South Africa’s handicappers are determined to win back their credibility and to perform their professional function without fear or favour, while protecting the sport’s integrity.
That was the broad message, together with policy changes that include a pending general upgrade of the horse population’s ratings, that emerged as the curtain came down shortly after 15h00 on Wednesday afternoon on the fourth and final, for this stage, NHA Handicapping roadshow, which was held in the boardroom of the racing regulator’s Johannesburg Headquarters at Turffontein Racecourse.
The concept of reaching out to the racing public and stakeholders, many of whom appear to have genuinely limited understanding of the science, was introduced by NHA CEO Vee Moodley, the first leg being held at Kenilworth on 27 April.
While initially greeted with the usual cynicism that tends to be the response to any new initiative in the game, the general consensus from those that have attended is that the sessions have proven both enlightening and informative.
Wednesday’s Highveld session, hosted by Vee and his senior handicapper Lennon Maharaj, included sections of the racing media, owners, amateur handicappers, Phumelela’s Patrick Davis and Jay Harriellal, as well as a balanced spread of trainers, from the multiple past SA champion Sean Tarry to the likes of Clinton Binda, Grant Maroun, Paul Peter and Brett Warren – the latter appearing to be very concerned at perceived programming issues bedevelling the lower rated sectors of the equine population.
Moodley opened the session by explaining South African racing’s membership as a Part 1 – or ‘Gold Card member’ – of the Asian Pattern Committee. Other Part 1 members include the likes of the UAE, Japan, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia.
An early pearl of interesting information to emerge was that all Group races worldwide are rated by the committee and that South African horses have parallel international merit ratings – which are utilised when they race internationally.
The panel members lobby amongst each other for consensus on ratings. In the case for example of Do It Again, rated 125 domestically, the NHA are currently arguing for his international rating to be upped from its current 118.
Moodley said that on a sperate issue, there were also moves afoot to drop the fillies sex allowance from 2,5kgs to 2kgs in 2021.
He said that South Africa’s current total Gr1 race total of 29 was on the high side in terms of our population and total races. He said that the accepted ratio was to have double the amount of Gr2 races.
He also warned that the Golden Horse Sprint and the Summer Cup were currently under review and that the operators had been informed to take suitable action to lift the quality of the fields.
The relaxation of the handicapping guidelines – or handcuffs on the handicappers – when assessing Graded, Listed or Non Black Type Feature races has already led to plenty of debate and a detailed press release outlining a revised set of guidelines – or rules of engagement – is expected by mid-July.
The restrictions in essence can make it very difficult or even impossible for the Handicappers to correctly apply NHA Rule 47.3.2, which clearly defines the meaning of a Handicap race.This has led to an imbalance in the system, with considerable congestion at the lower end of the ratings’ ‘pyramid’.
Moodley pointed out that at present, because of the ‘slippage factor’ flowing from many more horses being dropped than being increased or maintained, more than 72% of the horse population are rated 73 or below, despite the fact that many horses have shown themselves to be capable of a higher rating.
The population will thus be subjected to a 10 point increase effective 1 August to reduce the congestion in the lower ranks.
Our last increase was in March 2018 – Moodley pointing out that August was a far better time on the weight-for-age scale to implement the adjustment.
When questioned how we won’t land up in the same boat in a year from now, he added that the application of their new policy – which includes ‘zero performance’and ‘one pounders’, would go some way to alleviating the need to take this action every year.
The vocal and enthusiastic Sean Tarry welcomed the two-way flow of information, but pleaded with Moodley to ‘please just be consistent and to keep the information simple and clear’.
He questioned Gold Challenge runner-up Cirillo’s 121 rating, asking for an opinion round the room how his smart 3yo would go with the equally rated Hawwaam over a mile.
“I am a racehorse trainer. My horses, my owners and my staff are my priorities. We start early, the horses have to be fed, watered, trained, cared for – and that goes on 24/7 and 365 days a year. The last thing I want to do, or have time for, is to worry about handicapping issues,” he said.
Tarry added that he felt that the NHA had erred in simply adopting the partial relaxation of the handicapping guidelines without first informing stakeholders.
“Trainers were caught off-sides. I’m not fighting with you but this was implemented incorrectly – no matter the good intentions,” said Tarry, who called on the NHA and Phumelela to clearly and simply set out the specifics of all the guidelines and the implications in the racing programme.
Moodley conceded that the regulator should have published an advice in advance but cited the Cape Derby appeal, where the panel had deviated from the guidelines in reaching their decision, as a precedent.
Patrick Davis and Gabbi Soma confirmed that the programming committee were working together with the NHA to ensure that racing benefitted at the end of the day. Davis said 85 MR 64 Handicaps had been added to the programme.
The whole show was filmed by Andrew Bon and is expected to be broadcast on Tellytrack soon.