark of about 176 if he was going to win the race, and there is no evidence to suggest that he can run to a mark of 176. But isn’t that the case with whatever horse wins the race? Won’t the winner have to run to a mark that is higher than the mark off which he or she raced? Isn’t that what a handicap is all about, out-performing your handicap mark?

Lion Na Bearnai, for example, was given a mark of 147, 7lb higher than his Irish mark despite the fact that, on the only two occasions on which he raced in England, off marks of 148 and 147 respectively, he was pulled up. He won the Irish National off a mark of 135. Using the Tidal Bay rationale, if he is to win the Grand National, he is going to have to run to a mark of 155, and there is no evidence to suggest that he can.

It’s not Tidal Bay’s fault. He is just the beneficiary. Tidal Bay is a phenomenon who has been rejuvenated and expertly campaigned by Paul Nicholls. How could you not be a fan of a 13-year-old who still has the ability to finish second in a Grade 1 chase? You would love to see him win the National for a whole host of reasons.

Even so, in the interest of fairness, he should be racing off a mark of 168, not 161.

Qualified success

While we are on the subject of the Grand National, it may be that the qualification requirements need to be examined now.

In order to be allowed run in the Aintree Grand National, a horse must have finished in the first four in a three-mile chase before 17th March. That means that, bizarrely, neither Boston Bob nor Bog Warrior are qualified. Others who are as yet ineligible for the race include Tranquil Sea, Renard, Toner D’Oudairies, Cantlow and Quantitativeeasing. Yet Walkon is.

Alan King’s horse qualified for the National just last Saturday, because he finished fourth in the Denman Chase. He fulfilled the criteria. The fact that he finished fourth of five runners, fourth of four finishers, doesn’t matter. Nor does the fact that he finished 37 lengths behind the second last horse, and 86 lengths behind the winner. Also, four of the 18 fences were omitted.

Fair play to Walkon and Alan King, the criteria are there and they have now fulfilled them. But Walkon recorded an RPR of 74 on Saturday, the lowest RPR of his life by some way when he has completed, significantly lower even than the RPR that he recorded when he finished 11th of 15 in the 2011 Totesport Trophy. Yet it is Saturday’s performance that has qualified him for the richest steeplechase in the world. Something is not right with the system.

Contrast that with Boston Bob, for example. Willie Mullins’ horse might have won the RSA Chase last March had he not fallen at the final fence, and he definitely would have finished in the first three. He finished second in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle in 2012 over three miles, and he won the Grade 1 Dr PJ Moriarty Chase last year over two miles and five furlongs, a trip that was shorter than ideal for him. Yet he is not qualified to run in the National as things stand.

Bog Warrior has won a Grade 1 chase over two and a half miles and a Grade 2 hurdle over three miles, and he would probably have gone close to winning the World Hurdle last March had injury not intervened. Yet he is not qualified to run in the Grand National.

System working, send more money.

Handicap pointers

There were several horses to take out of Saturday’s Betfair Hurdle. Cheltenian is fairly obvious. He travelled really well through the race and he arrived at the second last flight in the front rank, but he just didn’t get home, which was entirely forgiveable given that it was just his second run of the season. He could progress again for this run, just his fourth over hurdles.

The only horse who was travelling as well as Cheltenian at the second last flight was Irish Saint. He looked the most likely winner at that point, but he couldn’t find the injection of pace that would have taken him past Splash Of Ginge and Dell’Arca.

It may be significant that the best run of Irish Saint’s life was his previous one at Ascot, when he stepped up to two and a half miles for the first time. He shaped on Saturday as if he would appreciate a return to the longer trip.

He was 7lb well-in in Saturday’s race, the handicapper had raised him 12lb for his Ascot win, but he was racing under just a 5lb penalty on Saturday. The general feeling afterwards was that he might struggle now, back up to his 12lb higher mark, but there is every chance that the handicapper would have raised him by 6lb or 7lb for Saturday’s run anyway. Actually, he dropped his new mark by 1lb for Saturday’s run, which is effectively the same as raising him 6lb from the mark off which he raced on Saturday, and that is fair. The winner was raised 8lb for Saturday’s performance, the runner-up was raised 5lb.

Irish Saint is only five, he still has scope to progress, and he will be interesting now stepped back up to two and a half miles, perhaps for the Coral Cup.

The Coral Cup could also be the race for Vendor, the other horse to take out of the Betfair Hurdle. Alan King’s horse was stone last for most of the way, which was a significant disadvantage in a race that was run to suit those who raced handily. The winner was never out of the first two, while the first six horses home all raced handily, so he probably did well to run on as well as he did to finish eighth.

The handicapper has left him on his mark of 138 for this, which is fair. He could also appreciate a step back up in trip. The best run of his life was his last won before Saturday’s race, when he won a two-and-a-half-mile handicap hurdle at Newbury in November. So it was not surprising to hear Alan King talking about the Coral Cup as opposed to the County Hurdle as his possible Cheltenham target. Interestingly, King sent out the 1-2 in the Coral Cup last year.

Vautour sectionals

So did Vautour do it the hard way in leading from trap to line in the Deloitte Hurdle, or did he merely exploit a soft lead under a well-judged ride?

Here is the story of the race. Vautour was faster than the mares’ hurdle winner Lughnasa between every flight of hurdles from the first to the fifth, but only marginally so. He was slower to the sixth, seventh and eighth (the second last) as his rider stacked the field up behind him, and then he kicked. He was almost one and a half seconds faster between the second last and last than Lughnasa was, and he was over a second faster from the last to the winning line.

Comparisons with the sectionals for the two two-mile hurdles run on the day also make for interesting reading. They went really fast through the early stages in the juveniles’ race (they set the fastest early fractions by far), and they went relatively slowly through the early stages in the handicap. Even so, Vautour’s split from the third last to the second last flight was the slowest of the four winners, while his split from the second last to the last, and from the last to the winning line, were the fastest of the four. And remember that he was racing over two furlongs further than two of the other three winners.

Conclusion? Willie Mullins’ horse did have to gallop all the way to the line, and there was no point at which you thought that the highly-talented The Tullow Tank was going to catch him. He is obviously a high-class horse himself, and he may have won anyway however he was ridden, but he was also the beneficiary of another well-judged ride from Ruby Walsh.

Time to measure

Speaking of times, race times at Leopardstown were again an issue on Sunday. The problem at Christmas appeared to be with the two-mile-one-furlong and two-mile-three-furlong chases, but the problem on Sunday seemed to be with all the hurdle races.

The overall times on the hurdles track were significantly faster than they should have been relative to standard times on the prevailing ground, and they were far faster than the chases. Unless the ground on the hurdles track was good and the ground on the chase track was heavy, it’s time to get the measuring stick out.

© The Irish Field, 15th February 2014