There was controversy when weights were allocated earlier this week for the 2013 Aintree Grand National. The main argument centred round the weight allotted Paul Nicholl's revitalised chaser Tidal Bay. Although he topped the weights he was getting in at a lower weight than an traditional handicap. Although his son Ruby would have had the option of riding Tidal Bay trainer Ted Walsh was not pleased as his horse Seabass now carries a relatively higher weight.
Walsh feels that Seabass should be carrying up to 17lb lower than top weight Tidal Bay rather than the 8lb he is set to receive from the Paul Nicholls-trained veteran at Aintree.
Speaking before seeing the full weights, Walsh said: "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 (handicapper) 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."
In fact, Tidal Bay's rating has been compressed to 162 for the National, in keeping with the relatively recent policy of encouraging top class horses to run in the race.
A year ago Seabass carried 10st 12lb at Aintree and Walsh reports the 10-year-old to be on course for the £975,000 race on Saturday, April 6th.
"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 Naas and the Racing Plus Chase at Kempton are possible targets," said Walsh.
Phil Smith, Head of Handicapping at the British Horseracing Authority, talked of his role of drawing up the weights for the 2013 John Smith's Grand National. Asked by host Clare Balding why he had put last year's third Seabass on 11st 2lb as against 10st 12 in 2012, Smith replied: "Is this the same Seabass who is the 14/1 favourite?
"The last four winners have all carried 11st or over, Seabass was third last year and horses have a really good record when they come back and run in the race a second time. I would have thought he had a reasonably good chance and so do the bookmakers.
"I have given Tidal Bay (the top-weight with 11st 10lb) a good chance too. His real rating is 171 and he has achieved that twice this year in the Hennessy and the Lexus. In this race, he is going to run off a mark of 162. The thinking behind this is if he can replicate his run in the Lexus and the Hennessy, he has a chance of winning.
"The problem is that it is a completely different race to those two - it is nearly four and a half miles and 30 fences. If I had left him on 171, he would have probably have had to perform to 180 to win it - he is a 12-year-old and I don't think anyone believes he could perform to that level.
"So I have compressed his weight and that of some of the others at the top of the handicap, indeed down to Prince De Beauchene.
"The top three in the weights (Tidal Bay, Albertas Run and Imperial Commander) are fantastic horses and they have won 10 Grade One races between them.
"We always want high quality horses to run in the John Smith's Grand National and set the high standard that the race deserves. We definitely have that this year.
"I didn't think I would ever have a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner who was not top-weight or second top-weight. Imperial Commander has 11st 6lb and who is to say how good he is because we have only seen him once in the last two years.
"Imperial Commander is one of the three horses who was most difficult to assess. His comeback run was not as good as he previously achieved - how do we know whether he will progress from that or if that is his new level?
"The other difficult ones were down towards the bottom of the handicap, Wyck Hill (10st 4lb) and The Rainbow Hunter (10st 2lb). Wyck Hill won at Ascot a few months ago which looked a nothing race at the time and I only put him up 4lb as there were three finishers. But the second horse Katenko has gone onwards and upwards since.
"I have already put up Wyck Hill twice for standing in his box and I did wonder long and hard whether I should put him up for a third time, but I have only done that once before and there would have to be absolutely exceptional circumstances. His form looks fantastic and I believe he runs in the next few days.
"The Rainbow Hunter is almost a carbon copy of Wyck Hill. The difference is he pulled up after his win in which the second, third and fourth have all come out and won so the form of his victory is great. He pulled up at Chepstow in heavy ground but I would pull up there."
Nigel Twiston-Davies, the most successful current trainer in the John Smith's Grand National with two successes, said: "We don't know yet whether Imperial Commander will run.
"Phil Smith is a pussycat - he has been so kind to Imperial Commander (11st 6lb). We are heading for the Cheltenham Gold Cup and if for some reason he does not run in it or whatever then the John Smith's Grand National will be one hell of a consolation prize.
"Little Josh has not qualified and will not run, while my other two (Major Malarkey and Viking Blond) are too low in the weights."
Jonjo O'Neill, who sent out Don't Push It to victory in 2010 and had Sunnyhillboy beaten by a nose last year, has five possibles.
The trainer said: "I think it was a dead-heat last year - the camera was in the wrong place!
"Sunnyhillboy is in great form - he had a few problems but is fine now after pulling up sore last time out at Chepstow where the ground was very heavy.
"He goes to Cheltenham, where he will run over hurdles or fences, and then go straight to Aintree for the John Smith's Grand National.
"He went to Aintree in great shape last year and is a pretty good jumper though he is not the biggest horse in the world - I hope he will be in the same form this year.
"Albertas Run is a star and has been brilliant for us in our yard for years - ever since he was a bumper horse. He is in great old form at the moment - hopefully, ground permitting, he will run for the first time this season in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham.
"He needs sunshine and good ground. He is 12 now but I wouldn't mind riding him in a Grand National!
"Lost Glory is a horse who improved through the summer and you cannot knock him. He likes decent ground which is why I gave him a winter holiday. We were surprised when he won in quite soft ground one day - he jumps, keeps galloping, is tough and honest.
"Alfie Sherrin was third in last year's Irish National and could go back there but, you never know, we may aim him at Aintree as he jumps and stays well. He is a fair horse on his day.
"Mister Hyde jumps well but was disappointing at Sandown the other day. He looked very good a Kempton but I don't think that was a strong race."
Tim Vaughan, who trains in Wales, has three possible contenders. He said: "Beshabar was a bit slow in his jumping on his debut for us at Cheltenham but he has improved dramatically since.
"Jumping is one of his strengths these days. I would love to think he could win the John Smith's Grand National - he has had his issues and is quite a fragile horse but has a hell of an engine and would have a fine chance if he rocks up in the same form as when he won the Scottish National."
Former jockey David Bridgwater, second on Encore Un Peau in the 1996 Grand National, spoke about his entry Wyck Hill and said: "It is brilliant training The Giant Bolster and Wyck Hill at the same time.
"I have had them from when they were unbroken - The Giant Bolster as a three-year-old and Wyck Hill as a four-year-old.
"Wyck Hill was never going to be a bumper horse or a hurdler and he should probably be unbeaten in chases except for a silly mishap and, this year, has just gone from strength to strength.
"If all goes according to plan, he won't get 10st 4lb next year so it is nice weight to be on. He goes for the Racing Plus Chase in a fortnight and we will take a view after that.
"We don't expect free lunches and it is lovely when we get them and have to make the most of situations, being a small yard.
"I left school at 14 and joined Lester Piggott's stable and then moved to Nicholson's for jumping as I got a bit heavy.
"We all aspire to having a Gold Cup and National winner and I want to win as much as Paul Nicholls wants to win.
"Having a good horse is a very good laxative - the build-up to good races is quite nerve wracking!"
Owner Graham Wylie boasts a dream hand with three of the leading contenders in the betting in the Paul Nicholls-trained Tidal Bay and a duo based in Ireland with Willie Mullins, On His Own and Prince De Beauchene.
"I'd like to say I planned it six years ago but it's just a complete coincidence - when I bought them I hoped they would be Gold Cup horses so it's remarkable to have the first three in the betting for the National," said Wylie.
"I hope they get there in one piece and you must remember that both Tidal Bay and On His Own have run before and not finished and then Prince De Beauchene missed the race last year. It was even more unfortunate because I had auctioned ownership of the horse for charity but at least I had two other runners I could give for the day."
Willie Mullins has the best numerical representation of any trainer with seven entries and, for him, Wylie's pair stand out.
He said: "Fingers crossed I can get On His Own and Prince De Beauchene there. They are two huge horses so I am not worried about the weight. Prince De Beauchene won the Bobbyjo Chase after the weights came out last year and I hope he does the same next week. My main concern is not the weight they have but to get them there in one piece.
"They are better horses than my 2005 winner Hedgehunter, they are huge, beautiful big horses that any jockey would love to ride in the race.
"Quel Esprit ran a cracker in the Hennessy the other day and I was surprised he blew up at the second last. He's a good jumper and stays all day.
"Quiscover Fontaine fell at fence 17 last year but he jumped well up to that point. He should get in this year's race.
"I'm not sure Call The Police has enough experience. He'll probably go to Cheltenham and then we'll take a view about Aintree."
Evan Williams has had a first-four finisher in the last four John Smith's Grand Nationals and is hoping that Cappa Bleu can continue that record.
"I'm desperate to get a run into Cappa Bleu," said Williams. "We had always planned to miss the middle part of winter with him but it would nice to be able to get a run into him in the next couple of weeks. You just need to get lucky in a National but things just haven't panned out with him how we would have liked so far."
David Pipe has four entries but for him, one of the quartet is a standout. He said: "Of ours, The Package is the one. The weight is what we were expecting, it's a nice weight, and the Hennessy form is rock solid. If he runs up to that form, then he has a chance."
The Tatenen's handler Richard Rowe commented: "It was very exciting when he ran last year but I think I should have told Andrew Thornton not to wear his contact lenses as he ran into the back of some horses. I'll tell him to leave them off this year and he might get on better!
"Hopefully, he will come through Saturday at Ascot OK and then we'll look forward to Aintree. The Tatenen is good enough, but whether Richard Rowe or Andrew Thornton is we'll have to wait and see. If you keep trying, it can happen for you eventually."
Gordon Elliott, who won the 2007 John Smith's Grand National with Silver Birch, has six entries to choose from. He said: "Jessies Dream has been off since he was second in the RSA Chase two years ago but he's back working in good form now. He's two or three weeks off a run in a point-to-point and the Grand National is the plan but he's not an easy horse to keep sound.
"Chicago Greys has had a wind operation since last year so he might have improved for that. He jumps and he stays. He could go for the Cross-Country at Cheltenham first."
Venetia Williams won the 2009 Aintree feature with 100/1 chance Mon Mome and is delighted to have a much more obvious contender this year in Katenko.
"It's hugely exciting," said Williams. "I bought him in July at Arqana - he wasn't very expensive at €30,000 - and part of my sales pitch to Andrew Brooks was that he was qualified to get into the Grand National. Now he doesn't just sneak in at the bottom but is the fifth or sixth highest-rated horse in the field.
"The Cheltenham Gold Cup is the plan for him. He's only a seven-year-old but at the same time he's a big war horse. He nearly t-boned Donald McCain's horse coming down the hill at Cheltenham the other day but he motored on down the hill."
It is 23 years since Kim Bailey won the Aintree showpiece with Mr Frisk and he is hoping that The Rainbow Hunter can prove another flagbearer for his stable in April.
"When I sold him at Royal Ascot last year I promised his owners he'd win at Ascot in November and run in the Grand National. I didn't think either would happen but the first one has come up," recalled Bailey.
"It was filthy ground when he ran at Chepstow last time but we''ll run him on Saturday at Ascot and see how he gets on. He's only 16 hands but he's a very athletic little horse, so who knows. We'll do a lot of schooling beforehand and hopefully he can run a blinder."
Nigel Roddis, part-owner of Welsh National runner-up Teaforthree, can scarcely believe he owns a live Aintree contender.
"He jumps and is enthusiastic so hopefully he has a serious chance. Chepstow last time was a dream race but I can't believe he got beat," said Roddis. "His great attributes are that he jumps and he stay. We only bought this horse to have a little bit of fun so it really is a dream come true."
Curragh-based Dessie Hughes, who saddled 2010 runner-up Black Apalachi, has not enjoyed the best of success in the John Smith's Grand National but is hoping his three contenders can change his luck this year.
"The ground is the crucial point for my horses," said Hughes. "Magnanimity and Rare Bob want goodish ground but Tofino Bay will revel in it if it's heavy. Tofino Bay has had a couple of years off with a leg so he's only coming good at the age of 10. But he looks to stay all day. He's full of guts and a very good jumper."
After 52 unsuccessful runners, champion trainer Paul Nicholls finally came good in last year's John Smith's Grand National with Neptune Collonges and he believes that - of his four entries - top-weight Tidal Bay could boast the best chance.
"I think the secret to winning was that I missed last year's lunch!," joked Nicholls. "Tidal Bay is obviously in great shape this year and won the Lexus the other day. He gets in off a 4lb lower mark than in the Hennessy and Graham (Wylie) and I decided this morning that we'll give it our best shot and aim him at the race.
"I took him out of the Gold Cup today and if he's ready he'll go for the World Hurdle but we wouldn't go there and forego our chance in the National which is our number one aim. He's 12 now so we've got to give it a chance this year.
"What A Friend has the same profile as Neptune Collonges last year, having been placed in a Gold Cup and winning Grade Ones. He could go to Kempton in a couple of weeks' time but he may miss Cheltenham if he is going to run in the National. You don't run well in the race if you've had a hard race at Cheltenham.
"We have waited with him and he's due to go to Doncaster in a couple of weeks. He has some good form on good ground and I'd say he'd be a definite runner off 10st 2lb.
"Join Together is the one horse we really set out to aim at the National when they came in at the start of the season. He's also due to go to Doncaster and could be one who could run really well.
"Of mine, I'd have to say that Tidal Bay just has that class and the weight won't be an issue. He carried that much in the Lexus and more than it in the Hennessy. If he can get in a rhythm, then he'd have a serious chance.
After all the brouhaha events took a disappointing turn when Tidal Bay picked up an injury and was ruled out of the event later in the week.
As things now stand all the weights below are set to rise by 2lbs although some commentators have now questioned whether Albertas Run and Imperial Commander will take their chance. If the top three were now to come out weights would go up by five pounds and would leave the horses now ranked three to forty three carrying between 10st 10lbs and 11st 10lbs. That would be the most compressed handicap in history but the reality is many more horses will drop out of the final field.
THE 2013 JOHN SMITH'S GRAND NATIONAL
Class 1, Grade 3, £975,000. Aintree, Saturday, April 6th. 4m. 3f. 110yds.
Form Horse Age/Wgt Owner Trainer
1)541-121 TIDAL BAY (IRE) 12-11-10 Andrea & Graham Wylie Paul Nicholls
2) P12/123- ALBERTAS RUN (IRE) 12-11-08 Trevor Hemmings Jonjo O'Neill
3) 51U/1P/-2 IMPERIAL COMMANDER (IRE) 12-11-06 Our Friends in the North Nigel Twiston-Davies
4)13-3361 QUITO DE LA ROQUE (FR) 9-11-05 Gigginstown House Stud Colm Murphy IRE
5)4P/33F0- WHAT A FRIEND 10-11-05 Ged Mason & Sir Alex Ferguson Paul Nicholls
6)4-F0211 KATENKO (FR) 7-11-04 Andrew Brooks Venetia Williams
7) 13PF-4PP WEIRD AL (IRE) 10-11-04 Brannon Dick Holden Donald McCain
8) 351/51-1 PRINCE DE BEAUCHENE (FR) 10-11-03 Andrea & Graham Wylie Willie Mullins IRE
9) F1113-04 QUEL ESPRIT (FR) 9-11-03 Red Barn Syndicate Willie Mullins IRE
10)440/-U31 BIG FELLA THANKS 11-11-02 Crossed Fingers Partnership Tom George
11)000-1U35 ROBERTO GOLDBACK (IRE) 11-11-02 Simon Munir Nicky Henderson