A healthy daily intake of Red Bull and a pack of fully charged Duracell Batteries are part of the occupational survival kit of working under new NHA CEO Vee Moodley.
Fortunately, the demeanour, composure and quiet confidence of Chief Handicapper Lennon Maharaj looks the perfect foil to the new man at the helm of the once drifting ship.
Nearly six months under the energetic leadership of his new boss, the good ship is now sailing on a chartered course again and Lennon is clearly thriving.
We witnessed him in action at first hand during last Wednesday’s Handicapping Roadshow at the racing regulator’s Turffontein HQ.
Fielding a bumper curved ball from the brimming with confidence former SA Champion Trainer Sean Tarry – a man who knows his racing inside and out and argues with a cucumber cool intellect – Lennon stuck to his guns, maintained his stance and played a neat forward defensive shot that the stonewall Bok opener of yesteryear, Andrew Hudson, would have been proud of.
“I support Vee Moodley and feel that taking ownership and accepting responsibility for the Handicapping system is long overdue,” says Lennon with assertion as we settle into a chat in his shared second floor office.
Lennon received the best grounding in the world when he commenced his racing career at one of South Africa’s foremost and best established punting guides, Winning Form, in 1993.
He is not shy to dish out the plaudits of confidence in his new captain.
“I firmly believe that the National Horseracing Authority has never been in better hands. I worked with the current Chief Executive when I joined the NHA some twelve years ago. I took up the Handicapping position he vacated when he became Racing Control Manager. It is refreshing to have someone at the helm who really understands Handicapping, and is a highly respected Handicapper in his own right.”
The Durban-born Manchester United fan, who lives with his wife in Brackendowns, has done the hard yards apprenticeship in the game – and it all started way before he joined Winning Form in 1993.
While he never explains why he wasn’t using Winning Form, Lennon says that his Dad has always regarded himself as a professional punter and he clearly recalls picking up the Computaforms around the house at an early age and paging through them from cover to cover.
“I was fascinated by formlines and before long found myself formulating opinions on horses. I have been following and studying horseracing for more than 30 years now,” he says – and with his boyish Dennis The Menace hairstyle, frankly doesn’t look a day over 35.
Lennon’s career started in horseracing at Winning Form in 1993 on the printing production line and he eventually worked his way to the racing office as a tipster and betting forecaster. He also worked briefly for Phumelela as a Nominations and Declarations Co-ordinator in 2003/4 – and then at the National Racing Bureau until 2006.
“I joined the National Horseracing Authority that same year as a Stipendiary Steward and took up the position of Handicapper in 2007. I have been licensed as Handicapper/Stipendiary Steward for about 12 years. I also represent South Africa on the World’s Best Racehorse Rankings panel,” he adds proudly.
We asked him how he became interested in a subject many people find quite complicated – even tedious – but love to argue about.
“I have always enjoyed studying formlines – so Handicapping seemed to come naturally to me. Anyone that has an opinion on a horse’s ability is a Handicapper of sorts. Bookmakers, punters, tipsters etc. are all Handicappers in their own right and are freely able to assess horses. However the Official Handicapper’s assessments are influenced by rules, guidelines, science and opinion. And our assessments are published – thus making us fair game for criticism by those that cherry pick alleged ‘mistakes’ – while sometimes keeping their own inaccuracies a secret. But we have broad shoulders and it’s an occupational hazard,” he laughs.
When asked to illustrate aspects of his job, Lennon sums up the downside first.
“The worst part of my job is Graded race eliminations. I believe that, while the Handicappers are best qualified to be involved in these decisions, I do not enjoy eliminating horses that have been prepared and aimed at races. However this part of the job is necessary when fields are oversubscribed.” He stresses that he is not afraid of standing by his and the NHA’s decisions – or handling the subsequent confrontation with trainers and owners. However, he readily concedes sympathy for the trainers and owners that don’t make the cut.”
Another one of his pet occupational frustrations are uninformed and unfair criticism – often by people that ‘openly admit they know very little about Handicapping’.
He says the downsides are more than made up for with the great teamwork enjoyed by the squad comprising Matthew Lips and Nigel Mazibuko, who form the Handicapping Team, with the informed input of Chief Executive, Vee Moodley.
He adds that two more pleasurable perks of the job are occasionally being vindicated when the proof arrives in the pudding. He says it is also a rare privilege being able to earn a living in an industry that he loves.
Lennon has already declared his loyalty and commitment to his new boss and his ideals for positive change, but we pressed him for an honest opinion about the new age and attitude to handicapping transparency – a la Vee Moodley 2019 style.
“Maintaining a handicapping system that compliments the national programme is something Vee Moodley is very passionate about. The introduction of the Handicappers press releases, which is now done after every Graded Racemeeting, as well as the Handicappers Roadshows, affirms the new CEO’s commitment to transparency. I support him and feel that, as stated earlier, taking ownership and accepting responsibility for the Handicapping system is long overdue.”
As to short term plans and projects, Lennon points at the alleviation of congestion at the bottom of the long handicap.
“This has been highlighted on the Handicapping roadshows. Seventy four percent of the national horseracing population are rated below MR73, which is why there is a paucity of middle to higher benchmarked races. The Handicapping panel are working on an immediate fix to this problem as well as discussing ways to sustain a balanced population ratings pyramid,” he adds with a twinkle in his eye.
He points out that competitive handicaps are vital for totalisator turnovers – so it is imperative that more handicaps are programmed across the rating bands – ‘only large handicaps ensure open betting races’.
He stresses that the operative word is competitive, when it comes to field size and turnovers.
“Simply boosting the field size of the recently run Daily News 2000m with a few more uncompetitive runners, for instance, would have done very little for turnovers and would only serve an aesthetic purpose. The race would have still seen Hawwaam winning at restrictive odds. Open Handicaps – even lowly benchmarked ones – force punters to include more runners in their permutations – raising their outlay and thus stimulating turnover. Handicapping and Programming can help in this regard. And as such the Handicappers have endeavoured to get more involved in programming in an advisory capacity in future,” he confirms.
Racing is on and Lennon has to run. We asked him to quickly give us an insight into other changes expected in the near future.
“We are in exciting and dynamic times. There are plans afoot to form a local pattern committee. And trainers and punters will be pleased to hear that we are Introducing a simple and informative Handicapping Manual. So everybody can enjoy the subject – and that can only come with an improved understanding and education of all stakeholders. Watch this space – we are getting there!”