Donn's Articles » Grand National weights

Grand National weights

Things were a lot simpler in 1977, when Tommy Stack and Red Rum and a couple of loose horses had the run-in to themselves and I jumped around the sitting room asking my dad how much I had won. I’m sure the Grand National was a handicap then, I’m sure that horses carried different weights, but damned if I knew that they did or why they did. Red Rum always won or nearly won the Grand National, he deserved to win it, he won it, and I got my new football boots.

Thirty-three years later, not so simple. There is no avoiding the fact that it is a handicap (I can spell handicap now and it says so in the race title), the horses carry different weights which are, in theory, commensurate with their respective abilities, and we all spend weeks trying to figure out what’s going to win it.

The allotted weights are set in stone now, there is nothing we can do about them, but there are still a number of things that don’t quite stack up in arriving at the final weights, which were revealed with much rírá and ruaille buaille at an all-singing all-dancing lunch in London on Tuesday. For starters, I am still not sure about this compression of the weights business at the top of the handicap. They say that the objective of this exercise is to encourage the classier horses into running in the race, and in that regard it has worked. But how can that be fair? The Grand National is either a handicap or it isn’t. If your sole objective is to make it a classier race, why not be done with it and make it a conditions race? It is nearing limited handicap status anyway, with the top weight set at 11st 10lb and the bottom weight apparently set to come in at 10st 6lb or 10st 7lb this year.

The whole handicapping system is based on the fact that horses are allotted a numerical rating, which is supposed to be a reflection of their proven ability. How can you then decide to allow some horses race off lower marks in one particular race while others have to race off their allotted marks?

The argument is that the distance of the race is so extreme, it is unfair to ask horses to carry big weights. Highweights simply don’t win the Grand National, look at the record book. (It’s still Corbiere in 1983.) That’s true. But why, then, are the weights for the Midlands National (four and a quarter miles) or the Scottish National (four miles and half a furlong) or the Eider Chase for that matter (four miles and one furlong) not adjusted as well?

The British authorities have taken steps to ensure that no horse has to try emulate Red Rum in carrying 12st to victory these days, reducing the top weight’s burden to 11st 12lb in 2001 and to 11st 10lb last year, which makes sense, but you can see where Mouse Morris and other trainers are coming from in dispatches during the week..

Of the three joint top weights, Albertas Run has been allotted 5lb less than his official handicap mark, Madison Du Berlais has been allotted 4lb less than his mark (I’m not sure why one horse has been allowed 5lb while the other has only been allowed 4lb, but there you go), while Notre Pere has been left on his official mark of 158. Taranis is officially 4lb well-in, Our Vic is 2lb well-in. This means that War Of Attrition and his ilk, those further down the handicap, have to meet the top weights on less favourable terms than they would in any other handicap chase on the calendar. How can that make sense? As above, there is either a handicap system in place or there isn’t.

The other conundrum is the Aintree factor, the phenomenon by which horses with a proven affinity for Aintree are allotted a higher rating than they would be if the race was run at a park course. It begs the question, why not allot a higher rating to a horse who goes well at, say, Haydock, when he runs at Haydock than when he runs anywhere else? That’s another issue, but bear with this for a second. Last year’s winner, Mon Mome, has been allotted a rating that is 2lb higher than his official rating, and 7lb higher than the mark off which he won last year. (Interestingly, Comply Or Die was 15lb higher for the 2009 National than he was when he won it in 2008, the 2007 winner Silver Birch was 10lb higher when he tried to repeat the feat in 2009, two years later, Numbersixvalverde was 11lb higher in 2007 after winning the race in 2006, and Hedgehunter was 12lb higher in 2006 having won it in 2005.)

However, the horses that finished second, third and fourth last year, Comply Or Die, My Will and State Of Play, are all set to race off lower marks than last year. Comply Or Die is down 1lb to a mark of 153, the same mark as he would have on a park course, despite the fact that he has won once and finished second once, and My Will is down 2lb, while State Of Play 5lb. Where is the consistency? Have the placed horses not a proven ability to act around Aintree as well?

Perhaps even more startlingly, the Paul Nicholls-trained Big Fella Thanks, who ran a cracker to finish sixth in the race last year as an immature seven-year-old (28 six- and seven-year-olds have run in the race in the last 10 years, and none have finished placed), gets to race off a 3lb lower mark this year as a more aptly-aged eight-year-old, despite the fact that he has run well in two races since. Bizarre. In fact, he has been dropped 3lb for his latest run, when he was giving the high class Duc De Regniere a race over an inadequate trip at Kempton when he fell at the second last.

Finally, there is the old chestnut, the handicapping of Irish-trained horses. For every War Of Attrition (1lb lower than his Irish mark), there are several Beronis (9lb higher). One Cool Cookie is 9lb higher than he is in Ireland, Ballyholland is 3lb higher, Preists Leap is 3lb higher, Dooneys Gate is 6lb higher.

Then there is the special case of Irish Invader, 5lb higher than his Irish mark and 10lb higher than the mark off which he competed in the race last year when he was beaten 44 lengths by Mon Mome, despite the fact that he hasn’t run since. That leads to the bizarre situation where he is set to meet Mon Mome on 3lb worse terms for being beaten 44 lengths despite the fact that he hasn’t set foot on a racecourse.

So Irish Invader is set to race off the mark that was agreed for him at the Anglo-Irish Classifications. However, last year, the mark that was agreed for Hear The Echo at the Anglo-Irish Classifications was 149, yet he was asked to race off a mark of 153 in the Grand National without having run again over fences before the weights were published. One of the reasons put forward for the hike was the fact that he couldn’t have been allowed to be well-in with Notre Pere, who was 16 lengths behind him when he won the 2008 Irish National. Yet, it’s okay that Mon Mome is well-in with Irish Invader after beating him 44 lengths?

That’s a real head-scratcher.

© The Irish Field, 20th February 2010