I wrote the below piece on 4th September 2014. But, in light of yesterday's verdict in the Jim Best case, it is both topical and prudent to revisit it, and consider - as well as the man himself - the wider implications, and what we as punters need to do to stay on the right side of such plots.
It was a contentious day at the office for British racing yesterday, as a plot unfolded in dramatic circumstances.
The race in question, a handicap hurdle at Southwell, looked a typically low grade Wednesday heat, the ten declared runners all being rated 100 or lower. Notably, trainer Jim Best was responsible for two of the ten. Tony McCoy was due to ride Into The Wind, the second favourite, and Rhys Flint would pilot apparent outsider, Saint Helena.
But, between declaration time on Tuesday and off time on Wednesday, a suspicious sequence of events transpired...
First, the more fancied of the two Best runners was withdrawn on account of the ground. Next, with McCoy now apparently without a ride in the race, Flint was 'jocked off' Saint Helena and the champion assumed the steering duties. All the while, market support for Saint Helena was strong, from before the notification of Into The Wind's absence right up until off time.
Saint Helena, a 9/1 shot in the morning, was eventually sent off the 11/10 favourite. As it transpired, she won, just, requiring all of McCoy's strength and race-riding nous to get the job done.
If you fail to see anything untoward in the above, that's probably because you're not party to Saint Helena's form history. A six year old mare, Saint Helena was good enough to win three times on the flat, off ratings as high as 79, and all on good to firm ground.
In her seven prior hurdle starts, she had run no closer to a winner than when a 69.75 length eleventh of twelve in her last race. That was a novice hurdle, and it was the latest bid from the trainer to get this horse handicapped.
The racing game in Britain and Ireland is predicated upon a few good horses running in stakes and conditions races, with the vast majority of the remainder running in weight for ability races once they've qualified.
The qualification criteria to receive an initial handicap rating are fairly straightforward, on the face of it at least:
In most cases a horse will have run on three occasions before being allocated a handicap rating. When handicapping a horse for the first time, it is necessary for there to be a clear correlation between the horse’s various performance figures and the handicap rating. Ideally from a handicapping perspective, the three qualifying runs would all be to a similar level, allowing a degree of confidence that the initial handicap rating is accurate.
If a horse returns performance figures of 60, 60 and 60, the Handicapper would almost certainly award an initial handicap rating of 60. The difficulty arises in three very different performance ratings, particularly in the case of a good run followed by two moderate performances. Generally the Handicapper will err on the side of caution with a handicap rating, giving emphasis to the best performance figure as long as that race looks solid.
Obviously, the official handicapper has a frequently horrific job in trying to nail form jelly to the ratings wall. And this was a case in point. Saint Helena, clearly a talented animal on the basis of her flat form on fast ground, had run seven times - four more than the minimum requirement - almost exclusively on soft and heavy, before being awarded an initial handicap rating.
Spot the difference between the win/placed flat form and the mark-seeking hurdles efforts. (Click the image to enlarge)
The British Horseracing Authority, via the on course stewards, called Jim Best in before the race, to explain the absence of Into The Wind. They then called him in after the race to explain the 'apparent' improvement in form of Saint Helena.
The released notes on that second 'chat' are thus:
The Stewards held an enquiry to consider the apparent improvement in form of the winner, SAINT HELENA (IRE), ridden by A P McCoy and trained by Jim Best, which had never previously been placed. They interviewed the trainer who stated that the mare, who had been a very buzzy type in the past, settled better today and had benefited from a break of one hundred and twenty-five days since her last run. He added that the mare was suited by the firmer ground on this occasion. Having heard his evidence they forwarded his explanation to the British Horseracing Authority so that the previous performances of SAINT HELENA (IRE) could be reviewed. The Stewards ordered the mare to be routine tested.
It is almost certainly true that Saint Helena was "better suited by the quicker ground" - after all, her best flat form was on quicker. Equally, she looks sure to have "benefited from a break of one hundred and twenty-five days since her last run" on the basis that she might have actually been trained for race fitness during that time.
The case has been referred to High Holborn, and we'll see what the beaks in town make of it.
An interesting story for a Wednesday in its own right, the Jim Best plot saga is actually a little older than 24 hours or so. Indeed, Best has multiple 'previous' for such coups, almost all with a matching fingerprint.
A quick 'system builder' query for Jim Best-trained, Tony McCoy-ridden horses running in handicap hurdles without a prior win for the trainer reveals a 47% win rate (15 from 32). Amongst this group of horses, all of which received the McCoy assistance for the first time, were the likes of:
6/08 Noble Minstrel form F0775 - mark of 72 awarded - 58 days off - wins at 4/1
1/09 Rocky Ryan form 005 - mark of 90 awarded - 61 days off - wins at 15/8
6/13 Planetoid form 089F70 - mark of 85 awarded - 169 days off - wins at 5/6
8/13 Sugar Hiccup form 00070P - mark of 79 awarded - 239 days off - wins at 5/6
7/14 Money Money Money form 40P0 -mark of 80 awarded-250 days off-wins at 5/1
8/14 Kiama Bay form 09503 - mark of 104 awarded - 91 days off - wins at 7/4
9/14 Saint Helena form PP9P080 -mark of 82 awarded-125 days off - wins at 11/10
And the similarities don't end there.
Consider Planetoid. This was a horse that was due to be ridden by Mattie Batchelor, a Jim Best stable stalwart, but with a (seemingly) lamentable record of 0 wins from 71 rides for the yard.
What atrocious luck then to experience "car trouble" on the day of Planetoid's success, having ridden him on three of his unsuccessful prior starts. Lucky for connections, at least, that McCoy was there to take the spare mount. Ahem.
Here are the stewards' notes from Planetoid's win after interviewing the trainer about the apparent improvement in form:
The Stewards held an enquiry to consider the apparent improvement in form of the winner, PLANETOID (IRE), ridden by A.P. McCoy, and trained by Jim Best, which had never previously been placed. They interviewed the trainer who stated that the gelding had problems with his jumping last year and has been given a break in order to re-school him over hurdles. He further added that PLANETOID (IRE) was suited by this quicker ground and running for the first time in a handicap. Having heard his evidence they forwarded his explanation to the British Horseracing Authority so that the previous performances of PLANETOID (IRE) could be reviewed. The Stewards ordered the gelding to be routine tested.
And these are the stewards' notes after Sugar Hiccup's win:
The Stewards held an enquiry to consider the apparent improvement in form of the winner, SUGAR HICCUP (IRE), ridden by A.P. McCoy, and trained by Jim Best, which had never previously been placed. They interviewed the trainer’s representative who stated that the mare was suited by the faster ground and, having been off the course for 8 months, had been freshened up. Having heard his evidence they forwarded his explanation to the British Horseracing Authority so that the previous performances of SUGAR HICCUP (IRE) could be reviewed.
Finally, here's Money Money Money's post race stewards chat:
The Stewards held an enquiry to consider the apparent improvement in form of the winner, MONEY MONEY MONEY, ridden by A P McCoy, and trained by Jim Best, compared with its previous run at Fontwell on 13 November 2014 where the mare finished tenth of thirteen, beaten 110 lengths. They interviewed the trainer who stated that the mare had benefited from a break from racing and appeared to appreciate the better ground.
What it means for punters...
So a very clear pattern emerges to these Best 'job horses' and, in a racing jurisdiction so heavily based around the art of handicapping, it is a part of the punter's job to be aware of trainer behaviour. Jim Best is not the only exponent of mark manipulation. In fact, some higher profile handlers on the level - Luca Cumani and Sir Mark Prescott, for instance - are positively admired for their ability to 'get one ready'.
When betting in handicaps, punters must ALWAYS be aware of the material differences between today's race and a horse's recent efforts. That's where value lies, perhaps not in heavily gambled animals like Best's, but certainly with the smaller stables who are having a few quid on but passing serenely under the radar.
First time in a handicap always merits attention, especially when combined with a material change in circumstance, such as a step up in trip or markedly differing ground. A break between qualifying for a handicap rating and running in a handicap can also be a sign of expected improvement. After all, if a horse runs a week after qualifying for a mark, that doesn't leave a lot of time to get the beast fit, does it?
A drop in class can often help, as can to a lesser degree the fitting of headgear (especially a hood). These are considerations the smart bettor must make, and they are part of the game. Making those considerations in the microcosm of trainer patterns can be most instructive, and there are no Jim Best's in the list of 'most effective first time in a handicap hurdle after a break'.
No, sir. That list, which in truth probably never existed until now, contains four high profile National Hunt trainers: Nigel Twiston-Davies, Evan Williams, Anthony Honeyball, and Philip Hobbs. How many Class 5 Taunton handicap hurdles do you suppose they've carved up between themselves? And yet, these events pass largely without comment or question.
I guess the key difference is that Best's modus operandi is to take a proven flat performer and 'bugger about' with it to get the mark, whereas the jumps boys are dollying around in novice hurdles and bumpers beforehand. Which is worse, or better? I'm not sure.
What it means for the authorities...
The exaggerated game of cat and mouse between trainers and the official handicappers is one of great importance to the sport, both from an integrity, and from an interest and engagement perspective. And, the truth is that there is very little the authorities can do about things, as they stand.
Jim Best operated within the current rule set.
It is perfectly acceptable for a jockey change to occur when a better option becomes available due to a non-runner in the same race (cf. "25.3.5 the substitute Rider was declared to ride another horse in the same race but the horse is unable to run" from the Rules of Racing).
It is perfectly acceptable for a horse to be self-certificated on account of the ground, or indeed anything else, as long as the trainer does not breach a 15% of declarations threshold (cf. "8.3 For any Trainer, where the rate of non-runners in Jump races measured as a percentage of the Trainer's declarations in Jump races is 15% or more, the Authority may suspend the Trainer's ability to self-certify non-runners in accordance with Rule 97.3 for up to twelve months." from the Rules of Racing).
It is perfectly acceptable for a horse to 'apparently' improve markedly, as long as the trainer or his representative can explain the improvement after the race, should the local stewards deem it appropriate.
To borrow that hackneyed Dickens quote from, I think, Oliver Twist,
If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble,… “the law is a ass—a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.
The BHA's eyes have been opened by experience. They are all too aware of the issue here. They spoke to Best both before and after the race; and they are due to call him in again in due course to discuss the matter further. (That said, they're still due to discuss the Planetoid run with him, fifteen months after the race. Perhaps they can discuss them, along with Sugar Hiccup, Money Money Money, and Kiama Bay, as a job lot... with the emphasis on the word 'job').
The key question for the BHA to answer themselves, rather than necessarily bring Best to book, is around the allocation of a handicap mark. It is usual practice for a horse to receive a mark after three runs, if not winning once or placing twice before that time. The handicappers already have discretion to await further evidence, and this discretionary power has been invoked in six of the seven cases mentioned above.
I am led to believe by the twitterati that Saint Helena's seven runs before a rating was allocated constitutes something of a record. But, while that insistence of further evidence is to be admired - and may be the solution to the problem ultimately, at least in part - it is unclear why the 'capper relented after seven inscrutable efforts.
It should be reasonable for the official handicapper to require as many runs as is necessary to give an opening mark or, alternatively, to give a deliberately cautious mark - to the tune of two stone, let's say - in agreement with the trainer. All trainers have a dialogue with the handicappers, and I imagine the next chinwag between David Dickinson, under whose remit most of the above cases fell, and Jim Best will be interesting...
Perhaps a horse should be initially required to run in three handicaps within x% of the race distance of those it raced in to qualify for a mark. That might make it more difficult for trainers to run horses over the wrong trip. Or perhaps a horse must run over the trip for which it is most obviously bred - with a percentage of latitude - prior to being awarded a mark.
These suggestions are somewhat left field, and I'd hate to see any of them introduced for the simple reason that they'd be a triumph of job creation, whilst most likely opening up new loopholes for trainers to figure out and subsequently exploit.
Nope, I think that whilst the governance of self-certification and the allocation of initial handicap ratings can - and must - be improved, the game can - and should - be allowed to continue largely unimpeded by further legislation.
We now all know the hallmarks of a Jim Best punt, so at the very least, the next time one is afoot, we can get involved!
p.s. what are your thoughts on this most contentious of issues? Leave a comment and let us know.