If there are any certainties in life other than death and taxes, it is that owners and trainers will always argue that their horses have been badly treated by the handicapper. We always feel that as with golf handicaps we’re penalised quickly for decent performances while the official handicapper only reduces the penalties at a glacial pace. Recently one of our horses, He’s A Bully, a 13-race maiden, went up 7lbs for coming second. I thought this was very harsh, as did all the owners and connections. Having had quite a whinge about it, the horse duly won his next race by 9 lengths! But we had to run him before he could be re-handicapped, so for Owners for Owners there was a happy ending to the grumble and, indeed, the mark then stayed the same.
Throughout the intervening week between the 7lb hike and winning the race, there was a lot of discussion in our owner network about He’s A Bully, basically along the lines of how harsh it is to put up a maiden for not winning. Surely any horse should be entitled to win a race before being punished? There were even more painful examples however where the handicapper has put up horses significantly for not even completing races. Again, just because a horse is going well but then falls over, say, at the final fence, surely it is overly harsh to raise the mark without even getting home.
That line of discussion got me thinking more about the handicapping system, and the core principles behind it. On the BHA web site there is a detailed guide to handicapping which contains nine formal aims:
- To achieve a competitive race with a close finish with a view to providing an exciting sporting spectacle.
- To ensure that every horse’s handicap rating gives it a theoretical equal chance of success on its best recent form under its optimum conditions.
- To set an interesting puzzle that the public find intriguing to solve.
- To aim for competitive betting in handicap races, thereby indicating that the public believe that horses have a reasonable chance of success.
- To re-evaluate ratings after a race so that horses that have raced competitively together are weighted to, theoretically, equalise the form if they were to meet next time they ran.
- To reduce the rating of horses which appear to be deteriorating with a view to giving them a fair chance of success.
- To favour the majority at the expense of the minority. If one horse is rated too highly, then that one horse may not have an equal chance of success on its next start. If one horse is rated too low, however, then every horse it races against may not have an equal chance of success on their next start.
- To keep the median ratings of all horses on file as consistent as possible with previous years. Both ‘slippage’ and ‘uppage’ within the overall rating file are undesirable as they can lead to a mismatch between the racing population and the race programme.
- To be as open as possible with trainers and owners seeking information about their horse’s handicap rating.
Unfortunately there is very little properly gathered data examining the churn rate of owners, and I’ve certainly never seen anything at all that examines the frustration and disillusionment that can set in due to horses being handicapped to a level where it is just about impossible for them to win. Similarly I am not aware of any study having been made of owners quitting the sport and selling / retiring their horses as a result of inappropriately high handicapping. However, anecdotal evidence abounds on this subject and a number of trainers’ blogs definitely argue that the principles of handicapping are a contributing factor to high churn rates. To what extent should there be a formal aim of handicapping that focuses on the requirement to retain owners in the sport through ensuring that their horses can win or be placed a sufficient number of times? Do let me know your views on this subject. After all, there is no point pursuing expensive marketing initiatives to bring owners into the sport if it is driving them out through inappropriate handicapping of their horses.