Tiger Roll is not the one for Gigginstown to go to war over in handicapping controversy
Brace yourself. The Grand National weights will be announced on Tuesday and the potential for a thoroughly depressing outcome is clear for all to see.
The issue of what official rating will be given to Tiger Roll has been a focus point for the better part of a year now. Michael and Eddie O’Leary have been very clear in their position that if Tiger Roll’s official rating isn’t compressed to what they consider a fair level, they will not allow him to bid for his an historic third win in the Grand National in April. They have shown in the past that they are willing to follow through on such statements, as they decided not to run the ante-post favourite Don Poli and Outlander in the 2017 renewal of the Grand National after being unhappy with the marks they were given.
Make no mistake, the O’Leary’s are correct to highlight what have been very real and ongoing issues with the British handicapping of Irish horses for well over a decade that cannot be explained away by differing weight-for-age scales and handicapping methodologies. Be it the clearly different treatment given to horses in the care of specific Irish trainers compared to others or inconsistent handicapping that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, there are genuine issues at play.
Michael and Eddie have made their case for why Tiger Roll’s rating should be compressed in similar style to so many other highly-rated horses in the race in the last 20 years. The counter point has been made that any proposed compression should be at least partially cancelled out by the “Aintree Factor”, a handicapping policy that the British handicappers have long implemented which penalises horses that have run well over the Grand National fences in the past. The case can be validly argued in both directions, however, Tiger Roll is not the one that the O’Leary’s should go to war with the handicappers over.
As much as they try to pretend at times that they don’t, the O’Leary’s love National Hunt racing and have a great appreciation for its history. They know that Tiger Roll is far bigger for the sport than any horse they’ve ever owned. They won’t want to be the villains in the story. Likewise, the British handicapping team won’t want any heavy-handedness on their behalf to be remembered as the reason why Tiger Roll didn’t attempt to win his third Grand National.
Everyone involved here wants the same conclusion and that is for Tiger Roll to bid for immortality in the Grand National. One can only hope that common sense and cool heads prevail on Tuesday. All being well the rating the British handicapping team give to Tiger Roll will represent a happy middle ground for all concerned and the O’Leary’s give Tiger Roll the green light to participate in the Grand National. This will allow the whole sport to unite behind building up to what could be the defining moment of National Hunt racing for decades to come.
After that, the handicapping hostilities can resume in a couple of weeks on the familiar battlefield of the weights for the handicaps at the Cheltenham Festival!
Bring an end to needless Grand National tinkering
The specific issue that has led to the Tiger Roll controversy is essentially a disagreement as to how much compression and so-called “Aintree Factor” should be applied to his rating for the Grand National. Whatever one’s position is in the debate, it has to be acknowledged by all that this a problem of the BHA handicapper’s own creation.
Granted, the current team can fairly claim that it is a legacy issue from the tenure of Phil Smith as the Head of Handicapping. Smith handicapped his first Grand National in 1999 and the following year he began creating a bespoke handicap for the race by implementing compression of the higher weights and giving extra weight to those who had run well over the Aintree fences in the past.
Smith took great public pride in how the Grand National changed from 2000 onwards which coincided with the changes he made to the handicapping of the race. It became more competitive, many more highly-rated horses competed in it and horses running from out of the handicap largely became a thing of the past. The narrative was set that this was largely due to the interventions of the handicapper.
However, correlation does not imply causation. I dare venture that a combination of the prize money for the race increasing from £500,000 in 2000 to £1m in 2013 and the substantial changes to the fences in that time making it much less of a niche test of jumping have been far more influential in the increasing competitiveness of the race than handicapping policy.
What the changes to the handicapping of the race did do was create conflict amongst those that felt their horses haven’t been treated fairly by the additional processes. That has resulted in a number of controversies over the years and is essentially what the Tiger Roll argument revolves around.
The thing is, such tinkering is no longer necessary. There is no longer any need for compression to encourage highly-rated horses to run in the race. If their connections fancy having a go, a couple of pounds either way is highly unlikely to be a significant factor in that decision when there is £1m on offer.
Likewise, allowing for the “Aintree Factor” in the Grand National weights also seems to be an unnecessary intervention in the modern race. The fences have changed so much in the last decade that it is very close to being just another long-distance handicap chase in character. If a separate handicap is seen as justifiable for the modern Grand National, why not bring in a separate handicap for the likes of the Eider Chase and the Midlands Grand National? It’s needless.
The time has come to cease this unnecessary tinkering with the Grand National weights. It causes far more controversy and conflict than it is worth. Removing it is highly unlikely to have any perceivable impact on the line-ups in the race and everyone will have a much better idea of where they stand.
Dublin Racing Festival is ideal where it is
The Dublin Racing Festival was brought back into the headlines last week when Leopardstown’s new chief executive Tim Husbands suggested that moving the meeting to a Friday/Saturday slot would be considered.
It was a suggestion that predictably attracted plenty of negativity. Anyone familiar with the M50 wouldn’t be too enamoured with the prospect of trying to get to Leopardstown from outside of Dublin on a Friday afternoon. The small matter of having to take either a full or a half day off work to attend wouldn’t be considered ideal for all either.
I can see what Leopardstown are thinking in considering such a change. Staging the first day of the meeting on a Friday would likely be a hit with corporate clients and the Dublin-based crowd that swelled the gates on the Saturday of this year’s meeting. A Friday slot would also mean avoiding clashes with the Six Nations or other sporting events.
However, while a commercial case can be made for such a change, I would implore Leopardstown not to make the same mistakes that Cheltenham have made. Cheltenham have cashed in on the success of their Festival meeting by extending it at the cost of the racing product and in direct defiance of racing purists. Leopardstown should be looking to capitalise on this by making the Dublin Racing Festival the meeting of choice for National Hunt purists on both sides of the Irish Sea.
Moving the first day of it to a Friday to cater to corporate clients and casual racegoers to the detriment of the passionate racing supporters that travel from all over the country and from the UK to attend would be in direct contrast to this.
While a Friday/Saturday structure might well deliver a bigger aggregate attendance, I would bet pounds to pennies that it wouldn’t deliver a better atmosphere. It isn’t all about the number of people in attendance, it is the number of passionate people in attendance that make an atmosphere.
One can’t imagine there were many corporate clients or casual racegoers running across the tarmac and climbing onto picnic tables to catch a glimpse of Faugheen after the Flogas Novice Chase. Those passionate people that love the sport are the ones Leopardstown should be looking after and encouraging to attend the Dublin Racing Festival, as those are the ones that make these events truly special.