Phil Smith’s not the only one winging it at Aintree

The British handicapper at the forefront of controversy

One of the abiding racing memories of my youth is watching Just So, carrying my 50p each-way stake, chasing home Miinnehoma in the 1994 Grand National. While the winner, a classy Grade 1 winner trained by Martin Pipe, would have earned his spot in any subsequent renewal with his rating, dear old Just So, an animal for whom the term ‘out-and-out stayer’ could have been coined, was 22lb out of the handicap at Aintree. Had he been entered for this year’s race, which attracted 109 entries, he would be number 110 on the list.

It is accepted that the Grand National, worth £1 million and backed for the first time this year by Randox Health, is not the contest it once was. It may still lay claim to be the greatest horserace in the world, a sentiment I share, however the fences have gotten smaller (easier to jump round), the distance has been reduced (less of a stamina test) and there are far fewer Just So-types turning out for their shot at stardom. The weights are now dominated by horses with form in championship races.

Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House Stud, which enjoyed 2016 National glory with Rule The World, is responsible for 16 entries this year. Ten of those are trained by Gordon Elliott, the coming force in Irish jump racing, who himself has 14 entries.

With a maximum field of 40 runners, those owners and trainers with horses sat below the cut-off point will have been pleased to hear that a number of the Gigginstown/Elliott battalion will not be taking up their engagement. Yet should this decision be theirs only to make?

An issue with the lofty handicap assessments of his runners by the BHA’s Phil Smith – “he’s making it up as he goes along” claimed an infuriated O’Leary – saw the owner rule out his top three runners, Outlander, Empire Of Dirt and Don Poli. Yet if he took a different view and decided to throw the kitchen sink at the prize, as things stand Gigginstown would supply over a quarter of the field. Is this really what the National is about, or what the public wants to see? I would say no, definitely not.

Of course owners and trainers having multiple runners in top races, under both codes, is nothing new. We live in a free society and it would be folly – and frankly unnecessary as well as possibly unlawful – to try to place restrictions on who runs what where. But as Phil Smith’s ‘discretionary’ handicapping of runners shows, the Grand National is not a normal horserace.

Does the public want to see one man responsible for a quarter of the Grand National field?

Special rules apply. And perhaps those rules should include a restriction of, say, a maximum of five runners per owner in the interests of the race’s competitive spirit.

It is Cheltenham, not Aintree, that is foremost in the mind of most trainers at this time of the year and Alan King is no exception. Ever-present in the trainers’ top ten for 14 consecutive seasons, King is enjoying his best run in terms of winners since two consecutive centuries in 2007-08 (128) and 2008-09 (136), with the promise of much more to come.

The Barbury Castle handler may not have yet achieved the trainers’ title that once looked a distinct possibility when the likes of My Way De Solzen, Voy Por Ustedes and Katchit were strutting their stuff, but he is still a force to be reckoned with and has a number of chances at this month’s Festival, led by this month’s cover star Yanworth, a horse that highlights King’s eye for a bargain.

“We found him way out the back at Doncaster, [Anthony] Bromley and I,” he says. “Sixteen grand. I remember taking him to Wincanton, still in my colours, and beating a hot favourite Paul [Nicholls] had for Graham Wylie. And when we came in afterwards he came up and said, ‘You must be seriously good.’ We sold the horse to JP [McManus] a couple of days later.

“I was surprised he was able to win [the Christmas Hurdle] at Kempton. I just thought that two miles round there, on good ground, it’s going to happen a bit quick for him; that he could run a very good Champion Hurdle trial that day and get beat. So I was thrilled to see him go about it the way he did.”

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