Wednesday, September 26, 2018
I have major issues with our handicapping system. In my opinion it would be improved by radical change. More horses should have more chance of winning - and for that to happen I believe only handicap winners should have their ratings raised.
The main problem with the way we handicap horses in Britain and Ireland is the system encourages people to cheat. That's what it does and I think most people can see that's what it does.
It is obvious the lower the rating the better is the general rule in handicaps, unless you're trying to force your way into a race like the Grand National, Ebor or Hunt Cup. Moreover, it pays to start a horse in handicaps off the lowest possible mark as that gives you the greatest room within which to rise.
There are ways of getting down to the sort of rating you want. One might be that a horse goes to the race after spending more time on a walker than on the gallops. That horse therefore arrives at the races a little like me - bigger around the belly than he should be and short of peak fitness.
People can easily play the system. They might be staying within the rules but outside of the spirit of the rules. Compare their horses with those who are campaigned with hearts on sleeves.
It is hard to win handicaps, particularly if you openly show your hand every time. You can consistently perform honourably, finishing second, third or fourth and nudging up one, two or three pounds each time. After four runs you can be 8lb higher but with not a win to show for it. At the same time, a horse campaigned in a less transparent manner could have dropped 8lb over the same period. That's a 16lb swing.
Let me make clear I am not criticising handicappers. They have a horrendously hard job, one I would hate to do. There must be many occasions when they would love to give a horse a bigger figure but are unable to do so because they must produce a number based on what they've seen with eyes, not suspicions in the back of their minds. It's not the handicappers I dislike but the handicapping system.
I hate to see the frustration and disappointment felt by countless owners whose horses continually run well and are continually punished for doing exactly that. It is incredibly disheartening for them when their horses are sometimes beaten by rivals who were not previously campaigned with integrity.
It really is dispiriting for owners whose horses give their all every time but can't quite win - and, believe me, this game is all about winning.
Owners are involved in the sport because they want to win. Not enough get to win or feel they have a realistic chance of winning. That needs to change. My way of changing it would be rebuilding the handicap system so that in handicaps only winners can have their ratings increased.
Some will think that is far too bold and that no racing nation could operate such a system. It would be wrong to think that because what I'm calling for is what already happens in France. There, if you finish second in a handicap at Longchamp, Chantilly or anywhere else, you don't go up in the weights. The same applies to all losing horses. It is only the winner's mark that can be increased.
If a horse beaten a nose into second then reopposes an opponent he beat into third by six lengths he'll probably win. To my eyes that's good not bad. It will then be his turn to be hiked in the weights and those who finished behind will have a greater opportunity the following time.
Critics will say this is unfair on horses who win a handicap. However, the connections of those horses will at least have won a race - and, as I said earlier, winning is what counts.
Part of the problem is the prize-money dished out to placed horses is so poor. Prize-money in general isn't great but the overall situation would be made much better if the cake was split differently.
Take the nursery Dandy Lad contests at Wolverhampton on Saturday night. The total prize fund is £5,800. The winner gets £3,493, the second £1,039, the third £519 and the fourth £219. Wouldn't it be better and fairer all round if the winner got perhaps £750 less and that money was divided proportionally among the placed horses? Again, the system for divvying up prize-money is better in France, where the second can often expect to collect 50 per cent of what the winner earns.
My concerns about the handicapping system might not even exist if horses finishing second were regularly winning £5,000. In my opinion, prize-money for finishing second in two races should be the same as winning one comparable race. As things stand, horses rated 70 or under - the majority of the population - can finish placed in a fair race but the money collected might not even cover the day's expenses.
Owners continue to support the sport by buying horses and keeping them in training. Given the likely financial returns, I sometimes don't know how or why they do it - but they do.
They are clearly not in racing for the prize-money. They want to win. I believe an overhaul of the handicap system would give them a better chance of winning and it would therefore encourage them to stay in the sport.
My first preference would be to limit ratings rises in handicaps to winners.
If that cannot be done I would love to see prize-money distributed more fairly, so there is no longer such a chasm between what you earn when you win and what you earn when you nearly win.
If we could do both, so much the better.