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Smith sticks to his guns after O'Leary weights outburst

Lexus winner Don Poli: the horse at the centre of the row
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Phil Smith has come out fighting in response to stinging criticism from Michael O'Leary, who owns three of the four highest-weighted horses in the Randox Health Grand National.

O'Leary, whose horses race under the Gigginstown House Stud banner, is outraged by Smith's treatment of Irish-trained entries in general and of his Don Poli in particular.

In a fierce outburst O'Leary accused the BHA's head of handicapping of having talked "drivel" and "complete and utter contradictory nonsense" when interviewed by Matt Chapman on At The Races.

Grand National weights

O'Leary further insisted National ante-post favourite Don Poli would not run because he has been treated unfairly and has failed to benefit from the compression at the top of the handicap that has been a feature of the Grand Nationals Smith has been in charge of for the last 18 years.

Smith said: "Far from making it up as I go along, my approach to the Grand National weights has been consistent for the past 18 years.

"My objective this year – as in every previous year – has been to compress the weights for the top-rated horses based on their official BHA rating. My aim is simply to encourage the best horses to compete in the world’s greatest jumps race, while making sure the race remains competitive and fair.

"This year has been no different in terms of my approach or in the level of compression. Last year there was a 2lb compression for horses at the top of the weights apart from Many Clouds, who only got 1lb. This year that compression is exactly the same."

Smith pointed out the BHA has maintained its own handicap of all Irish runners for 15 years in the interests of fairness, so that "whether a horse is trained in Britain or Ireland, it is the same people using the same handicapping system that sets a horse's mark when it races in Britain."

Regarding Don Poli, Smith added: "Don Poli was agreed on 165 in the Anglo-Irish Jumps Classification in May. He has since been second in the Lexus and third in the Irish Gold Cup and was due to run off 163 at Aintree. A 2lb reduction seems more than fair. Last year he was due to run off 164 and carry 11st 9lb. Since then he has been placed in five Grade 1s and is now due to run off 163 and carry 11st 7lb."

O'Leary's expectations of Don Poli's mark may well have been complicated by the different view senior Irish handicapper Noel O'Brien has of Don Poli's recent form.

O'Brien stayed in London after Tuesday's weights launch to discuss the Cheltenham handicaps with his BHA counterparts, with whom he enjoys a good working relationship, and said that while there were plenty of differences of opinion, there was also plenty of give and take.

However, while Smith did speak to him before finalising the National weights, specifically about Sunday's Irish Gold Cup in which Don Poli was third to Sizing John, the pair had what O'Brien describes as "a different interpretation" of that result.

O'Brien said: "We spoke about the race because there were British horses involved.

"At the start of the season I had Don Poli on 165, the figure agreed at the Anglo-Irish Classifications, but going into Sunday's race I had him published on 161. For me that fitted, so I left Don Poli on 161, but Phil kept him on his old rating of 165.

"In this particular instance I would have had Don Poli lower than Phil in the National, but I fully respect where he is with his rating and there is absolutely no falling out. These differences of interpretation are normal, and the English Grand National weights are Phil's prerogative."

Regarding the bigger picture, Smith has produced statistics which he feels bear out his insistence there is no bias.

He said: "The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Over the last eight seasons in all handicaps in Britain, 11 per cent is the Irish strike-rate and ten per cent is the UK strike-rate. I've no problem with it being higher, but it's amazing that we've been able to keep it consistent for so long."

He added: "The statistics for the Grand National also bear this out. Since 1999, there have been 11 British-trained winners from 530 runners at a strike-rate of 2.1 per cent, and seven Irish-trained winners from 163 runners at a strike-rate of 4.3 per cent.

"I think it’s better to look at placed horses due to the larger and more statistically reliable sample involved. Since 1999, 49 British-trained horses were placed from 530 runners, a rate of 9.2 per cent, compared with 23 Irish-trained horses placed from 163 runners, a rate of 14.1 per cent."

Smith concluded: "There is no evidence t the BHA system is biased against Irish-trained horses. In fact, it’s remarkably consistent and indeed fair, as these figures demonstrate." 

Far from making it up as I go along, my approach to the Grand National weights has been consistent for the past 18 years