The Saturday ‘big handicap’ is always one of the great puzzles for race fans. Many hate the prospect of trawling through the field in an attempt to find the well handicapped good thing. For others the task is one that they thrive on, and for the likes of Tom Segal of the Racing Post, it’s a challenge that has brought a fair degree of success and notoriety.
The handicapping system is designed to give each horse an even chance. The highest rated (or best) horse in the race is given the largest weight to carry; and the inferior horses will carry lower weights. For many owners and trainers the handicaps offer their best chance of success on a race day.
The BHA has a team of eleven Handicappers whose job it is to study the form and allocate the appropriate rating to the horse. They publish a list every week based on performances on the racecourse. Should a horse be rated 120 and another 110, then it is deemed that a difference of 10 pounds in the weights that they carry would see them hit the line virtually side by side.
Most handicaps are restricted to horses with similar ratings in a particular range, 0-60 for example. The rating of the horse determines the weight he or she will carry along with the race it can enter. A victory for the horse is likely to see a rise in the rating. A series of poor performances will result in a lowering of the handicap mark, hopefully giving the horse a chance of attaining that elusive success.
The very best horses rarely run in handicaps on the Flat but they often take their chance in competitive handicaps over the Jumps.
The BHA handicappers work with international colleagues in selecting entrants for top races worldwide. Back in February Louis Romanet, the Chairman of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA) announced the appointment of Phil Smith, Head of Handicapping for the BHA, as co-chairman of the Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings Committee. Smith said at the time: “I am honoured to be appointed Co-Chairman and am looking forward to working closely with Nigel Gray who was my manager at BHA and its predecessor BHB for more than ten years. I have been helped hugely by my team of Handicappers at BHA as between us we now assess every Pattern Race run in the world every week. I hope to be able to help to develop further the service that the Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings provide to the racing industry worldwide.”
At the end of every season the International Flat Handicappers produce a rating for the top horses in the world rated at 115+ based on the season’s performances. Over the years these ratings have been the cause of great debate, as fans compare racing heroes from different eras. The great Australian sprinter Black Caviar was rated 132 in 2011 and then 130 for both 2012 and 2013. Sea The Stars was awarded a lofty rating after his stunning 2009 campaign. A mark of 136 was surely warranted after his series of Group 1 victories.
The wonderful French filly Treve was given a rating of 130 after her second Arc success in October. It will be interesting to see if she can improve on that as she looks for the historic treble.
A blog on the BHA website gives a terrific insight into the thoughts behind the handicaps awarded to horses. During Glorious Goodwood Dominic Gardiner-Hill wrote that whilst it was disappointing that the best three-year-old miler in Europe, Gleneagles, couldn’t take his place in the Qatar Sussex Stakes, the best older miler, Solow, continued his impressive winning streak with his eighth straight success and his 11th in his last 12 starts.
He added that Solow appears to be a horse that does no more than necessary and, as in the Queen Anne at Royal Ascot, he was more workmanlike than spectacular in the way he triumphed. With a pre-race rating of 124, based on his success in the Dubai Duty Free at Meydan, he went in to the Goodwood race with 3lb and more in hand of his rivals but probably only needed to run to 119+ to win.
It’s interesting to read how a handicapper assesses a race before giving a verdict on the handicap mark the winner has achieved.
Two mighty horses, Dancing Brave and Frankel, were rated within a pound of each other after their stunning careers. The former reached a mark of 141 after his sensational win in the Arc of 1986. The field he defeated at Longchamp that day was one of the contributory factors for the exceptional rating.
Of course it’s tough to compare generations when reaching a handicap mark, but the people entrusted with the role have to remain objective. Frankel may not have defeated horses of the calibre of those beaten by Dancing Brave, but the style of his victories, and the consistently high standard he achieved resulted in a rating of 140. Interestingly, the handicappers then decided to adjust Dancing Brave’s mark to 138.
The British Horseracing Authority's head of handicapping Phil Smith caused a stir recently when awarding Golden Horn a mark of 130. John Gosden's charge became the first horse to achieve the Dante, Derby and Eclipse treble. For many race fans the rating appeared generous based on the horses he has defeated. Many will look to his performances over the latter part of the season to see if such a mark is justified.
And so the debates rage on, as they always will. It’s a tough gig for the handicapper, but a crucial one. Their decisions will continue to ignite discussions and hours of deliberation.