Forget merit ratings, opinion is the cornerstone of racing

Is Main Defender really six lengths superior to Green With Envy?

Opinion has always been the cornerstone of horseracing.

The belief that “my horse is faster than yours” has been the bedrock of bragging and betting from as far back as at least the end of the 2nd century AD.

While it remains a matter of conjecture as to whether horseracing actually began in the Roman Empire, there are documents that reveal that well-drilled, highly disciplined legionnaires based in England would find entertainment and diversion through racing local horses against the Arabian breeds brought into Britain from across the continent.

Although detailed evidence is scant, historians have made conclusive empirical findings that point to races being run as early as 200 AD in the West Yorkshire town of Wetherby.

However sketchy the historical data, one thing is for certain, ever since those Arabian-bred horses were brought to Britain by Emperor Septimius Severus, “several of us” haven’t stopped buying, betting and voicing our opinion on them.

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Human nature being what it is, it took a few centuries to formulate, establish and enforce a set of horseracing rules but by 1750 the Jockey Club had been established. During the 19th century, thanks in no small part to Admiral Rous, the fundamentals of handicapping were founded and the weight-for-age scale introduced.

Incredibly, Henry John Rous joined the Royal Navy aged 13 and flew the flag for King George III during the Napoleonic Wars. Rous was from racing stock, his father owned a stud farm in Suffolk so a passion for race horses was inbred. He was a steward of the Jockey Club for almost 40 years and from 1855 he performed the role of public handicapper. In later life Admiral Rous became a Conservative member of parliament for Westminster.

From all accounts his performance was admirable in whatever pursuit he undertook. I wonder what he’d make of some of our handicapping.

Before I poke the merit rating bear let me manage expectations.

This article will be reminiscent of the lyric belonging to a 1972 Columbia Records reggae-infused hit record by Johnny Nash. I Can See Clearly Now The Rain Has Gone was the title track off the album that sold more than a million copies, but it’s the words from another chart-topping single that are relevant.

Nash wrote and sang:

“There are more questions than answers,
Pictures in my mind that will not show,
There are more questions than answers,
And the more I find out the less I know.”

In matters of handicapping, the late Jay August would frequently berate me for pointing fingers without proffering a practical solution. My rebuttable was to suggest that even though his math was too high-brow for “a bear of very little brain” such as myself, I nevertheless felt sufficiently equipped to spot the difference between Pooh Bear and a Polar Bear.

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Does one really need to know the anatomical mechanics of an Anas platyrhynchos to identify it?
After all, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck!

For example, when the Fred Crabbia-owned Runaway Song beat a field of only five horses to win last year’s KZN Derby he was reassessed to be 24 points higher than his pre-race rating of 92. I was adamant that if the son of Oratorio was a MR 116 then I had to be George Clooney.

By the way, the poor fellow hasn’t run a place since that victory in June. On Cape Derby day he finished last off a rating of 110. He’s now rated a 106 but I’m not sure I believe that either.

But I digress for my immediate dilemma is that I just don’t see Main Defender, Saturday’s winner of the Horse Chestnut at Turffontein, as a 131.

Green With Envy, the Cape Derby Winner, is a 119.

Is the former six lengths superior to the latter?

I reached out to two members of my Clocking The Gallop WhatsApp group, Mike Wanklin and Graeme Hawkins. Both gentleman have established, time honoured CVs too long to detail but suffice to say I value their knowledge and reasoning.

My hour long discussion with Wanklin didn’t disappoint. He promised that he would confuse me further and he did, but in delivering on that promise he provided both clarity and depth to my questions.

He quoted Phil Bull, the architect of Timeform, who on being asked whether handicapping is an art or a science replied that it was “a bit of both. It can never be an exact science because opinion as well as fact is involved”.

I cherry-picked some further food for thought.

As punters and students of horseracing form, we are all handicappers in our own right. We apply our knowledge to interpret the information that racetrack performances deliver. The difference between us and the official handicapper is that he has to submit a physical number into the block to commence the process.

Horses are herd animals, as a rule, when racing around a green stretch of grass, they generally stick together. Perhaps then we should take more cognisance of which horses finish behind winners than which horses finish next to them.

I mentioned Miedema earlier on. Karel was one of my early mentors and in researching this rant I came across an incredibly insightful piece he wrote in the Sporting Post in 2014.

Karel himself quoted the now late Matthew Lips who requested that:

“The handicappers must be allowed to assess a race openly – and not to be tied down to assessing ratings only in relation to the line/yardstick horse.”

He made two points:

  • the line horse is just a starting point;
  • more important is the interpretation of the result, considering all other factors: distance, pace, draw, tactics, interference, jockeyship, track conditions, etc.

He believed that criticisms of handicappers are due to the fact that they are not being allowed to interpret and are forced into a rigid approach. He recommended more freedom for the handicappers.
This goes to the heart of the matter. The handicapper is the hands-on expert, with Rule 47.3.2 as his leading light.

There should be no restrictions on how the handicapper achieves his goal, as long as he applies the tried and tested methods used by expert handicappers worldwide. These unquestionably include the use of weight-for-age.

In 60 seconds, Graeme Hawkins raised the same concern that I had touched on with Mike. In rating the result of the Horse Chestnut, the handicapper made use of Cousin Casey. Space is already a premium
in this week’s column but in my opinion there are multiple arguments against Cousin Casey being used as the line horse.

In short, Graeme shares my opinion that Main Defender’s rating is “glaringly inaccurate”.

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Eat your heart out Johnny Nash, I have asked more questions than I have answered and I still know only one thing: opinion is the cornerstone of racing.

A final question for my patient reader, one that does have a definitive answer.

What is Spanish for the term ‘a lot of money’?

It’s a six time winning four-year-old son of Twice Over trained in Cape Town by Justin Snaith. Oh, and Mucho Dinero’s merit rating is 110.

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