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Guided By Rules Of Convenience

Handicapping the handicappers

If the National Horse Racing Authority is anything, it is an organisation of Rules. It even uses the word “Authority” in its name, writes Tony Mincione.

I used to enjoy Mr Vee Moodley, he wears his heart on his sleeve. He is passionate about handicapping, no doubt. He’s taken the driving seat in the handicapper’s office and we see that it’s okay that everyone else has to live by the rules, but not them.

Ever since Merit Ratings replaced Race Figures in the late 1990’s there has been a tension between owners & trainers vs. the Handicapper. Trainers try to keep their horses competitive while the handicapper applies NHA Rule 47.4.2 :

“A Handicap, which shall be a race in which the weights to be carried by the horses are allocated by the handicapper for the purpose of equalizing their chances of winning”.

The tension resulted in compromises to Rule 47.4.2, and the NHRA published ongoing guidelines with amendments such as:

Maiden Plate Winners

    1. A four-year-old or older winner will not be rated higher than a net 70.
    2. A three-year-old Maiden winner will not be rated higher than a net 78. This does not apply to a Graded Placed horse.
    3. The winner of a maiden plate in Kimberley will not be rated higher than a net 60 and Zimbabwe a net 58

Minor Race Plate Rule

    1. The winner of a plate race will not be adjusted more than 6 merit rating points.

Now although these are called “Guidelines”, a title that could imply that it’s a guide rather than a rule. When you read the “will” in “1. A four-year-old or older winner will not be rated higher than a net 70.”, you realize it really is a rule that qualifies an earlier rule. The “Guidelines” are exactly that, amendments and additions to existing rules.

Recently the handicappers have taken it upon themselves to ignore the rules with freely applied merit ratings regardless of the caps promised at nominations. After some push back we got to read (in the press and not by decree): NHA CEO Vee Moodley emphasised that the handicapping guidelines are “guidelines not rules”.

To be honest, this is what you might expect someone else to say and that the NHRA would reply, crack the whip, and say: “No! That’s not how we do things”. It is a body that has to enforce rules on people who are licenced or colour-holders all the time, sometimes with severe consequences and therefore we rely on them to be clear and straight down the guideline.

So after a few occasions of the Handicapper playing fast and loose with the ratings, on Saturday we had the Winter Guineas (Gr3) at Kenilworth where Majestic Mozart(90) was sent out to take on One World(117), Herodotus(101) and Vardy(100) in a field of only seven runners. Fourth in the ratings and the 4th in the betting, Majestic Mozart had been beaten twice by Vardy and a few times by One World, who in turn held the field including the 2kgs extra he carried.

One can ask why would the connections run a horse rated 90 in a field of 7 runners when a close 3rd was possible? Would that not be playing with rating fire, after all anywhere close to One World and they could be looking at anything up to 23 points penalty (11.5kgs)? This question had been considered by the industry, and to encourage larger fields and connections worried about being penalised for playing, a further amendment was added in April 2016

The NHRA notified the industry and published that it had been decided that:

9. The winner and placed horses in a Grade 2 or Grade 3 race is capped at a 10 point penalty for the winner, 5 points for 2nd place and 3 points for 3rd place.

These protections guaranteed that Vardy could expect to be capped by 5 points (100-105) and Majestic Mozart by 3 (90-93). The actual penalties given were, in fact, 4.5kgs and 6kgs respectively.

You have to argue that the rule is a deal with the industry. We cannot bait them to run with caps, and then switch when it doesn’t suit in the name of the original rule, that’s a classic con. I have no idea how they can sit in judgement later with a rule book when they are the first to disregard our rules.

Ultimately the question is why don’t they change the rules first, rather than just break them. I suspect it’s because the Guidelines were created to correct and supercede the unintended consequence of rule 47.4.2. and the Handicapper knows that the blind justice of rule 47.4.2 is too much for people to trust them and leave without safeguards (or caps as we call it) in place.

They ignored the safety deal and applied, in the case of the Winter Guineas, a 12 point penalty for a R25k return after a promise of 3 points max, on the basis that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission, and are bluffing their way forward.

One can only hope that the connections appeal, and if the Handicappers insist on having their thumb on the scale, that the subsequent board read the rules as intended. It is an agreement between all the players of the game.

Clearly what we don’t have is the steadying hand of a CEO on the Handicappers. So what do we have?

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14 comments on “Guided By Rules Of Convenience

  1. Jay August says:

    Tony, I don’t understand this part of your argument – “Ever since Merit Ratings replaced Race Figures in the late 1990’s there has been a tension between owners & trainer”

    What initiates this conflict? A reluctance by trainers to run a horse in a race or races?

    1. karel says:

      Tony replies: Jay, that was a typo. There was a tension between the (new system) and the trainers, especially those who felt there was a certain kind of justice in that a horse with more wins should give weight to one who had less wins. I’m sure that it also reflected a worry about money. Underneath it all was a concern that if you came upon a good handicapper now, you didn’t want to be cheated out of your just reward.

      To a large extent, most of the arguments for the guidelines came from trainers concerned that “expensive” horses could be “stopped” from earning by an early injudicious choice early in a horse’s career that could leave the trainer in a really bad predicament with their patron. So the thrust of those rules are primarily to protect against the mistrust in the handicappers, a belief that they could destroy a horse through a blind justice of arithmetic, or just a non-subtle interpretation, or worst of all, just be wrong.

  2. The Dark Duke says:

    A friend of mine attended the Saturday meeting at Kenilworth and his feedback to me was that the NHA are just steamrolling ahead with this new format of theirs, and ignoring all the rules. He felt that the one or two people that questioned in particular Vee Moodley, were treated in the manner that bordered on arrogance. Questions asked were answered in the manner that the NHA were incredulous that people could not understand the workings.

    My viewpoint is that should any connection of a horse that has received a penalty harsher than the guidelines object, the appeal board will have no option but to upheld. Tony Mincione is correct in his summation that rules are there for a reason, when the connections entered their horse they did so under the guidelines that maximum penalties could be imposed. They would be foolish to accept the workings of a panel who believe that they are above the law.

  3. hilton witz says:

    Before i and many others start taking antepost bets into the july this lot needs to clarify if they are going to over ride the clear rules or what they call as guidelines in the nomination book..Here i am talking about races like the greyville 1900 where it clearly states that the winner is subject to a penalty of up to 6 points but the placed horses will have no increases unless requested ..

  4. Jay August says:

    Tony, understood – that part did not fit in with the rest of your comments.

    I have no issue with your insistence that the guidelines became rules in practice or by virtue of the language used. Custom established over many years is as good as a rule.

    At some point though the guidelines should be revisited to see if they have any validity in practice. I’m less sympathetic to that part of the debate.

    What I would expect from the handicappers is an analysis of how the guidelines distort true handicapping, and what that means in practice, if anything.

  5. Steve Reid says:

    Mr. Editor

    Could you please let us have the names of the industry “experts” who proposed this latest set of amendments to the Handicapping guidelines in April 2006.

    It seems that when you change caps, then you are able to manually change your mind in regard what is seen as “good for the industry”. I have long had my say about the incompetents that masquerade as “experts”. This latest development tells me that the new broom is either confused, clueless or just plain a whore for what suits the agenda. Take your pick.

  6. Graham Martin says:

    How the hell can a horse that ran 3rd(Majestic Mozart) receive a BIGGER penalty than the horse that ran 2nd, (Vardy) This is a real mind blower!

    1. karel says:

      So what would you have done, knowing that the objective task is to bring them close together when next they meet?

  7. Tony Mincione says:

    Mr Martin, Vardy beat Majestic Mozart by 2.75 lengths over 1 mile at level weight. They are rated 109 and 102 respectively. So in the next handicap Vardy gives Majestic Mozart 2.5kgs for 2.75 L.

    You cannot possibly object, can you?

    The answer to your question is then:
    1. If it was underrated in the first place, then it can get a BIGGER penalty (or change in rating) than the horse which beats it, or
    2. if it improved more, or
    3. if the front horse has a high rating and runs below it’s rating.

  8. Steve Reid says:

    You cannot blame people for being confused as the rules are not being followed. The owners of Vardy and Majestic Mozart are receiving a Rodgering from the handicapper. Contrary to the very clear guidelines that exist. They should both object and they will win their matter without breaking into a sweat, the NHA have no defence.

    This raises the matter of what the RA are doing about all of this. The people most affected by this foolishness are those that pay the bills. This is a clear case of owners getting abused. So it surprises me when I hear Justin Vermaak attended the feedback session and had little to say, when you would believe he would be doing what was right and proper for his members?

  9. Graham Martin says:

    So in a handicap Vardy should still beat Majestic Mozart by 0.75 lengths, is this what you are saying?(1kg = 1 length)

  10. Graham Martin says:

    I want Karel and Tony to enjoy tonight’s racing at Greyville, watch some top class race horses in action, the best in the country! also tomorrow at Turffontein. So stop stressing and complaining and sit back and enjoy! Forget about Merit ratings, race figures, kilograms and lengths and all that bull shit! just enjoy the racing!

  11. Ian Jayes says:

    In Britain there was Classic WFA racing which measured and rewarded excellence and handicaps for the lesser horses, Classic horses and handicappers did not meet in races. We have a legacy in this country that all our top (high stakes) races were handicaps where the bottom weight was 7 stone and the top weight was anything up to 10 stone 10 pounds. This was a weight range of 52 pounds or 24 Kgs. Our lesser races had top weights of 9 stone and bottom weights of 7 stone. This was a weight range of 28 pounds or 13 Kgs, these races were made up from “long” handicaps which were split into A, B, C or D divisions.
    We introduced “Conditions” racing with Novice and Graduation Plates and attempted to extend this into a so-called handicapping system known as “race-figures” which was a non-sense, because a class horse would beat a lesser horse, the lesser horse would then beat other lesser horses and then would have to meet that class horse again at the same weight terms under which it was beaten before.
    Merit-rated “long” handicaps were introduced to rectify this ridiculous situation. A lot of trainers who, under race-figures, just threw horses into races without any regard to their class,were not happy with the new system and agitated against it. The result was the adulteration of the handicapping system with the introduction of bench-marks and a weight-range of only 8 kgs, which has resulted in a lot of horses again running at a disadvantage.
    The answer to the current problem is a simple one. The programme must provide for classic and conditions racing for the better horses and we must do away with benchmarks and go back to divided handicaps produced from cutting long handicaps at certain points depending on the quality and quantity of the horses nominated.

  12. Jay August says:

    Ian, your thoughts are very accurate. We have a problematical past which just cannot be banished from memory, and a failure of current programming as a result. The MR issues are really just smoke. Like bad economic policy no amount of tinkering will help.

    Handicap marks for the best horses (the top 2.5% – 120 or so horses) should simply be academic, as these horses should be taking part in mostly non handicap races, within a regular pattern of racing. which rewards class.

    Somehow I do not think the out-of-the-box thinking that is needed in SA will ever happen. We simply do not seem to have industry leaders who have the type of thinking to make that happen. Everyone is simply entrenched in a position.

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