What Merit, NHA?

Handicappers need to pull up their socks

Pulls No Punches. Louis Goosen is not happy with our handicappers

Pulls No Punches. Louis Goosen is not happy with our handicappers

The recent decision of the NHA and their handicappers to add 6 points to every horse is probably the last straw for many in racing and without a doubt the cherry on the top when it comes to the subject of the NHA’s inability to govern the sport of kings in this era, writes Louis Goosen.

For starters, no announcement of the pending increase was made at all. Then there’s the fact that sand horses ratings would remain unchanged. Juveniles would still be rated without the increase.

But, unbeknown to us all, should a juvenile have run in open company before it turned 3, it would also be raised 6 points. Sound like a circus? Well, it is a circus! And no, this is not 1st April…

Impact

In short, here’s the impact of the 6 point raise:-

Programmes were out. Trainers had communicated racing plans to their Owners and prepped horses accordingly. The Operators did adjust, marginally, some MR benchmarks in the programmes, but in reality, it was back to the drawing board for the vast majority of trainers, to the obvious delight of the vendors of airtime, as trainers scrambled to plan anew.

Trainers who had called for their juvenile ratings, were given, say, a rating of 74 on Friday, 2nd August, only to see the same horse published as an 80 on Monday 5th, because, “Oh yes, this one ran in open company 3 weeks ago.” The horse was now over the benchmark and ineligible for the race.

The most diabolical part of the entire mess up was the fact that a horse which has had one or two runs on the sand, has not yet been allocated a sand rating and will have to run off its new, 6 points higher turf rating. So, that 70 rated horse now becomes a 76 on the sand, whilst the rest of the sand ratings remain unchanged.

Trainers who had purchased horses at various dispersal sales now have to plan all over and have incurred an automatic 3kg penalty, whilst the proven sand horses remain unchanged. And these trainers now have to explain to their owners why they are not running in the races which they had purchased these horses for…

It is being touted that as far as the 6 point raising of the ratings is concerned, it was not necessary, we were not under any pressure in SA to raise our ratings and that the entire concept was completely misunderstood.

This does not augur well for us as an Industry when the controlling body can get something so simple, so wrong! The NHA is under pressure to update or resolve numerous issues at present and they are failing to do the job, instead appearing to be dragging their feet and/or moving the goal posts, at the expense of the Industry.

Punters Going?

But handicapping is one of the most important issues right now. There is little doubt that the current system and its application is one of the major causes of dwindling punter confidence in racing, thus reducing racing turnovers significantly. The truth is that it is very difficult to punt with confidence nowadays. Punting on racehorses is supposed to be a game of skill. Yes, horses do get beat.

Every punter knows that. But, at the very least, a punter expects at least one or two “good things” on a card and a punter loves a good, consistent horse. These are very difficult to find with handicapping as it is. Seasoned owners, trainers and punters hate the current merit rating system for the following reasons:-

It stops horses from winning, as opposed to the old race figure system which added weight consistently for each win, as the horses career unfolds.

With merit rating, a horse can go through the divisions without winning a race! The horses that we all love to watch are the really great ones, the best of the best.

But, these are obviously few and far between and run on the big days, in feature races. What about the rest of the season and the vast majority of horses which are good horses, worth following and are therefore the group of horses which bring punters back, time and again.

Where are those hard knockers, the consistent ones, the ones which aren’t quite graded race types, but good enough to win their 7 or 8 races, or 3 in a row? Quite frankly, they have been murdered by the system/handicappers- They have been “brought back” to the line. Consistent horses get punished. The truth is that everybody (except the handicappers?) loves a winner.

Punters don’t punt on racing just to lose their money. They do it because they want to win, because they want to pit their skills against the rest. As much as punters want the big outsiders in certain races or legs of their exotics, they want the “good things” more.

They want to be able to find winners! And the current handicappers/system robs them of that, making it so difficult that they may as well play Lotto instead or bet on other sports. Many years ago, racing was the cake when it comes to legal punting. Today it is just a slice of the cake. And the slice is getting thinner. This is not the time to take punters lightly, nonchalantly ignoring their vital contributions.

During our recent meeting in Parliament, the Minister of Trade and Industry, Mr Rob Davies, clearly saw the problems in racing and simplified it by urging us to, “Get out of your trenches.” A non-racing man saw right through the facade which we call racing in SA and hit the nail squarely on the head.

Crisis

We are in crisis right now in our beloved Industry. There can be no time wasted on egos and little alliances. We are too far gone for that. NHA are at the helm. They are the authority. They are charged with seeing to the integrity of the sport of racing. And the decisions on handicapping are theirs to make.

The problem that faces us all in racing is the fact that there are other extremely serious issues, in addition to handicapping, which face the NHA right now. One has to feel for current NHA CEO Mr Denzil Pillay, whose feet have hardly touched the ground and who is now faced with this barrage of issues, which have spiralled in a seemingly uncontrolled manner over the years, before his tenure.

Handicapping is the main issue. This is the one which is sinking the industry and this issue had better be sorted extremely urgently. If not then the only alternative would be for us all to call a vote of no confidence in the entire NHA.

Failing this and should issues not be sorted out urgently, we have only one other option and that would be to approach the Minister and apply for Government intervention and/or the appointment of an Ombudsman for racing. The NHA cannot surely, be bigger than the Constitution?

Now, as much as you may be up in arms at the very mention of Government and/or the appointment of an Ombudsman, the fundamental principle remains in the form of a few questions:-

1. How much damage could the NHA potentially do to the Industry?
2. How much more of this will we take?
3. Would we rather destroy the industry or break it down to a shadow of its former self?

Criticizing the system/handicappers is one thing. Tendering a solution is another. Whilst the race figure system was much better than the current MR system, it is not possible to go back there.

Error Made

During last year, we decided to widen the parameters of the Handicappers, thus giving them more say and less restrictions. This was a grave error! In spite of being cautioned by Robert Bloomberg prior to the meeting, we gave them the benefit of the doubt.

It must be noted that Robert Bloomberg was originally on that Committee and to be brutally honest, he has an incisive mind and no peers when it comes to knowledge of the handicapping system. Today, we stand knee deep in the brown stuff, having let the Handicappers do their own thing.

Where the Handicappers have erred constantly over the last year is as follows:-

Selection of the line horse. They select a line horse in every race and then allocate weight/points from the line horse. For example, when you finish 1 length ahead of the line horse over 1600m, you will get 2 points (I kilo), if at level weights, ratings.

But, if you select a different line horse, you will, accordingly, allocate different points. Bringing horses back – There is no doubt left that the Handicappers are there to stop horses winning more races. Whether this is intentional or not, that is what the system is doing at present.

Not balancing the line – For merit rating to work, in its purest form, horses must also be dropped in the ratings, based upon their current form. This is just not being done. Currently, it is easy to gain 8 points and extremely difficult to lose even one point, unless you run your horse into the ground and run it badly.

Food For Thought

Here’s some further food for thought:- Seasoned owners, trainers and punters also hate the current merit rating system for the following reasons:-

The average maiden winner has a rating of 70 (fillies 68). But, more than 50% of all our horses racing, who have won one or more races are rated below 70 (fillies 68). What’s that telling us? Are more than 50% of our horses suddenly unable to win a maiden race again? Should we “chuck them out”? Or are the handicappers/system failing us? (Every punter’s money is on the Handicappers/system being the problem).

PE and Kimberley are rated 5 points lower than the major centres. What is this nonsense? That’s the first and easiest way to prove that our handicapping system has failed. One country, one system.

Why didn’t they put sand ratings up by 6 points? Could it be that they have messed this section up so badly too or could it be that they realised that by putting up the sand ratings, Pylon would be 2,5kg better than the second best horse on sand, on the planet, according to their ratings? Whatever the reason for not raising the sand ratings, the decision itself proves that the handicappers/system has failed.

Whilst there are many that say that any other system or Handicappers are better than what we have at present, there are also many who believe that a simple computer system run by an IT guy on Miami Beach would be better than what we have now. Programme in the parameters, put in drag effect scale and after each race, simply mark the line horse and the computer will do the rest.

Right now, every maiden runner who has 3 runs or more is being allocated a rating. That rating becomes a “fact”. And the ratings of these maidens are the cornerstones from which further ratings are allocated. When your maiden beats a maiden rated 70 by 3 lengths, over a mile, you will be rated 76 after the win. Simple. That’s how they do it. But, is the maiden rated 70, actually a 70? Whilst more than 50% of the population, many of whom are multiple winners, are rated lower than 70? What does this mean? It means that recent winners will take long to win again, as ratings do not drop as quickly as they climb. This in turn means that owners fork out more money, because time is money when you are keeping racehorses. The lower rated races remain oversubscribed, stables remain full and programming is a nightmare.

Right now, we are in crisis. We are chasing punters away and are costing owners big time, because of handicapping. We need to get it right, very urgently.

Possible Solution

Here are some suggestions towards a solution:-

Our Own System
This is South Africa. The rest of the world have their own systems and implementation. We need a South African solution for South African racing. We do not need any racing conference or jurisdiction to dictate to us. We must do this for our own survival, for the many employed in our Industry and to sustain our own Industry. One system for all racing jurisdictions. And when we offer consistency, then overseas punters will take us more seriously and the Operators will find overseas sales of our racing easier. And this will impact positively on local stakes.

Parameters
We need to revert back to the parameters which we previously had and revise those too.

Combinations
We need to combine some of the principles of the old system in terms of limits for categories. When a maiden wins by 8 lengths, we shouldn’t be throwing the lead bag at the horse. We shouldn’t be trying to stop the horse. Heaven knows how difficult and expensive it is to get a horse to the races, let alone win a race. That owner has waited his whole life for this horse. It’s not going to the graded races. It’s just going to win a few races, so rather enjoy it than stop it. Let the owners and punters also smile for a change. We need to celebrate racing and winners, not stop them.

Mind-set
There’s a lot of debate at present as to the actual handicapping system. Is it the system itself that is to blame? Or are the handicappers themselves to blame? Do we need a new handicapper or a new system or both?

As far as the handicappers are concerned, many are of the opinion that the problem is that they are set in their minds with regards to the approach to the system and that this mind set will never be changed.

We all know that great horses like Pocket Power and Variety Club will stay on top over a period of time, because they are real champions. But the mind-set of the handicappers results in a trainer receiving replies like,

“But he ran to that rating.”
“The horse has done well enough.”
“But he was under sufferance,” when querying a rating.

More Effort Urgently

There’s more to handicapping than results and distances ahead or behind. With most horses, there will be the day when everything goes right. The draw, the pace of the race, the going and the ride. At the same time, things don’t quite pan out for the main opposition or the line horse. This could possibly be the worst result for the poor winner, as the horse will be punished by the handicapper and will take many runs to drop back to the correct rating.

One thing is for sure- the handicapper must watch every race, be able to read a race and in so doing, be aware of what happens in a race. In fact, the handicappers should be in the various boardrooms at the races, come race day. There is no better view of the races than on those screens. Ultimately, the NHA cannot afford to drag their feet on this issue. This issue is vital and it must be sorted out immediately.

Anything else will not suffice. Either that or the whole lot should resign and make place for new people. This industry will not survive even a moment’s hesitation on this issue, especially considering the other issues still to be resolved.

Or we could just carry on, debating, complaining, beseeching whilst we watch this magnificent industry rot from the head….. whilst owners carry on paying their bills…… and punters play Lotto and Soccer instead! One way or another, we had better fix it up right now!

Louis Goosen

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