Donn's Articles » Open letter to BHA handicapper

14th February 2009

Dear Mr Smith

It can’t be easy, framing these Grand National weights with the whole of the racing world and a small piece of the wider world watching. There are so many variables, so much to consider, the compression of the weights at the top of the handicap, the Aintree factor, the Denman factor, the nationality of every horse …

But why all the tinkering? Why can’t every horse run off its official handicap rating? I read that it is a source of pride to you that 16 horses with a rating of 155 or more are included among the entries at this stage, twice last year’s number. It is almost certain that this dramatic increase in the number of class horses entered is down to the fact that you compress the weights at the top of the handicap, that you allow the class horses run off a handicap rating that is lower than their official mark. This has increased the overall quality of the race, and added to the sense of intrigue for the purists, no question.

But why the need to do it?

The 1999 Grand National winner Bobbyjo would not have made the cut for any of the last seven renewals. Do you think that is a good thing or a bad thing? Is it not the Bobbyjos of the world that this great race is all about?

The Grand National is a handicap, every horse has a handicap rating, so why not allow each horse run off it? Taken to its Nth degree, if you wanted to you could run it as a conditions race and have as many high class horses in it as you liked. There are 20 horses rated 155 or higher still in the Gold Cup.

Just because it has always been so doesn’t mean that it is correct. There are numerous elements that we accept as the norm in racing that, if taken outside our cosy, insulated realm make no sense, just as there are in other sports, as Jean-Marc Bosman discovered when he pressed on the boundaries of soccer’s accepted norms a little. How long do you think it will be before a high-weighted horse, racing off a compressed mark, wins the National? And how aggrieved do you think connections of the half-length runner-up will feel in that instance?

I know that you like to set a puzzle, that you like to tinker around with weights and measures and come up with a conundrum for all of us to solve, but is that really the handicapper’s job? Is it not the duty of the handicapper to allot a rating based on what a horse has actually achieved as opposed to what he thinks the horse has the potential to achieve?

Here’s another puzzle: Irish horses. The handicap hurdlers’ debate has been raging for years, literally, ever since Christy Roche decided not to allow No Where To Hyde take his chance in the 2006 totesport Trophy (“Why go where you are not welcome?”), but still it rumbles on. Deutschland is rated a stone higher in the UK than he is in Ireland, Quevega is 12lb higher, Psycho is 10lb higher, and still a satisfactory explanation is sought.

You could argue – and many have – that because Irish horses have won six of the last 10 renewals of the Grand National, they are well handicapped in the context of the race. But is it correct to handicap retrospectively? Is it right to say that, because tails came up in the toss of a coin, it was value at 4/6?

Whatever about private handicappers, who can factor in potential for improvement, surely the official handicapper can only handicap based on the evidence that he has in front of him at a given point in time. Any other method would surely be unfair. It is not the handicapper’s fault if one group of trainers is more adroit at targeting a specific handicap race than another.

You have allotted Hear The Echo a rating of 153 for the Grand National, some 8lb higher than his official mark, which is 13lb higher than the mark off which he won the Irish National last April. Why is that? Did you think his Irish National win deserved a 21lb hike? Did you think the Irish handicapper was that far out?

Why have you given Notre Pere a mark of 160, 2lb higher than his official mark? Does the compression of the weights at the top of the handicap not apply to Irish horses? All around Notre Pere in the handicap, his rivals have been shown varying degrees of leniency. Exotic Dancer has been allotted a mark of 166, 8lb lower than his official mark, Madison Du Berlais has been allotted 164, 5lb lower than his new official mark, Snoopy Loopy will race off a mark that is 4lb lower than his official mark should he take his chance, while Star De Mohaison will race off his official mark. Below Notre Pere, Nozic, Air Force One and Cloudy Lane are all 1lb lower, so why is Notre Pere higher?

Chelsea Harbour is 8lb higher than his official mark, Black Apalachi is 7lb higher. Is this the Aintree factor at play? What about Preists Leap, then, 7lb higher? And why is Cloudy Lane, sixth in last year’s National, three places and 25 lengths in front of Chelsea Harbour, 1lb lower?

The 32 Irish entries in the Grand National have been allotted ratings of an aggregate of 101lb higher than their official marks. That’s an average of over 3lb each, per horse, net.

Looking at it from this side of the water, it’s all fairly puzzling, don’t you think?

Yours etc

Donn McClean


Response from Phil Smith

19th February 2009

Dear Mr. McClean

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to the points you made in your recent letter. The first Grand National that I handicapped was in 1999. On that occasion I did exactly as you suggest I should do now, weighting all of the horses based on their official ratings. This resulted in only 31% of the entries being in the handicap and, on the day, just 32 runners, 8 short of the permitted field size. 18 of those were out of the handicap, including the winner who was a stone wrong, and the lowest rated horse in the race was a mere 110.

Shortly afterwards I met with Charles Barnett from Aintree and my bosses at the British Horseracing Board. We agreed with your maxim, “just because it has always been so doesn’t mean that it is correct” and we decided to try to change the complexion of a race that wasn’t achieving all we hoped it should do, considering its status plus the fact that it was worth £250,000 to the winner.

We agreed 4 targets: To improve the quality of the race; to ensure that there were no horses out of the handicap on the day; to get a full field of 40; and to restore the Aintree factor when setting the weights. For me, these were all mutually inclusive targets as, if I achieved one, the others would follow.

I was convinced then and still am of the need to take account of the Aintree factor, this being on the basis that horses would often replicate their form for a second run on the course. Also, with nearly all of the higher rated horses’ form being achieved at 3 miles, it didn’t make sense to ask them to give the same amount of weight away over an extra mile and a half. As a result, I compressed the ratings of the top horses, and we reduced the top weight carried in the race from 12st to 11st 12lbs in 2001, and to 11st 10lbs this year.

What have been the effects of this “tinkering”? We now have a full field of 40 every year. Last year the lowest rated horse was 137 and there has not been a horse out of the handicap since 2004. As the status of the race has grown, John Smith’s and Aintree have been encouraged to increase the prize fund to over £900,000.

Whilst the Irish National is also a wonderful race, it remains a fact that last year’s running had 23 runners, 9 of which, including the winner, were out of the handicap. The top weight, Beef Or Salmon, ran off a mark of 160 when at the time his rating was 163. Evidently “tinkering” occurs in Ireland as well. Interestingly, Beef Or Salmon would have been top weight in our Grand National had he run, off a rating of 159!

You ask how long before a highly weighted horse racing off a compressed mark wins at Aintree. I have no idea. That is the nature of puzzles but it hasn’t happened in the last 9 years and so maybe it is time that it did occur. The fact that such horses aren’t winning on a regular basis, however, suggests that the unique demands associated with the Grand National means that compressing the weights is not giving an undue advantage to the highest rated animals.

So why are Irish horses assessed differently in Britain than at home? We have two completely discrete systems which are administered in a different way. We do not have slippage in ratings in Britain and we apply our weight-for-age scale in the same way as the rest of the world. However, differently handicapped does not necessarily mean badly handicapped.

Look at Dancing Tornado, beaten less than 2 lengths in the Pierce Handicap off 124 in January and subsequently raised to 126 in Ireland. Then 3rd, beaten less than a length at Ascot, one month later off 138. Competitive on both sides of the Irish Sea yet on a 12lb higher figure in Britain. If we had put Dancing Tornado in off his Irish mark we would have had an 11 length winner at Ascot, not a driving finish with 5 horses finishing within half a second.

Incidentally, you are wrong on a number of your assumptions about the Grand National weights. I had Notre Pere on 161 before his run on Sunday. I now have him on 166 so just like all of the other horses around him in the weights, he was compressed by one pound to 160.

Hear The Echo was agreed on 149 in the Anglo-Irish Classifications but we now have a convention in Britain which enables us to take hurdle form into consideration when assessing chasers. In my opinion his hurdle run at Christmas was vastly superior to any of his hurdle runs in the past. Also I couldn’t have Notre Pere, who was 3rd to him at Fairyhouse when he gave him 7lbs, badly in with Hear The Echo at Aintree; so I had two reasons to move him to 153.

It is interesting in your letter that you make no mention of War of Attrition who is 7lbs lower in Britain than in Ireland and Snowy Morning, who is 1lb lower in Britain. As it happens, if I hadn’t used the Aintree factor for Snowy Morning and only assessed him on this year’s form, I could have had him on 134 in the Grand National and he wouldn’t have got a run.

I am rightly proud of my team’s record in assessing Irish horses over the last 10 years. They have had 6 Grand National winners out of 10, having not won before I took over since L’Escargot in 1975. In the last 4 years at the Cheltenham Festival, 14 Irish trained horses have won handicaps from 166 runners at a much higher percentage success rate (8.4% winners to runners) than British trained horses (25 winners from 722 runners at 3.5% winners to runners).

Amazingly, during the same period there has been just one British trained winner at the Punchestown Festival from 72 runners in Handicaps (1.4% winners to runners).

Looking at it from this side of the water, that is very puzzling, don’t you think?

Phil Smith

BHA Head of Handicapping


Response from Donn McClean

23rd February 2009

Dear Mr Smith

Thank you for your considered response. I have restricted my response to a couple of points, as follows:

1.On the issue of the compression of the weights in the Grand National, as stated in my original letter, there is no doubt that this has increased the quality of the race. You say that this has been your target, so fair play on achieving it. Genuinely. However, my musings on this issue centred on the objective, not on the methodology. If you allow high class horses race in a valuable handicap off a mark that is lower than their official mark, of course you are going to make it more attractive for them to run. Why compress the top weight by just 8lb? Why not 14lb? Why not 20lb? As I mentioned, if you made the race a conditions race instead of a handicap, you would attract even more. That might seem to be a bit extreme, but why not? Because the Grand National would lose its soul if you did, its Bobbyjos and its Numbersixvalverdes and its Amberleigh Houses, that’s why not.

2.A quick question on Hear The Echo, and the convention in Britain which allows you to take hurdles form into account when assessing chasers. (We do not have such a convention in Ireland.) Hear The Echo’s rating of 149, 4lb higher than his Irish mark, was agreed at the Anglo-Irish Classifications, as you say. His run over hurdles at Christmas was, you say in your opinion, vastly superior to all of his runs over hurdles in the past. I agree. It was. However, it wasn’t superior to all of his runs over fences. Taking Racing Post Ratings as an objective analysis of performance, he earned an RPR of 131 for that run over hurdles, which is inferior to four of his runs over fences, and a massive 26lb inferior to his run in the Irish Grand National last April, on which I assume his rating of 149 in the Anglo-Irish Classifications was based. His previous run over hurdles was in 2006 when he was five. It is hardly surprising that he would show improved form over hurdles now, given how much he has improved over fences – a factor that was, I assume, taken into account when arriving at his new rating over fences. So it was because of this run over hurdles, a run that was 26lb short of his Irish Grand National performance on RPRs, that you raised his mark by another 4lb from his Anglo-Irish Classifications mark to a mark of 153? That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

3.You say that you couldn’t have had Notre Pere badly in with Hear The Echo on their Irish National running. I don’t see why not. Notre Pere has shown dramatically improved form over fences this season, Hear The Echo hasn’t yet. By the same token, could you not have Nacarat badly in with Private Be should they meet again, given that Private Be beat him by nine lengths at Exeter off level weights when they last met in December?

4.You say that I didn’t mention War Of Attrition, I think just 6lb lower (not 7lb) in Britain than he is in Ireland, or Snowy Morning, 1lb lower, and you are correct. Guilty. However, nor did I mention L’Ami (4lb higher), One Cool Cookie (4lb higher), Tumbling Dice (5lb higher), Irish Invader (4lb higher), nor any of the others. Of the 32 Irish entries, only six have been allotted a lower rating than their official Irish mark, and of those six, five of them are just 1lb or 2lb lower. You say that “differently handicapped does not necessarily mean badly handicapped.” A net aggregate of 101lb of a differential perhaps suggests otherwise.

5.You single out Dancing Tornado, who ran so well in the handicap hurdle at Ascot earlier this month, among the Irish handicap hurdlers for a mention. I am sure that he wouldn’t have won by 11 lengths at Ascot if he had run off his Irish mark, given that none of his four wins to date have been achieved by more than two lengths. He is one of those horses who is difficult for handicappers to rate, he is progressing again this year and he probably improved again for the step up to two and a half miles. However, as mentioned in my original letter, I am not convinced of the merit of evaluating the accuracy of a handicap mark retrospectively. We may differ on this, but I firmly believe that an official handicapper should handicap based on what a horse has achieved, not on what he thinks the horse can potentially achieve. A measure of how well handicapped Dancing Tornado appeared to be before that Ascot race lies in the fact that he was allowed go off an unconsidered 20/1 shot, 11th best in a field of 14. The last Irish-trained winner of a two-mile handicap hurdle in the UK was Coolnaharan at Wetherby last October. The last Irish-trained winner of a two-and-a-half-mile handicap hurdle in the UK was Buachaill On Eirne in a conditional jockeys’ handicap hurdle at Perth last July. Since October, there have been over 80 Irish-trained runners in handicap hurdles in the UK, and no winners.

6.I could be wrong, but I would venture that the fact that Irish-trained horses have won six of the last 10 Grand Nationals, having not won one since L’Escargot’s heroics in 1975, is more to do with an overall increase in the quality of Irish-trained horses than it has to do with any change in the handicap system. Since 1996, Irish horses have also won seven Champion Hurdles, four Gold Cups, four Champion Chases, and four Derbies for good measure.

7.You say that, in the last four years, Irish-trained horses have won 14 handicaps at the Cheltenham Festival in the last four years. That represents a strike rate of over 31%, which is impressive, given that Irish-trained horses accounted for a mere 23% of the entries during that period. However, that does not tell the true story. The cross-country chase – a race in which, I am sure you will agree, course nous counts for an awful lot more than handicap mark or even weight carried, and in which Irish horses have historically excelled – accounted for four of those 14 wins. Take the cross-country race out of the equation and the strike rate is only 25% from just over 22% of the entries. Not so impressive.

8.You say that I am wrong in a number of my assumptions about the Grand National weights. You point out that you had Notre Pere on a mark of 161 at the time of the publication of the Grand National weights, before he ran in the Hennessy at Leopardstown, and that his Grand National rating of 160 is 1lb lower than that. However, the fact remains that this mark is 2lb higher than his official rating at the time, his official rating being his published rating in Ireland. That is a fact – I don’t see how it is wrong nor how it is an assumption.

9.Final point. A major difficulty in all of this is the lack of clarity. Irish trainers don’t know what rating they will get in the UK until they enter a horse in a handicap there. (Who else knew that you had Notre Pere on a mark of 161, for example?) At its base level, it doesn’t make sense that Irish horses compete against each other on different terms when they meet in the UK compared to when they meet in Ireland. I appreciate, as you say, that we have “discrete systems which are administered in a different way”, but surely some formula can be found to take this into account. We have the Anglo-Irish Classifications now, and agreement at least on horses rated 140 or higher. Surely this can be extended, and a formula arrived at to encompass horses rated lower than 140. (Something along the lines of a 130-139 horse trained in Ireland is rated 1lb higher in Britain than in Ireland, a 120-129 horse is rated 2lb higher, and so on.) British horses currently compete off their British marks when they race in Ireland. If such a formula was found, it could work in reverse when horses travel west. Surely that would be in the interests of British-based trainers as well.

Yours etc

Donn McClean


Response from Phil Smith

24th February 2009


We seem to be going round in circles and we could go back and forth on your latest examples. The fact of the matter is that we have two entirely discrete systems and we therefore produce our own ratings for Irish horses.

We are happy with Irish success rates.  Even discounting the Cross Country race, the Irish-trained winners to runners % is much higher than for British-trained horses at Cheltenham. It also remains far higher than that for British trained horses running in handicaps at Punchestown, yet I don’t see you, or anybody this side of the Irish Sea for that matter, telling the Irish Handicapper that he’s wrong.

I appreciate that you would like to see even more Irish-trained winners at the Festival but we are entirely satisfied that our system is fair and have no intention of altering a perfectly equitable system.

Phil Smith

BHA Head of Handicapping

© The Irish Field, 28th February 2009