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Remembering Our Race Figure Heritage

It seems very little ever changes in South Africa

On this Heritage Day I am reminded of the good old days.

To celebrate our horsey heritage, I thought an extract from the South African Racehorse would remind us of the Race Figure system, writes Jay August in the SP Mailbag

This excerpt from the November/December 1983 edition:

“The mini Transvaal feature-race season started with the R100000 Germiston November Handicap (Gr III) at Gosforth Park on November 5, and Wolf Power broke the 94 sec barrier over 1600m for the first time in national racing. The publication of weights for the race resulted in waves of criticism breaking over Gosforth Park handicapper Geoff Mollett.

It was a forgone conclusion that Wolf Power, undisputedly several lengths superior to any in the country over 1600m, would be allotted top weight.

The mighty Wolf Power

However, when the weights were announced it was eight-year-old Denim Dandy, winner of 12 races and R92885 in stakes, who had top allotment of 58.5kg and Wolf Power, winner of 13 races for stakes of R434775, had 57.5kg.

The handicapper was not entirely to blame for a race advertised as a handicap being transformed into a benefit for Wolf Power. All handicappers in South Africa must work within the framework of the race-figure system. This dictates that horses be handicapped on the basis of about six race-figure points – or 3kg for each win – rather than a handicapper’s assessment of their relative merits.

This has resulted in handicappers becoming no more than race-figure adjusters and, as things stand, a computer adequately programmed could probably do the job more efficiently.

Handicappers are also bound by a decision made several years ago that horses are not penalised for wins in weight-for-age races.

This ruling makes it possible for a winner of six races to have to concede weight to a 12-time winner, who has gained most of his victories in weight-for-age events, thus defeating the object of a handicap, which is to give every horse an equal chance of winning.”

It seems very little ever changes in South Africa. Tinkering with handicapping systems seems to be the “rule”.

Happy Heritage Day!

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22 comments on “Remembering Our Race Figure Heritage

  1. Steve Reid says:

    Jay it is extremely easy to take an example in isolation and paint something in a poor light. You and I have had our discussions about the merits ( excuse the pun ) of the two systems. I make no apologies for being an advocate of some aspects of the RF system, and in particular, the clear route it offered new entrants to racing who showed talent early on. It was most definitely not the Holy Grail of handicapping nor did it deliver certainties. I will never apologise for being critical of MR for the punishing of in particular, talented younger horses. Perusal of my comments in a debate with Karel the kerel some years ago on this site, will bear testimony to this. General Franco is but one example of many younger horses who seem to have been put in their places on one run. Owners who spend the money and take the risks in a sport that offers no guarantees, deserve to be rewarded when they find a good one. The RF system definitely gave younger horses with talent more opportunities to win races before “the handicapper got them” to steal a quote from our champion trainer.

    I have a few ideas we have debated that could be a possible remedy to this problem, however it would be a waste of my time suggesting changes, because of the myopic attitude of those in charge. They do not listen to criticism of their beloved system, but spend time justifying ratings as if they were preaching to the illiterate. They don’t get it that the opposition is not to the workings of the MR system, and regardless of what points are made, the outcome is always justification of how a horse got its rating.

    My mate Tony Mincione would say, I am an idiot. I am looking at it with my f&*king owners eyes. He would be 100% correct in his summation. MR has its place – it also has its faults. These faults should be addressed. A dual handicapping system would be a start, it has been done before.

  2. Basil says:

    Steve , I don’t think any of us have summed up the current situation as well as u have just done. I second your motions and sentiments entirely.

  3. hilton witz says:

    The best article i have read in decades and worthy of getting an equus award if they still have those awards ..

  4. Oscar says:

    Steve, you are 100 % correct.l really hope that some people take your advice and act upon. it for the betterment of the game.

  5. Basil says:

    Steve please air your views as to how the situation can be remedied. Let us make use of this forum to motivate interested parties not to be quiet.

  6. Carry On Alice says:

    My heritage day rememberance is during this time of September, early October, they had a race called the John Skeaping trophy which was open to 3yo’s and 4yo’s only. It gave you a good indication how good the 3yo’s are although it being a WFA event. I can remember the 3yo Golden Hoard beating the 4yo Ashtontown in one of the years. Ashtontown won the Cape Guineas as a 3yo beating London News.

    By the way my preference is for the merit rating system.

  7. karel says:

    It may be fun to re-visit this, written decades ago.
    https://www.sportingpost.co.za/insight/the-best-horses-in-the-world/
    Racefigures have limitations, too.
    What now, Mr Wrench?

  8. Jay August says:

    Excellent article Karel. It is a great pity that you have written articles of this calibre over many decades which are now seemingly forgotten.

    Steve, I’ll respond later today when I have time to absorb Karel’s article more fully. On quick reading many of the points I would make are already in that article.

  9. Leon Smuts says:

    I always love your debates on this issue but I have one question regarding this. Is it really desirable to have a situation where most horses have an equal chance of winning or should better horses be allowed to be better horses. Surely the structure of the race program should take care of both scenarios so that better horses will be allowed to become champions and those not so gifted to race against their peers for a lesser part of the spoils. Too many handicap events in my opinion but i guess that this reflects the nature of our horse population which are mostly ordinary specimens. look forward to your comments.

    1. karel says:

      The problem is that there are not enough races available to support both scenarios.
      Apart from that, trainers do not seem to support plate races (the RF equivalents).
      Has anyone ever published an analysis of betting turnovers by race-type, with (say) number of runners, and race favourite’s SP?

  10. Paul says:

    King Karel got Peter in a Wrench hold?

  11. Michael Jackson says:

    I don’t think the debate is about top end racing, but more about young horses progressing through the ranks in Novice, Graduation and Novice plates. In the past a maiden winner did not take on hard knocking handicappers in their first run out of maidens. They progressed through the race figure system and eventually got to B and C division handicaps, by which time they had run about 6 to 8 times. They were not destroyed in their first few runs after a maiden win. Handicaps have their place, but it should not be the staple of the programme. That is why the racing is deteriorating, good young horses run very seldom and punters have lost interest. And racing declines on its inexorable way to its demise.

  12. Jay August says:

    Steve, Karel does a good job of answering many of the issues. I have some issues with the recommended solution for platformed horses though. I’d like to take some time to answer and perhaps not in this comment section but more formally. I need to simulate some of the ideas suggested by Karel before I agree that they may be a solution.

    As regards your opening statement that it is fairly easy to take an isolated example and paint something in a poor light – is this not what everyone who criticises the MR system does constantly – take a few examples and extrapolate a trend which does not exist. It certainly seems that way to me!

    Perhaps also you missed my point for posting this – that tinkering with any system is fraught with issues. Why exclude WFA races from a RF system – is that acknowledgment that the system was not quite ideal?

    If changes to the current system are to be proposed they should be well debated (in the open – not behind closed doors), simulated to see that they work in theory, observed to work in practice for a period with known exits or interventions, and agreed by all stake holders. The chances of that happening is about 999/1.

  13. Basil says:

    Michael , you are so right because horses were only handicapped once they reached the B division.
    Steve says we can make compromises , maybe handicapping should start a bit before then allowing younger horses to win a few races. The MR system does not suit the owners nor the punters but merely to increase betting pools because of it’s lottery nature. We must decide whether we want to keep these vital people in our sport and industry.

  14. Jay August says:

    “horses were only handicapped once they reached the B division” – really Basil? You sure or are you just guessing hoping nobody is the wiser? I

  15. Jay August says:

    Basil one more issue while you regurgitate your B Div comment. Currently under the excessively punitive MR system 3yo’s (I assume this is what you mean by younger horses) win 97 races per 1000 starts while horses older than 3 win 84 races per 1000 starts.

    In handicap races where the despised handicappers practice their dark art, 3yo’s win 107 races per 1000 starts while older horses win 85 races per 1000 starts.

    In the Basil ideal world where compromise is made, what should these ratios be? And just who is the “we” you keep referring to?

  16. Thanks for re-publishing that article Karel,

    It helps filling in a few black holes on the left side of my brain.

  17. Basil says:

    Jay , if u are making a play on words , let me elaborate : The RF system rose a horses weight by 3kg per win and after 5 wins or so thru the maidens, novice plates , graduation and Progress plates the horse was only truly handicapped on performance (whether collateral or not?) once entering the B Division. Oddly enough mid week meeting winners were only penalised with 1,5kg but obviously their winning stakes were reduced accordingly. Gauteng has 2 mid week meetings per week , perhaps that’s how Phumelela can be saved. Jay I am not guessing because I was there when this happened.

  18. Basil says:

    Jay, the 1st 2 paragraphs are contradictory . In the event of one being correct , the answers can be obviously apparent.
    (1) The older group can include 5,6 and 7 yr olds which are past their prime.
    (2) These races would have to be divided into different distances and different MR ratings. Early 3yr olds are more likely to contest shorter distances and lower MR races. I therefor believe your percentages lack true analysis.
    You will note that I asked Steve to present his thoughts on “compromises” . My thoughts were handicapping should occur perhaps earlier than the B Division which would permit owners to win a few races prior to receiving the wrath of the handicapper. Both owners and punters will benefit from this proposal.
    “We” are the people who believe that the MR system has been incorrectly implemented for the wrong reasons and which is detrimental to the interest of horse racing. Lets be democratic and ask the owners for their views. Unfortunately it would be difficult to obtain the same from the punters.

  19. Jay August says:

    Basil – you can analyse numbers down to the very last context or until you get the answer you want. That is all I ever see from those who oppose the MR system. I’ll share my data with you so that you can manipulate it by age and distance and MR to see whatever it is you want to analyse. Tell me what you want to see and I’ll make the link available to you to filter by whatever metric you want.

    If you can convince me that the data tells something else, I’ll give you that opportunity. But I’d also ask that if you do not find what you are looking for you admit as much and we stop talking about hypothetical situations which exist only in peoples memories. I was also there in the 1980’s. I know how the MR system worked.

    The owners and trainers overwhelmingly support the MR system whether you wish to believe that or not, or whether they admit as much. They do it every week by filling up MR races with more horses than in Plate races. They do it by not convincing the operators to run more plate races which they then fill with runners. I see no reason to believe the operator is purposefully programming MR handicaps to create lotto races. Rather they program MR handicaps because plate races do not attract enough runners and they cannot fund horse racing on plate races alone.

  20. Jay August says:

    Basil no contradiction at all – the first para is for all races while the 2nd para is for MR and FM races only. Where is the contradiction?

  21. Basil says:

    Jay , as previously stated I’m not against the MR system but the manner in which it has been implemented. It’s become so ridiculous that even maidens were running on merit ratings. I do not believe that the analysis is correct for reasons mentioned , but also if taken over a full year the 3yr olds are virtually 4 in the latter part of the season. Remember the debacle about 3yr olds winning the July, albeit that they were nicely weighted, they were all virtually 4yrs old.

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