Walsh bemused, but Smith defends Seabass burden

John Smith’s Grand National handicapper Phil Smith has defended his decision to allot leading contender Seabass a burden of 11st 2lb in the Aintree showpiece.

Trainer Ted Walsh appeared bemused by the rise of last year’s third, which leaves him badly treated on official ratings with Tidal Bay, the top-weight on 11st 10lb.

Smith is allowed to use his discretion for the National in order to attract higher-class horses to take their chance in handicap company and he frames the weights himself, taking into account various factors.

“He’s carrying 11st 2lb this year – the last four winners have carried 11st plus – and he was third last year. Horses have a very good record coming back a second time, and I thought he had a reasonably good chance,” Smith said.

Referring to Tidal Bay, he said: “The horse’s real rating is 171 and he has achieved that twice this year in the Hennessy and in the Lexus.

“In this race he is going to run off 162 and the theory behind it is that if he can replicate his Lexus run, he has got a chance of winning. The problem is, it’s a completely different race.

“It’s four and a half miles over 30 fences. If I’d left it as it is, he’d probably have to perform to 180 to win it but he’s a 12-year-old and I don’t think anyone would believe he could perform to that level. So I’ve compressed his weight, and some of the other horses at the top, in order to give them a chance of winning.”

Betfred, betting partner at the Grand National meeting, make Seabass — who carried 10st 12lb in 2012 — one of their 14-1 co-favourites to go two places better this year and Walsh reports the ten-year-old to be bang on course for the £975,000 contest at Aintree on April 6.

“Seabass will run somewhere in the next three weeks to a month. There is just over seven weeks to Liverpool so I would like to get a run into him. The Bobbyjo Chase [at Fairyhouse] and the Racing Plus Chase at Kempton are possible targets,” said Walsh.

But, speaking before seeing the full weights, he added: “I don’t know how Seabass can get over 11st this year if Tidal Bay is rated 171 and my horse is rated 154. Whatever Phil Smith does, he does — it is immaterial to me and I can’t change it. You don’t have to be a great mathematician to subtract 54 from 71.”

Paul Nicholls could yet bypass the Cheltenham Festival altogether with Tidal Bay in order for him to make it to the Grand National in the best possible shape.

The champion trainer finally ended a long quest to win the Aintree showpiece a year ago with Neptune Collonges and he appeared delighted with the lenience shown by handicapper Phil Smith towards top-weight Tidal Bay.

Second in the Hennessy and subsequently the winner of an epic Lexus Chase over Christmas, the once-quirky veteran missed an outing at Cheltenham trials day when some pus was found in a foot.

“Tidal Bay has been in great form and he is due to run off 4lb lower than he did in the Hennessy,” said Nicholls.

“That’s a huge incentive to run and I think the handicapper has given him an outstanding chance. We always knew he’d be on 11st 10lb, it was just the rating itself we wanted to find out.

“I’ve taken him out of the Gold Cup and I don’t want to rush him.

“If he’s ready he can go for the World Hurdle but I don’t want to forego his chance in the National.”

Nicholls has three other interesting contenders and expects each to line up. No decisions have been made on jockeys, with Ruby Walsh juggling commitments with Nicholls, Willie Mullins and possibly his father, Ted.

Nicholls said: “What A Friend (11st 5lb) has the same sort of profile to Neptune Collonges, having been placed in a Gold Cup.

“He’ll go to Kempton in a fortnight and then we’ll get together with Alex (Ferguson, owner). He might miss Cheltenham to keep him fresh.

A strong Irish-trained entry of 31 includes another top contender from Ted Walsh’s stable in JP McManus’s Colbert Station (10st 11lb), winner of the Paddy Power Handicap Chase over 3m at Leopardstown on December 27 and the Pertemps Handicap Hurdle qualifier at Punchestown on February 3.

Both the Walsh-trained pair hold entries at Gowran Park on Saturday and the trainer added: “Like Seabass, Colbert Station will possibly have one more run. I would also be looking at running him in three weeks to a month’s time, which will be ideal timing for the National.”

Ballabriggs, who won the 2011 Grand National off 11 stone, has been allotted the same weight again this year, having finished sixth under 11st 9lb in 2012. Trainer Donald McCain is happy with the weight given to the 33-1 chance.

“That weight is fine for Ballabriggs and it will be grand if the top horse (Tidal Bay) runs because then we will have a lovely racing weight. He has come out of his race at Warwick okay. He will go to Kelso for the Premier Chase as he has done for the past two years and then on to Aintree.”

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