John Smith's Grand National

For weight watchers; how the National’s unique handicap has raised quality and rewarded those with the ‘Aintree factor’

Don’t Push It became the first horse to carry 11st 5lb to victory since Grittar in 1982 and the Jonjo O’Neill-trained chaser boasted some top-class form previously, most notably during his novice campaign over fences in 2006/07, when he posted three wins. He was also beaten three quarters of a length by subsequent Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Denman in a novices’ chase and was still very much in contention when falling at the penultimate fence in the Grade One Arkle Chase at the 2007 Cheltenham Festival.

While previous results suggested that horses towards the head of the handicap struggle to win the John Smith’s Grand National, Don’t Push It’s was the third in the past six renewals to triumph in the world’s greatest chase with a weight of 11st or more. Hedgehunter carried 11st 1lb to victory in 2005, while Mon Mome shouldered 11st when he scored four years later. Both horses went on to prove themselves among the best of their generation away from Aintree, with Hedgehunter taking second in the 2006 Cheltenham GoldCup and Mon Mome coming home third in the same race in 2010.

Last year also saw a full field of 40 horses race off their correct weight for the sixth consecutive year, further demonstrating the rise in quality. The John Smith’s Grand National is unique in British horseracing because it has its own handicap, with every entry in the race receiving a rating partly based on any previous experience over the Aintree fences. This “Aintree factor” has allowed horses who have shown good form on the Grand National course to line up whereas they might have been denied a run in previous years.

Phil Smith’s role

The British Horseracing Authority’s Head of Handicapping Phil Smith, who has been responsible for framing the weights for the JohnSmith’s Grand National since 1999, has been instrumental in ensuring that horses who have excelled around Aintree are given the chance to run in the John Smith’s Grand National

A prime example of this came in 2004, when Amberleigh House gave Red Rum’s trainer Donald McCain a fourth victory in the great race. The 12-year-old had been denied his chance to line up in the race in 2002, when he was eliminated despite having won the totesport.com Becher Chase earlier the same season. Mr Smith’s assertion that Amberleigh House was a different horse around Aintree was vindicated as the veteran chaser beat Clan Royal by three lengths.

Mr Smith has also helped attract the best staying chasers by giving top-class horses a more lenient mark than their official rating. This is because there are very few Graded chases in the racing calendar that are contested over marathon distances and that it would be unfair to expect a horse to replicate a level of form achieved over far shorter than the four and a half miles of the John Smith’s Grand National.

Recent modifications to the race conditions have also helped improve the competitive nature of the National over the past decade. The top-weight was lowered from 12st to 11st 12lb in 2002, then dropped a further 2lb in 2009; reserves were introduced in 2000. In the past 11 years, a maximum field of 40 has started every year except 2004, when 39 went to post. Such measures have seen the quality of runners improve.

Dramatic rise in quality

The number of horses officially rated over 135 at the entry stages has risen dramatically from 55 in 2004 to 94 in 2010, while horses rated below 139 have failed to make the final field for the past two years, whereas the lowest-rated horse to take part in 1999 did so off a mark of 110.

In the 1990s and earlier, it was not unusual for horses who were racing from out of the handicap to run far better races than their handicap ratings would suggest. Just So was second to PartyPolitics in 1992 despite being rated 22lb below the 10st cut-off, with jockey Simon Burrough putting up a further 3lb overweight. Encore Un Peu also finished second when lining up out of the handicap as he went down by a length and a quarter to Rough Quest in 1996 despite being 9lb “wrong” at the weights.

The same year, Sir Peter Lely came home fourth despite being 12lb out of the handicap, while Three Brownies finished sixth after carrying 22lb more than his correct mark. Of the 27 runners, only nine raced in the handicap proper. The 1998 renewal also highlighted the disparity between the top and bottom of the handicap as the runner-up Suny Bay was rated 48lb better than the third Samlee, while Bobbyjo won the following year despite being a stone out of the handicap.

But perhaps the biggest change to the John Smith’s Grand National in recent times has been the massive injection of prize money. The contest carried total prize money of £250,000 when Lord Gyllene triumphed on a Monday in 1997, whereas last year’s winner Don’t Push It collected more than double that as the race had a total prize fund of £925,000. That amount has risen by a further £25,000 to a record £950,000 for 2011. Such a rise has allowed Aintree, thanks to the continued support of John Smith’s, to attract the best staying chasers and the John Smith’s Grand National is by far the richest chase outside of Japan.

There is more to come as it is the declared ambition to increase prize money to £1 million while the race is backed by John Smith’s.

My thanks to Racenews for the content

Joe

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