Racing: Handicapper throws his weight about
Friday 05 February 1999
Rarely, though, does a handicapper come in for the sort of sustained criticism which has been directed at Phil Smith over the past couple of days. Smith recently replaced Christopher Mordaunt as the BHB's senior chase handicapper, having spent several years rating sprinters on the Flat, at the other end of the equine scale in terms of age and distance. Since then, a succession of trainers have expressed annoyance at some of his decisions, such as a rise of 8lb for General Wolfe's four-length victory in the Peter Marsh Chase, and a 20lb increase for Flaxley Wood, who won a novice chase at Cheltenham last weekend, but only after Unsinkable Boxer, the hot favourite, fell.
Toby Balding, the chairman of the National Trainers' Federation's jumps committee, said yesterday that Smith had "a totally new way of handicapping. Our real problem is that he's a relative new boy, and a mathematician who's handicapped nothing but Flat horses. I've been getting lots of messages from trainers who think they're hard done-by, and I think it needs to be discussed."
Balding feels that that the finer points of training jumps horses are being overlooked. "What he hasn't yet taken into account is the peculiar nature of the jumping herd," he said. "Most of them live with injury, lots of them disappear for long lengths of time, and if you're actually lucky enough to get a horse back and to get it winning, you don't want it handicapped out of existence as soon as it's won. A jumper can win by 12 lengths, but the second may not have jumped, or handled the ground. The variables are so much bigger, and distances aren't really what it's about."
As Balding admits, Bob Buckler's complaints about the handicapping of Flaxley Wood are "probably not the best example". Flaxley Wood might or might not have won had Unsinkable Boxer stayed on his feet, but a more important point is that he was racing from 15lb out of the handicap. When a trainer, in effect, personally hikes his horse in the weights, he can hardly complain if the horse runs well and the handicapper treats the form literally.
Some of Smith's other decisions, though, seem to have less to back them up. When Looks Like Trouble, who is trained by Noel Chance, won a novice chase at Doncaster in which only five of the 12 starters reached the finish, and Princeful was among the fallers, he went up 17lb. "He's basically been told, you've got lucky, now that's you," Balding said.
Balding, and any other trainers who care to attend, will be able to air their worries at a meeting with Smith, as well as Paul Greeves, the BHB's racing director, a week today. Greeves, though, is steadfast in his defence of the man he appointed to succeed Mordaunt.
"Change is always a bit unsettling," he said yesterday, "and that's what is happening here. To suggest that Phil Smith is incompetent is just utter nonsense and not worthy of anybody. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out the difference between the Flat and jumps, and that is that the horses can fall over, and the distances of the races mean that the horses can be very tired at the end. But Phil Smith is perfectly well aware of that."
Greeves says that "we are always happy to discuss these matters with trainers, provided they come through the right channels". Whether the trainers will be any happier after next week's meeting is rather less certain - but then, perhaps that simply means that Smith is doing his job.
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