NHA CEO Vee Moodley emphasised that the handicapping guidelines are “guidelines not rules” and added a press release would be sent out whenever there had been a deviation from the guidelines.
A press release was sent out explaining the merit rated changes made after the running of the SA Derby and SA Oaks and it was clear to all who know the guidelines that the handicappers had deviated.
The NHA have risked opening a can of worms as there was no warning given at nomination stage that one particular guideline would be deviated from for the first time since its inception in 2012.
There have been three “updates” to the handicapping guidelines this decade.
In the June 2012 update one of the points stated, “Grade 1 & 2 races Upward Adjustment to first 5 finishers only.”
However, in the merit rating changes made after last weekend, the Grade 1 SA Derby 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th placed horses were all adjusted upward and the Grade 2 SA Oaks 6th placed horse was adjusted upward.
The press release wording relevant to the SA Derby stated, “In other changes, SENOR LIZARD was raised from 85 to 88, ARLINGTONS REVENGE goes up from 80 to 84, MASTER MAGIC was raised from 80 to 84, ZANAKI goes up from 78 to 83, and LAST OF THE LEGEND was upped from 78 to 81. These horses finished from 5th place to 9th, and in doing this it is ensured that these five horses would meet one another on the correct weight terms in a handicap race. This satisfies the definition of a handicap. The only other change was OWLINTHETREE, whose rating was cut from 99 to 91.”
And for the SA Oaks it stated, “PRETTY BORDER (6th) goes up from 72 to 80 in order that she is not rated below last placed FARIHA, who remains unchanged on 80.”
The reasons for the changes are made clear.
However, owners and trainers of the above horses might have been taken by surprise.
If any of these owners or trainers subsequently have a horse facing Doublemint in a handicap they will be justified in arguing that the latter horse finished just 3,50 lengths back in the Sun Met in 6th place yet remains on a lowly 104 merit rating.
The five horses who finished ahead of him are now merit rated between 118 and 125 and he finished ahead of the 121 merit rated Oh Susanna.
The point is how consistently are the handicappers going to deviate from the guidelines and will owners and trainers know when to expect the deviations?
If the handicappers have carte blanche then the luxury owners and trainers have had since June 2012 of testing horses in Grade 1 and Grade 2s in the hope they are good enough might be over.
From 2012 until this week they had been safe in the knowledge that failing to earn a cheque in such a race would at least ensure no upward adjustment to their horse’s merit rating.
On the other hand Moodley is one of the most respected handicappers in the country and it should be borne in mind that in its purest form the merit rating system has no restrictive guidelines. In England, for example, handicapping is done purely on the handicappers’ interpretations of the race.
With Moodley now in charge of the NHA and two equally knowledgeable stalwarts in Lennon Maharaj and Matthew Lips doing the handicapping, perhaps it is time more trust was placed in their own discretion and interpretations.
Their task at present is onerous. There is pressure on them to satisfy international committees that certain races deserve Grade 1 or Grade 2 status, but on the other hand they must pay heed to guidelines aimed at preventing horses from being unfairly punished.
However, punishment is relative and in protecting one band of horse, others must be getting punished.
Ultimately, handicapping done by the pure interpretation of handicappers who know what they are doing must surely be the best solution and Moodley, Maharaj and Lips do know what they are doing.