Handicappers' blog

    Head of handicapping at the British Horseracing Authority, Phil Smith’s latest blog is online, covering the 2018 Grand National at Aintree where he has reassessed the field after Tiger Roll’s last-gasp victory.
  • Thursday 19 April 2018
  • Blog

IT MAY BE A CLASSIER RACE BUT STAYING IS STILL THE NAME OF THE GAME

A few years ago the BHA, in conjunction with Aintree, brought in a new qualification rule for the Randox Health Grand National. To qualify, a horse has to have finished in the first four in a chase over three miles or further. This is because non-stayers are a potential risk both to themselves and to other horses in the latter stages of the race.

However, to run well or win the race appears to require much greater stamina than running decently over a bare 3m. Over the last three years four races stand out as being important in the career of horses who run well in the Grand National. They are the National Hunt Chase and the Cross Country Races at Cheltenham, the Irish Grand National and the Betfred Classic at Warwick.

Just look at this year’s first seven home:
Tiger Roll (winner) had won the National Hunt Chase over 4m and the Cross Country at Cheltenham over 3m 6f.
Pleasant Company (2nd) had been a staying on ninth in last year’s race after a momentum stopping error at the 25th fence which is Valentine’s Brook second time round.
Bless The Wings (3rd) had won the Cross Country over 3m 6f and been second in the Irish National over 3m 5f.
Anibale Fly (4th) had been a staying on third in the Gold Cup over a stiff 3m 2.5f furlongs of Cheltenham.
Milansbar (5th) had won the Betfred Classic over 3m5f at Warwick and been second in the Midlands Grand National over 4m 2f.
Road To Riches (6th) had been 3rd in the Gold Cup in the past.
Gas Line Boy (7th) had been fifth in the Grand National last year.

It was the similar last year:
One For Arthur (1st) had won the Betfred Classic at Warwick.
Cause of Causes (2nd) had won the National Hunt Chase and the Cross Country.
Saint Are (3rd) had previously been second in the race.
Blaklion (4th) had just been second in the Haydock Grand National Trial over 3m 4f.

In 2016 it was very much the same story:
Rule The World (1st) had been second in the Irish Grand National.
The Last Samuri (2nd) had won the Grimthorpe Chase at Doncaster over 3m 2f.
Vics Canvas (3rd) had been second in the Bet 365 Gold Cup at Sandown over 3m 5f.

Classy and unexposed new kids on the block do not win the Grand National. Hennessy winners like Many Clouds, Ulster Grand National winners like Pineau de Re and horses beaten a head in the Scottish Grand National like Auroras Encore do.

Of course it helped both Tiger Roll and Anibale Fly this year that they were technically “well in” for the race after performing to a higher level after the weights came out. Far more important was their proven stamina at further than 3m. After all the rain, I was relieved that the winning distance this year was only a head but, for the second time, I just missed out on the much yearned for dead heat!

Afterwards some people were complaining about the domination of Irish trained horses but, when I looked back, I was happy with the weights I allocated to them all two months ago. After-timing is a great fashion in British racing so I just hope that anyone who complained had availed themselves of the prices that were available for the first five back in February. You could get 40/1 Tiger Roll, Anibale Fly was 33/1 while Pleasant Company, Bless The Wings and Milansbar were all 66/1.

On Monday I consulted with my Irish counterpart Sandy Shaw and we both agreed that despite the close finish, to some extent Tiger Roll was getting a bit lonely out in front. As a result I have put the winner up 9lbs to 159 and the second up 7lb from 148 to 155 thus, calling the head as 2lbs compared to the traditional 1lb.

The horse I was most proud about this year was actually Bless The Wings. He is clearly a much better Cross Country horse where I have him on 154 compared to his rating of 136 over regulation fences. I was in a dilemma back in February when I did the weights as 154 was clearly inappropriate whereas 136 would not get him into the race.

In this one race I have special dispensation to differ from published ratings so I added a nominal 7lb penalty to his park rating and he ran off 143. He more than justified that decision.

So remember next year when you are trying to find the winner, form at the bare minimum of 3m from a horse on the up will not be enough. You need a horse that stays further and has been around the block a little.

Never under-estimate the Cheltenham Cross Country races. Tiger Roll, Cause of Causes, Silver Birch and Balthazar King are the proof as they are all intelligent, athletic horses. Size does NOT matter!

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