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The Handicapping Whodunnit

Maidens mean that at least half of racing is okay!

In the early 1980’s The Buggles told us that Video Killed The Radio Star.

Fast forward to the 21st century, the leading question is, did handicapping do the same to the sport of kings?

Phumelela finally collapsed last year and left us in the lurch.

The racing operator’s creditors chose the way forward for all of us – as happens when you come within a hair of bankruptcy.

MOD under the direction of Charles Savage has picked what they want to keep and cut loose what they want to dump.

And in the meantime things roll on in the haze that is Covid South Africa.

Until now, most of us assumed that the operators have been making rational decisions to optimize the choices for the betterment of racing.

In a way we have to hope Phumelela was terrible, and the next lot can do better.

So did handicapping by merit contribute to the crash?  And if so, how?

We know that handicaps attract bigger fields.

We also know bigger fields attract more betting and more income.  Over about 12 horses, races can sometimes make an individual profit.  And we also know good horses can give us profitable races, but they hate handicaps.

We accept that bigger payouts are essential.

But inflation has completely robbed any punter of a life-changing jackpot win as in the past.  The probabilities have stayed the same, but factional betting and many more rands have made the bets cheap and easy in comparison.

Maidens are a captive audience, and they represent about 50% of all races.

They are excellent in many ways – fair, non sexist and they don’t involve discrimination. They are pretty much the main survivor of the race figure era and it doesn’t need fixing – so at least half of racing is fine!

Unfortunately, the evidence is that it isn’t handicapping that let the game down.

What’s more, the general opinion is that there is a significant drop in the manufacture and supply of horses coming. If that is true, then handicapping is what keeps more horses competitive, and therefore more horses willing and able to run.

If the number of races stays the same, a greater percentage of horses will win, and go on.

Trainers may have less horses, but win more and divide stakes by a smaller population.

Handicapping can also keep horses active for longer, and that we may need badly.

What do you think?

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11 comments on “The Handicapping Whodunnit

  1. Russell Parkinson says:

    I thought that ‘Video killed the RADIO star’ ?

    1. Editor says:

      Showing your age Russell
      But you are correct!

  2. Rod Mattheyse says:

    Courtesy of NHA registrations for the week ending 26 March 2021:

    2016 foal number 2980 registered
    2018 foal number 2268 registered
    2019 foal number 1656 registered

    Undoubtedly there will be more 2019 registrations, likewise undoubtedly it will be way less than 2268 and possibly under 2000 as the top of the market is all but gone and will force even the large studs to cull marginal mares

    Under 2000 foals a year will not be able to sustain racing 364 days a year, with dream sized fields of 14 per race. With stakes the way they are very few new entrants which cannot match the mass exodus of owners

    So should bookmakers :
    A) advertise and sponsor races/ racecourses paying bottom dollar for it
    B) buy a bunch of horses and race them
    C) pay their fair share for the show – contribute more proportionately

    What will the operators offer the bookmakers in return for a more proportionate contribution. One can’t blame them for resisting -!it’s hardly their fault that operators and regulators are so poor at their functions

    But the flip side of the coin is that soon there will no horses to race!!

  3. Graham Martin says:

    Bring back the Race Figure! At least it gives the punter some idea of what the form lines are. And the form of the lower division races would be a lot more consistent, thus attracting more punters, like in the good old day’s. Remember? Those ” Golden Years” of Horse racing? Do away with the LOTTERY style of handicapping! And bring back the PUNTERS! This will also increase Tote turnover!

  4. Jay August says:

    The writer’s conclusion may be correct (in my estimation), but the manner in which the writer gets to that conclusion is troublesome.

    There are many word-bites in this article none of which are developed to any great extent, or, explained fully, that one is left curious as to the actual intention of the author. One such point is – “And we also know good horses can give us profitable races, but they hate handicaps”. How do we know this? Another is – “We accept that bigger payouts are essential.” Again, how do we know this?

    The writer, in suggesting that Maidens are not a problem and are a carry over from the RF days while simultaneously suggesting that “unfortunately” handicapping is not the issue, appears conflicted enough that one struggles to understand what is ultimately being implied. Throw in some postmodernist nonsense like “non sexist”, “fair” and “discrimination” and you have a confusion.

    The writer would do well to explain how a Maiden race is “non sexist” when such races are typically segregated by (binary) sex. And what exactly is “fair” in the context of a Maiden Plate where horses race against each other at more-or-less level weights without reference to age or gender/s?

    The writer ends by stating that handicapping aids the longevity and extension of a racing career while starting off by suggestion that the discrimination (my definition) against Maidens, who must race against each other until they win, is entirely fair and non-discriminatory. I am somewhat confused how one could believe both are workable. Why not have one-time or two-time winner races much like the “fair” and “non-discriminatory” Maiden races? On the flipside why not have handicaps at the Maiden level if these aid a horse’s career and longevity?

    Lastly and this is geared at people like Graham Martin and his ilk: anyone that believes that racing’s downturn had its cause in the implementation of the MR system, when that downturn was accompanied (and highly correlated) by a loss of racing’s gambling monopoly and tougher competition for gambling spend, should not be taken seriously. If you do not understand the competitive landscape you have no place attempting to navigate it much less explain it. Those that hanker for the past have no understanding of what is needed in the future. Their lament is for a past lost not for a future reinvisioned.

  5. ottovt says:

    I think handicapping is the most understood principle in racing. I found that so called experts don’t understand handicapping, including presenters and trainers. You will sometimes hear a comment ” horse A is a five time winner therefore should finish before Horse B who is a one time winner” although they are running in the same handicap races and should finish in a dead heat if handicapper got his sums right.

    It amazes me that trainers don’t make use of handicaps to run maidens in as you often find a maiden race with an average of AR in the 70’s where the same maiden can run in a MR e 61-64 with an AR of 58-61, a practice you often sees in overseas racing..

    My late friend Lenny Taylor used to say keep you horses in the worst company, also I think horses get retired to early, lately we have seen 9 years old still running and winning races as the handicapping
    allows them to race against horses of the same ability.

    Recently we have seen medaling with plate races where we now get Maiden handicaps, Novice handicap race, classified races, etc, I think that is wrong because that is a handicap pure and simple, their only achievement is to confuse the punter,
    Plate races have their purpose and should be run as such.

    While on the subject of handicapping would also like to mention his thing Gold Circle has introduced where a horse numbers equals the draw.
    For handicappers it makes it extremely difficult to study the card, I personally know of a few punters who are not betting on KZN racing because of this, I would think a service provider would like to make it as easy as possible for clients to use my product, but it seems Gold Circle is hell bend to continue with this practice, initially it would have been for 3 months but it looks that it is now permanent.

    I would think that in todays world it should not be to difficult to put together a few training videos on handicapping thereby educating the punter which would in turn lead to the punter in placing his/her bets in handicap races with confidence because he /she is now better equipped to do their own handicapping, and that could lead to increasing turn overs.

  6. Leon Smuts says:

    Sad to say but the imbalance will continue regardless, and I am not pointing a finger or criticising, merely stating the obvious. The solution I am suggesting does not lie in the methodology used, which I admit to not understanding even after many years as a punter, but rather in the products on offer. Form studying and analysis must provide an advantage to the person willing to put in the hours in terms of understanding handicapping and the analysis of each race.

    I have developed one such product and are working on a few more and it comes down to rewarding the skill of outcome prediction more fairly and clearly. Single race bets aside, the majority of smaller punters prefer the exotics as the old dream of a small outlay for a big return lives on. It has however become a lottery for the majority of players (handicap fundi’s aside) and as such presents very little value to participate in as the methodology used (leg by leg elimination) is not conducive to entertainment or more regular profits for most punters.

    It would be almost impossible to sell current products to new customers when even seasoned one’s battle to makes sense of it.

    The sport needs products that are less punitive when the bomb drops as it does with regularity in handicaps. It is not in my opinion the handicappers fault as by its very definition the purpose is to give every runner a chance to win in a handicap so strange results should not be a huge surprise.

    But it makes racing a hard sell if products don’t provide enjoyment and a realistic chance to actually win big and as long as this is being ignored will make the sport a non starter for new participation.

    Its tiring to beat this drum year in year out but I have been in marketing and racing for years and would never accept the challenge to market the sport with it’s current line up of products. It is so important to believe in what you are selling and I don’t get a sense that this can be done with confidence in what is on offer at the moment.

    Participation can be made so much more entertaining, affordable and profitable than it is right now and then racing pools would fly.

  7. Dylan says:

    Whatever happens, something needs to be done. The current system handicaps every horse to lose instead of win, hence a horse can run 2/3 lengths off every time and not win or run second 10 times and not win but keep creeping up in the weights. There is no fun or profit in that for the owners. Young horses need to be started much lower and be able to win 4/5 races before the handicapper catches them that way at least enabling the owner to some fun and to try and break even instead of the current system which stops a horse if it wins early. As I’ve said, the handicap system should be to give every horse a chance of winning instead of every horse a chance to lose. The current system is not good for the owners of horses.

  8. Michael JacobsMGJ says:

    South Africa had a sound racing system of plate races ( maidens, novice, graduation and progress plates) and culminated in handicaps (A, B and C division handicaps).

    Every raceday programme had a mix of plate races and handicaps (miinimal handicaps were programmed). And the best horses certainly didn’t win all the time, the less fancied won their fair share! Punters could assess the merit of each horse instead of a handicapper rating a horse after 2 or 3 runs. Good horses won their fair share too, and ended up in better quality handicaps than we have today. The battlers ran in the graduations and progress plates ( pretty much the way they do today in the handicaps). Progress plates had different classes so horses raced in their right ability class. The racing programme was exciting and we produced top horses.

    The two things that need to change in SA to revive racing is the handicapping system and the exotic bets strategy. New punters have to be attracted to the sport, or it will go the way of pigeon racing- only the pigeon fanciers will be racing against each other ( for pigeon fanciers read breeders in horse racing!)

  9. Graham Martin says:

    Well Well! Welcome back Jay August! Long time no hear! Iv’e been missing your inputs man , good to hear from you again! But keep it simple, us guys that know nothing about handicapping? well the truth is “who wants to know about this stupid LOTTERY MR system of handicapping anyway”
    Best regards
    Graham Martin

  10. Basil says:

    Well said Dylan, without owners racing will cease to exist and the wealthy nobles will revert to match racing. Save for the economy in the country, the production of horses has decreased due to lack of demand for the product. The stakes are so low in some parts of the country, it becomes difficult to attract new owners especially when considering the high cost of keeping horses in training. I’ve always maintained that placing penalties on placed horses affects not only the pockets of owners but sometimes those of punters as well. I agree that three 2nd’s is almost equal to a win in stakes, but what about the honour of leading in the horse. Also, we all know that horses can develop problems so that opportunity may never arise. We had a filly (with no black type in her pedigree) who won 2 of her first three starts and was given a MR of 92. Needless to say that was the end of her career. I would hate to have the handicapper’s job but surely they should be more lenient on younger horses.

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