“Difference of opinion is what makes horse racing.” It’s an adage that holds true today as much as a hundred years ago. Racing without debate, heated or not, wouldn’t be the same. Controversial these days are Merit Ratings, a big debating point being how the official handicapper arrives at his ratings. Here are some ideas, writes Karel Miedema.
What is Handicapping
Handicapping is the art of bringing horses together, and making fields competitive. A ‘good’ handicap is all about perception. The question which must be asked: “What do people think before the race?” A ‘good’ handicap is when there are plenty of runners in the field, and no short-priced favourite. An open race. How do we arrive at the weights for such a race? The official handicapper must work on the assumption that most horses are inherently consistent, and reproduce their best form for periods at a time – if not all the time.
How is it applied
By measuring what is regarded as normal form, and expressing it in a figure, horses can be matched against each other and the playing field be levelled. The measure the handicapper uses is weight. Each horse has a Merit Rating (MR), an assessment of the ability shown on the track. The Merit Rating is expressed in half-kilos.
Horses with the same MR are assumed to have similar ability. Each Merit Rating point equals half a kilo. Merit Ratings are calculated by comparing the performances of horses in a race. One horse beats another. The difference in lengths between the two can be translated in half-kilos, using a formula which has stood the test of time. It is important to understand that a length has different weight equivalent over different distances. That makes sense, as it becomes more difficult to carry weight the further the distance. Carrying a water-bucket once round the block may be fine, but the second lap will tax your muscles, slow you down.
One extra kilo weight in a sprint has far less effect than one kilo in a staying race. It may sound strange that the performance of a horse weighing 500kg, who carries a jockey and saddle weighing some 50kg, can be influenced by changing the weight carried in the saddle by a single kilo. This is because the spine of a horse acts in unison with its stomach muscles, creating what is in effect a bow and string effect. Stomach muscles affect the stride. More pressure on the ‘bow’ asks for more effort by the horse to stride freely. A little extra weight goes a long way to make things more difficult.
How is it measured
The conversion table used by a typical handicapper will look something like this.
Distance…1 length equals half-kilos 1000m …. 4 1600m …. 3 2000m …. 2 2400m …. 1
or the other way round:
Distance…1 half-kilo equals.lengths 1000m …. 1/4 1600m …. 1/2 2000m …. 3/4 2400m …. 1
So: On average one kilo equals one length over a mile, but less in a sprint, and more over ground. Think: In a slow run race it becomes easier to carry weight, and the ‘slowing down effect’ of weight should be adjusted to compensate. That is why knowing at what pace a race is being run is important.
Where do you start
Horses come into any race with an existing Merit Rating (how the base or start-up rating is arrived at will the subject of another article). The distance of the race is fixed, so the handicapper knows what weight value to use for one length. Now when the race is run the horses will beat each other by a certain number of lengths, which can be translated into half-kilos using the formula. If all horses carry the same weight, then calculated difference from lengths-behind into half-kilos will equal the difference in Merit rating between the horses.
For example: Horse A and B race over 1600m; both carry the same weight; Horse A beats Horse B by 2 lengths. The two lengths difference is the equivalent of 4 half-kilos – Horse A therefore puts up a performance 4 Merit Points superior to Horse B. Now the handicapper looks at the Merit Ratings as they were before the race. He checks: was Horse A’s Merit Rating beforehand also 4 points higher than the one of Horse B? Chances are it won’t be exactly the same, but it should be close. Now comes the task of adjusting the rating. If the ‘before’ and ‘after’ MR’s weren’t the same, how should they be adjusted – if at all?
To make that decision the handicapper MUST look at the ratings of ALL horses in the race, not just those of A and B. Most commonly, he will look for the performance of a horse that finished within a few lengths of the winner and whose recent form has been consistent and reliable. That becomes his KEY HORSE, the horse whose rating is used as a benchmark.
Give me an example
A good example of this is the performance of Free My Heart when he beat Jet Master over 1600m at Clairwood. In the July panel discussion Paul Lafferty was highly vocal about the fact that he didn’t think Free My Heart had been properly ‘penalised’, and that he should have had his Merit Rating increased by six instead of the two Merit Rating points the handicapper raised his rating by.
If the reasoning of taking a line through Jet Master is used, then Free My Heart’s rating should have been increased to at least the level of Jet Master’s rating. That’s what the race showed. Now for the crunch: if Free My Heart’s rating is raised to that level, then the ratings for all other runners in the same race must follow suit – they are, after all, linked together through the lengths-behind-the-winner calculation. In this case it meant that not only Free My Heart’s rating would have gone up dramatically, but those of most other runners in the race as well! Forget it.
So what’s the answer
The only logical conclusion was that Jet Master probably ran below best, and should not be used as the key HORSE. The handicapper decided, in this case, that the more likely candidate for key honours was third finisher Glamour Boy. If Glamour Boy ran to his ‘normal’ form, then most of the horses in the field appeared to do the same. Free My Heart’s Merit Rating increase was therefore based on beating Glamour Boy, not on beating Jet Master.
A sound decision. This example illustrates what is probably the most common mistake made by us. We assume that when a horse wins a race it automatically must have its merit Rating increased, be penalised. Wrong. IT ALL DEPENDS on the key HORSE. The winning horse could well have won easily and run below his rating, in which case it would be wrong to increase its rating. If a penalty for winning was given automatically, then it could be that several of the beaten horses might also have to go up, because of their lengths-behind-the-winner relationship.
In handicapping there’s no such thing as a penalty. Re-assessment to achieve optimum competitiveness – that the name of the game.
Don’t forget: the handicapper rates ALL races, not just handicaps. After each and every race he attempts to achieve a ‘best fit’ for the Merit ratings of all horses in the race, not just for the winner or the first two home. Over time, the handicapper will build up a history of each horse, a solid background to its apparent ability shown on the track. So when you see a short-priced favourite in a handicap race (where the handicapper has set the weights to give every horse the same chance of winning), pay attention.
Either the handicapper has slipped up, or – much more likely – the market is wrong. Often you can use that knowledge to your benefit. The Ability Ratings (AR) in Sporting Post are calculated in much the same way as the official Merit Ratings. Sometimes opinions concur strongly, sometimes they differ – either way useful betting opportunities arise. Keep your eyes peeled.