Just days ago he was all smiles and full of praise for racing’s authorities and the work they had done to improve safety at the National course, saying, “Full marks to Aintree. They've all worked hard, they've got the track safe. It's onwards and upwards now for the National.”
Yesterday, Heathcliff on horseback was back to his usual forthright self, claiming the rise in weight would do put Auroras Encore in the same position as the last ten National winners – unable to win another race. He said, “They don’t get better as 11-year-olds. When they’ve raced over nearly four and a half miles it should be a half a pound for a length and he should have gone up four or five pounds.”
Let’s examine that briefly. First, had Auroras Encore shown comparable form/ability in any of his previous 43 races? He did in last year’s Scottish National, when finishing a very close second to Merigo. In that race he ran off a mark of 143, which was then raised to 150. Over his next five races, his rating dropped to 137, and that’s the mark he ran off in the National.
Is that pattern a surprise? Not at all. Look back at the record of Auroras Encore over the past few years and in every year since 2008 (bar 2011 when he was off all year) he’s had a win in the six week period between mid March and 1 May, gone up in the weights, and then spiralled down during the autumn and winter when he hasn’t won.
What about the idea of a smaller weight rise in longer races? Is Smith suggesting this just for the National, or for all long distance races? Would he advocate dropping horses’ marks in the same way?
No, it all sounds to me like a cloud of Harvey’s hot air. Nevertheless, it is interesting that once a horse has won a National, it finds it extremely difficult to go on and win again. You have to go back to Monty’s Pass in 2003 to find the last horse to do so, and his one further success was in a 14-furlong charity sweepstakes on the flat. Bindaree scored one more success after his 2002 National win, but it took him more than 18 months to do it.
If Auroras Encore takes his place at Ayr in the Scottish National in ten days time, he’ll race off a mark five pounds higher than in last year’s race, but still two pounds lower than his mark after that race. He won’t be the top weight as Smith claimed yesterday.
History says he won’t win, but not specifically because of his weight. Perhaps the National takes more out of horses than we and trainers recognise. If Auroras Encore does take his place and does win in Scotland, will that mark him out as an outstanding handicap chaser, or will it provide further evidence that the changes to the Aintree fences have diminished the National to just another handicap chase?