Donn's Articles » Grand National weights

The weights for the 2017 Randox Health Aintree Grand National were announced on Tuesday at a ceremony held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  It was a new venue, a new sponsor, but this is an annual event, the perennial Aintree island in a sea of frenzied Cheltenham Festival build-up.

Debate about the Grand National weights is also an annual occurrence.  Because the Grand National is a unique race, it has its own unique handicap.  Unlike every other handicap run in Britain and Ireland, the handicapper has the discretion to tweak a horse’s handicap rating for the Grand National, to give a horse more or less weight to carry in the National than would be the case if the race was an ordinary handicap. 

These discretionary tweaks are usually concentrated mainly on those horses who are at the top end of the handicap.  The high-weighted horses’ ratings – and consequently the weights that they have to carry – are usually reduced in order to allow for the marathon distance.

This year, three of the four highest-weighted horses in the Grand National at this stage are owned by Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House Stud and trained by Gordon Elliott.  But it is not that fact which sparked the owners’ disquiet during the week: it is the ratings that the horses have been allotted that is the issue and, consequently, the weights that they are being asked to carry.

Current Grand National top weight Outlander has an official rating in Ireland of 164, yet he has been allotted a Grand National rating of 166, so 2lb higher than his official rating despite the fact that, as top weight, precedent dictates that his burden should have been significantly reduced.

Empire Of Dirt has an official rating of 162, yet he has been allotted a Grand National rating of 164.  Don Poli is officially rated 161, yet he has been given a Grand National rating of 163.

There are several issues at play here.  The first is how the British Horseracing Authority’s handicappers deal with Irish horses.  The BHA do not accept Irish horses’ official handicap ratings.  Indeed, the senior handicapper said during the week that their Irish marks were irrelevant.  Instead, they maintain their own database of Irish horses’ handicap ratings.

The problem with this is that, unlike Irish ratings of Irish horses and British ratings of British horses, the BHA’s ratings of Irish horses are not published.  You do not know what rating an Irish horse has in Britain until that horse is entered in a race in Britain. 

So the BHA have Don Poli on a rating of 165, 4lb higher than his Irish mark.  That is an unusually significant discrepancy for a proven high-profile high-class horse.

Don Poli was rated 165 at the end of last season, as agreed and published in the Anglo-Irish Classifications.  Yet, when he made his debut at Down Royal this season, he had an official rating of 161.

Don Poli has raced three times this season.  He was pulled up on that debut, he was beaten over two lengths on his second run by Outlander – who was rated 160 at the time and was raised to 164 as a result of that run – and he was beaten one and a half lengths on his third run by Sizing John, who was and is rated 164.  In that race, the now 157-rated More Of That was disputing third place and had every chance before he unseated his rider at the final fence.

Of course, handicapping is subjective, a lot of it is down to opinions, but some of it has to be objective and, looking at the bare facts of Don Poli’s three runs this season, it is difficult to justify a rating that is as high as 165.

Don Poli’s form ties in with Empire Of Dirt’s and Outlander’s, so it appears that it is from Don Poli’s rating of 165 that the BHA ratings for the other two Gigginstown House horses are derived.

So, while the three Gigginstown House horses’ Grand National ratings are higher than their official ratings, they are each 2lb lower than the ratings on which the BHA have them.

But therein lies another issue.  Even taking top weight Outlander’s BHA rating of 168 – which leaves him just 3lb lower than Thistlecrack, by the way – it has been reduced by just 2lb for the Grand National.  This in inconsistent with recent history.  Precedent dictates that the top weight’s rating should have been compressed by more.

In the 2012 Grand National, top weight Synchronised’s rating was reduced by 6lb.  In the 2013 National, Imperial Commander’s rating was also reduced by 6lb.  In 2014, Tidal Bay’s rating was reduced by 7lb.  In 2015, Many Clouds’ rating was reduced by 5lb.  Last year, Many Clouds’ rating was reduced by just 1lb, but that was because he won the National in 2015, the Aintree factor was pushing his rating back up.

It is difficult to understand why Outlander’s rating was not reduced by more.

There are other anomalies lower down the weights, discretionary tweaks, like Tiger Roll, who is 7lb higher than his official rating, and Highland Lodge, who is 8lb higher, which just about guarantees that he will get a run, and Gallant Oscar, who is 3lb lower, which just about guarantees that he won’t. 

The Grand National is too important a race for discretion to be allowed run so freely. 

© The Sunday Times, 19th February 2017