Head of Handicapping's Blog|
Welcome to Phil Smith's Blog. I am Head of Handicapping at the British Horseracing Authority and I will be updating this page every so often with my thoughts on key issues in the handicapping world.
You can also check out the weekly handicappers blog for all the latest updates from the team.
4th June 2013: BRITISH-TRAINED THREE YEAR OLDS PUT UP GOOD PERFORMANCES
I have never read so much doom and gloom as during the run up to last week's Investec Oaks and Derby. British-trained horses were going to be blown away by the Irish and French and even the Germans were going to make their Derby debut to rub our noses in it.
As it happens the first three to finish in the Oaks were all trained in Britain. I have rated the winner Talent on 114 basing the race through Moth who my colleague Dominic Gardiner-Hill had running to 107 in the 1000 Guineas. This century only two Oaks winners Casual Look (113) and Was (113 last year) have been rated lower than Talent, BUT do not underestimate her.
Talent won easily on Friday despite not getting the clearest of runs and it was only her fourth ever appearance on the racecourse. Her performance figures have been 80, 82, 96 and now 114 so she is clearly progressive. The last filly to be given a rating of 114 after her Oaks victory was Snow Fairy who ended her 3 year old season on 120. That year's Oaks victory was the eighth run of her career.
Ralph Beckett's filly is clearly improving and it would be no surprise to see her emulate Snow Fairy's figure of 120 by the end of the season. She appears to save her best for the racecourse not the training grounds.
As a result I have Secret Gesture running to 108 which is 3lb below her Lingfield Oaks Trial victory. To my eyes she just seemed to run out of gas in the final furlong and I could see her running a big race in the 10f Nassau Stakes.
Libertarian ran a fantastic race to finish second in the Investec Derby. He fell down the hill, hated the camber in the straight yet finished like a train. It was no surprise to see what happened as paddock inspection showed him to be by far the biggest horse in the field. His performances have been 82, 94, 112 and now 117.
I have Libertarian on 117 as he has basically run to the same level as Battle of Marengo and that is what I had him running to on both of his starts this year. I have no reason to believe that Battle of Marengo did not run his race at Epsom.
As a result I have Ruler Of The World performing to 120 at Epsom. He went two lengths clear (3lb) and then appeared to idle a little close home. I have agreed this figure with Garry O'Gorman, who is Senior Handicapper on the flat for the Irish Turf Club and it is the lowest immediate after race figure for a Derby winner this century. Sir Percy was the previous lowest on 121 but never improved on it.
HOWEVER just as with Talent, I am sure this will not be the limit of Ruler Of The World's ability level. The first three in this year's Investec Derby had only run a total of eight times previously. This is the lowest figure this century and it would not surprise me if someone researched it and discovered that it was in fact the fewest number of pre-Derby runs ever by the first three finishers.
Certainly they all have bags of improvement in them, particularly Libertarian on a more galloping track and perhaps over a couple of extra furlongs. Of the others both Mars and Ocovango suffered varying degrees of interference yet still managed to achieve superior figures to their pre race ratings while Chopin would have equalled his without also being hampered.
Just because some of the more famous trainers didn't have runners at Epsom didn't mean that British yards couldn't put up some quality performances in this year's Investec Derby and Oaks.
17th April 2013: GRAND NATIONAL WINNERS AND THEIR SUBSEQUENT RUNS IN HANDICAPS
Last week I explained how I came to the decision of raising Auroras Encore from 137 to 148 after his win in the John Smith's Grand National. It seemed a fairly logical decision to me, but it seems it has upset Harvey Smith who thought he should have been raised by only 5lb not 11lb.
As I explained Cappa Bleu was due to go up by 2lb before the race so that if I had indeed only raised Auroras Encore by the 5lb suggested by Harvey then Cappa Bleu would only have had a 3lb pull for a 9 length defeat. I think most impartial observers would feel that in that case Auroras Encore would have had a better than equal chance if the first two in the Grand National were to meet next time.
Harvey supported his case by saying that over the last 10 years Grand National winners had not won another handicap subsequently and they were always raised by too much for winning. This sounded quite a convincing argument so I determined to investigate it. I further decided to look at all 14 of the Grand National winners I had reassessed to see if Harvey had a point.
In 2012 Neptune Collonges won off 157 and I put him up 11lb back to the 168 he was rated at the start of the season. He never ran again as he was retired. It seemed a little harsh to include him in the list of non-winners without him having had a chance to even run in a handicap. In 2011 Ballabriggs was put up from 150 to 160 for winning. He subsequently ran in four handicaps, two of them Grand Nationals where he finished 6th and pulled up. One of the other two races was over 2 miles 4 furlongs. Two days before his retirement was announced I dropped him to 142.
In 2010 Don't Push It was raised from 153 to 164. He subsequently ran in only one handicap, the following year's Grand National where he finished 3rd off 160 having been dropped 4lb for running disappointingly in hurdle races through the year. Mon Mome won in 2009 and I put him up from 148 to 161. By the time he fell in the race the following year he had dropped to 155 having been well beaten in two handicaps but finishing third in the Gold Cup. By the time he retired I had dropped him 48lb for getting beaten in 12 ordinary handicaps plus two Grand Nationals.
Comply Or Die won in 2008 off 139 and went up 15lb to 154. The following year he finished 2nd in the Grand National. Of course the reality is that once a horse wins a Grand National connections usually state that their target is to run in the race again. Other races are merely a stepping stone to the Holy Grail.
After winning the Grand National in 2007, Silver Birch fell in his next chase, which was the 2009 Grand National, and subsequently ran in cross country races before finishing twelfth in the Topham over less than 3 miles.
Numbersixvalverde ran only in another Grand National in this country after his win in 2006 finishing sixth. While the only handicaps that Hedgehunter subsequently ran in were three Grand Nationals including finishing second in the year after his win.
Amberleigh House ran in 10 handicaps after his win in 2004. Two of them were Grand Nationals but four of them were over 2 miles 4 furlongs, a distance over which he had no conceivable chance. Monty's Pass only ran in two handicaps after his win in 2003. They were both Grand Nationals and he finished fourth in one of them.
So technically Harvey is correct, none of the last 10 winners of the race have subsequently won a race. However one never ran again and four of them only ever ran in a handicap in the Grand National itself. Statistically horses have a 10% chance of being in the first four in the Grand National. In the last 10 years Grand National winners have subsequently run in 17 more Grand Nationals being placed in four of them at a rate of 23.5%.
Going back just one more year to Bindaree in 2002 we find a horse that DID win a race after winning the Grand National. He won off 136 and went up to 147. By the following year's Welsh National he was down to 138 and won by half a length. He also ran in three more Grand Nationals.
Before him Red Marauder never ran in a chase again while Papillion ran only in another National finishing 4th and Bobbyjo also only ever ran in another Grand National finishing 11th.
I am actually pretty content with the future record of winners of Grand Nationals that I have handicapped. One has gone on to win a Welsh National and overall they have run in another 22 Grand Nationals finishing placed on five occasions winning big prize money which was the understandable objective of their trainers. Many of their other runs were over distances far short of their best. Amberleigh House ran on four occasions over less than three miles and started at 33/1 and 50/1. They were prep races and to accuse me of handicapping him not to win them is manipulating the facts.
So no future winners from the victors of the last 10 Grand Nationals sounds a persuasive sound bite, but the facts behind it tell a rather different tale. What has surprised me is that Auroras Encore was not entered in the Bet365 Handicap Chase at Sandown. I did the weights for the race before Aintree when he ran off 137 due to drop to 133 following a poor run at Kelso in March.
There is no penalty structure for the Bet365 Chase so Auroras Encore would have run off 133 at Sandown as opposed to 148 at Ayr this Saturday. Carrying 10st 2lb at Sandown getting 24lb from the current top weight Junior (157), and with an extra week's rest, would appear to this Handicapper to be a more attractive prospect than carrying 11st 12lb at Ayr...
10th April 2013: SOME CRACKING RACING AT AINTREE
The Betfair Bowl provided an exciting race with less than two lengths between first and third. Going into the race, I had Silviniaco Conti top rated on 175 from his win in the Denman chase ahead of The Giant Bolster (164) at Newbury. Both there and at Haydock when he won the Betfair Chase, Silviniaco Conti was ridden more prominently making full use of his stamina, so I was slightly surprised that he was held up at Aintree.
Despite closing rapidly towards the finish he couldn't quite get there. I had First Lieutenant running to 170 in the Lexus at Christmas when just touched off by Tidal Bay so as he was just under nine lengths ahead of Quito De La Roque (161) I left him on his 170. This makes him the third highest winner of the Betfair Bowl in the last decade and well above average. He is clearly a thorough stayer and it makes you wonder how he would have got on against Bobs Worth in the Gold Cup. He would certainly have performed better than he did in the Ryanair (161).
As a result Menorah (169) who has always looked as if he needs 3 miles on decent ground has run his best ever race, while Silviniaco Conti has performed to 168 but I am leaving his rating of 175 unchanged. None of the horses behind performed to their best and I have dropped the level of the Argento Chase at Cheltenham so Cape Tribulation is now on 160 and Imperial Commander has also been given a hefty drop (see below).
On Friday it was reassuring to see my top rated, Dynaste (157) win the Midmay Novice Chase. He had not been disgraced in the Jewson performing to 153 but a return to further led him to a convincing victory. I called the six lengths ahead of Third Intention (151) as 8lb because of ease of victory so he is now on 159. I am sure he would have won the RSA had he run in it and he is now the top 3 mile+ novice chaser.
The last four end of season 3 mile novice champions have been 160, 159, 159 and 160 so he is well up to standard. Third Intention is very consistent but to my eyes also consistently keeps a bit back for himself. He remains a novice but there should be some good prizes for him in the first half of next season. Interestingly followers of the BHA top rated horse in the four non handicap jump races on Friday would have found a handy accumulator of around 13/1.
There was never much prospect of repeating last year's closest ever finish of a Grand National but I have to admit I was a little disappointed with a winning margin of nine lengths. Auroras Encore was almost guaranteed to stay the trip but his recent form had been very disappointing. We are often accused of never dropping quickly enough, horses that have lost their way, yet here was a horse that had finished second beaten a head in the Scottish National less than a year ago and had then been raised to 150 running off a mark of 137. A 13lb reduction looks to put that criticism to bed rather effectively.
As Cappa Bleu who ran off 145 was due to go up 2lb after his good second at Ascot I let that rise occur as you have to think his Grand National second was at least as good as his Ascot run despite being beaten nine lengths. He would have gone very close if the race had been the same distance as in the past. As a result Teaforthree who virtually dead heated with Cappa Bleu goes up to 153 from 151. Auroras Encore goes up their 2lb + 9lb = 11 to 148. That is the lowest post National figure for the winner since Silver Birch (148) in 2007.
After four consecutive winners carrying 11stones+ it showed there is still the unpredictability about the race as Auroras Encore's 10st. 3lb was the lowest weight carried to victory since Bobbyjo's 10st. 0lb in 1999. A fourth Northern trained winner this century will help to quieten the doom merchants who constantly complain about the decline of jump racing in the North.
Oscar Time who was 11 lengths behind in fourth drops 6lb to 139 and I have tried to give hefty drops to horses that have not put up a decent performance for a year or more. As a result Always Waining drops 5lb from 144 to 139 and Quiscover Fontaine is down 8lb from 141 to 133. Both Ballabriggs and Sunnyhillboy drop 10lb from 152 to 142. There are plenty of others.
In the lead up to the race I was accused in the Racing Post by Bruce Jackson of "gift wrapping" the Grand National for Imperial Commander but after pulling up he is down by another 5lbs. to fit in with Cape Tribulation from their Argento run. It is important that these older horses are given a chance in handicaps in the future and I hope to see them all competitive in a big race next season.
19th March 2013: POST CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL BLOG: BOBS WORTH A 180 RATING
Before the race it looked as if a high 170, low 180 performance would be needed to win this year's Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup and sure enough, Bobs Worth outstayed the field to achieve a solid 180 mark. It seemed sensible to rate the race through The Giant Bolster who is admirably consistent on 164 which he has now posted in four of his last five races.
Six lengths in front of him was Long Run giving him a 170 which was what I had him running to when he won the King George at Kempton over Christmas. It is always reassuring for a Handicapper to have two marker horses in the one race and these two regular performers give the race a secure footing.
As a result Sir Des Champs recorded a 173. He had always looked capable of achieving this sort of figure if he got his jumping together at Cheltenham where he has such a good record. He would have been a worthy winner, indeed his rating is the same as his owner's War Of Attrition who won the race in 2006.
Since Bobs Worth was all out to win by 7 lengths, I called the winner a 7lb better horse than Sir Des Champs hence the figure of 180. At this point the figures have been agreed by Noel O'Brien, Ireland's Senior National Hunt Handicapper, but of course a lot can happen between now and the end of the season with Aintree and Punchestown still to come, so it will be interesting to see how we rate Bobs Worth in the 2012/13 Anglo-Irish Jumps Classification. At present he is the fourth highest Gold Cup winner of the last 15 years behind Kauto Star, Denman and Imperial Commander, very illustrious company.
It was no surprise that Bobs Worth won the Gold Cup as his Hennessy form looked so solid with the subsequent exploits of Tidal Bay and First Lieutenant in the Lexus at Leopardstown at Christmas. However I have to confess to some head scratching following the running of the RSA. It was a somewhat unsatisfactory race with Boston Bob falling at the last fence.
Both the winner and second had seemed exposed as being short of top class but in fairness to them they clearly improved for the step up in trip and a truly run race as most of the novice chases in Ireland this winter have been slowly run on desperate ground.
Eventually after much thought and mind changing I decided to base the race through a combination of Hadrian's Approach and the average winning performance in the race over the last ten years. I had Hadrian's Approach on 147 from both his second in the Feltham to Dynaste and his close run behind Unioniste at Newbury.
This brought Lyreen Legend to 153 and the winner, Lord Windermere to 155. The average winning end of season rating of the RSA has been 156 over the last ten years so Jim Culloty's charge is rated as marginally below the average RSA winner.
However what to do with Boston Bob? Opinions will vary as to where he would have finished had he completed and private handicappers could take a view that he might well have won. However as the official Handicapper it is just not possible for me to have a faller higher than the first two finishers when the result was still in doubt so I have assessed him on 152. Remember it is an awfully long way home from that last fence as Bobs Worth showed in the Gold Cup. It is not often that a horse finishing sixth in a top race catches one's eye but I was very much taken with the run of Goulanes (145 in only his second chase having been slightly hampered). I am sure he is a horse with a future.
The John Oaksey National Hunt Chase was much easier to assess as our top rated Back In Focus (150 going into the race) defeated Tofino Bay our second top rated on 149 by half a length with the rest of the field well beaten off. Tofino Bay has solid handicap form his Troytown win at Navan to give him his 149 so it made sense to accept the result at face value and leave them on 150 and 149. It makes Back In Focus the second highest winner of the race in the last ten years.
Overall at all distances and over both obstacles there were very few surprises in the championship races and the form worked out pretty well. One of the reasons for this was the amazing job Simon Claisse and his staff did with the ground. In just a couple of days they were faced with freezing temperatures and torrential rain on ground that already had a very high water table.
For the last four months there have been a plethora of non runners because of the heavy ground and every day jockeys have come in and reported, "he couldn't handle the ground sir." Last week there was one non runner because of the ground and not one jockey reported that a fancied runner was disadvantaged by the surface. In the circumstances Simon was a star of this year's festival.
19th Feb 2013: JOHN SMITH'S GRAND NATIONAL WEIGHTS 2013
Last Tuesday saw the unveiling of the weights for this year's Grand National. It is always an exciting day waiting for the various responses to my work both positive and negative. This year there was only one major criticism and it concerned the weight allocated to Tidal Bay, who has sadly now been announced as a non runner.
Here was my thinking about the weight I allocated to him. Tidal Bay is currently rated 171. The average Grand National winner is raised by 9lb. so to win the National off a mark of 171 would mean Tidal Bay having to run to a level of 180. He is a 12 year old and I believed that would be impossible for him to achieve under the unique conditions that Aintree provides. I therefore dropped him to 162 for the race. This meant he would have to replicate his runs in either the Hennessy or the Lexus chases at the end of last year if he were to win.
Most people would think that to be perfectly possible if the race was over 3 miles or a little further and of course I wouldn't have dropped him to 162 in those circumstances. However the John Smith's Grand National is a completely different test to those that he passed with flying colours at Newbury and Leopardstown. It is another mile plus and over the stiffest thirty fences in the world.
I tried to set a puzzle so that on the one hand people might think he was perfectly capable of running to 171 on most tracks yet could he do it at Aintree? I suspect opinions would have been split. After making that decision all of the horses immediately below him had their ratings reduced but in a decreasing way so that Albertas Run was reduced by 8lb. Imperial Commander by 4lb. etc. The first horse that did not have his rating reduced was Prince de Beauchene.
In a normal handicap he would have been getting 16lb. from Tidal Bay yet I was offering him only 7lb. Technically he was the horse that suffered most from my decision. I therefore found it reassuring that his owner Mr Wylie was happy with my decision and his trainer Willie Mullins said in his article on Page 8 of the Racing Post on Sunday, "I am completely in favour of the policy of compressing the weights for the race." He is now currently the favourite or joint favourite for the race.
Of course Tidal Bay is no longer an intended runner and the weights will go up by at least 2lb. If Albertas Run is a non runner they will go up by 4lb. and if Imperial Commander is a non runner they will go up by 5lb. The top weight has to be 11st. 10lb. on the day.
One little known rule that I could have used is the one which enables us to link hurdle form to a horse's chase rating. This has proven helpful to trainers as for every horse that goes up for running well over the alternative obstacle just over four horses have been dropped over the last year.
I looked closely at the recent hurdle run of Seabass as it was only his second outing over hurdles. On our figures he improved by 58lb. from his previous run six years ago at Fairyhouse. After careful consideration I left him on the mark of 154 which was agreed at the Anglo-Irish Jumps Classification of 2012. Each year trainers run over hurdles in a so called attempt to disguise a horse's ability in the run up to the weights announcement. Unbeknown to them it is a risky course of action. I CAN take a hurdle run into consideration and at some point in the future I will do, if I think it is appropriate.
Although losing Tidal Bay as my top weight was disappointing, the upside is that four more horses were brought into the handicap as a result. The race still has a classy look about it as we now have a Ryanair winner and a Gold Cup winner at the head of the weights. Even if they don't make the starting line in April, What A Friend was placed in a Gold Cup, Quito De La Roque easily won a Grade 2 last time, while Katenko is one of the most improved horses in training. It will always be a great race.
22nd January 2013: THE RE-ASSESSMENT OF THE INTERNATIONAL CLASSIFICATIONS AND WORLD RANKINGS
How did the re-assessment come about?
In 1997, Chairman of the Classifications, Geoffrey Gibbs, announced that it was impossible to compare the ratings from 20 years earlier because of a change in the levels. In 2007 when I became Head of Handicapping and returned to the flat, I produced some data looking at the decline in the levels over the years and as a result appropriate levels have been maintained since then. In October 2012 I was asked by the World Rankings Supervisory Committee (WRSC) to carry out an assessment of the available data to see if a re-assessment of the ratings was appropriate and possible.
What is the purpose of the re-assessment?
It was frustrating to have ratings going back to 1977 but to be unable to compare the greats of nowadays such as Sea The Stars and Frankel, with the greats of those days such as Shergar, Dancing Brave and El Gran Senor. Racing historians and enthusiasts love to look back and make comparisons. Now hopefully the re-assessment will enable those comparisons to be valid ones.
How did you initially go about it?
I counted the number of British, Irish and French trained horses at 120+ and 130+ each year going back to 1977. This showed that in 1977 there were 18 horses rated at 130+ but only three in 2012. Similarly there were 145 horses rated at 120+ in 1977 compared with only 22 in 2012. There had to have been a slip in the levels of the ratings to cause this enormous discrepancy.
Why did you only count British, Irish and French trained horses?
In 1977 they were the only three countries involved in the Classifications so if I was to make valid comparisons I had only to count horses trained in those three countries every year.
What did you work on next?
I went down a lot of blind alleys as I tried to make sense of how much the ratings level had slipped over time and how relevant changes and comparisons could be made. Eventually I settled on calculating the mean (average) level of the British, Irish and French trained horses for the top 19, the top 38 and the top 57.
Why choose the top 57 and why choose to calculate means and not medians?
In 1982 there were only 57 horses rated by the International Handicappers as the ratings only went down to 120 in those days, so I decided to split those 57 into 3 groups to see if the decline was just at the very top of the ability range or if it went down to the good horses included lower down. Initially I did look at medians but I was advised to use means by Dr Patrick Waldron, an expert in statistics, as it meant that every horse would have an impact on the figures as opposed to just the middle ranking horse. Medians are usually used in horse racing to stop figures at the extremes from over influencing the results. In my research I was not looking at ratings below the top level so there was no need to use medians. As it happened there was very little difference in the outcomes when using either medians or means.
What did calculating the mean ratings each year for the top 19, top 38 and top 57 actually show?
When comparing 1977 with 2012 there was clearly quite a difference across all three calculated means.
|| TOP 19
|| TOP 38
|| TOP 57
As you can see the ranges were 7.5lb, 8.6lb, and 8.8lb. The figures were telling me that the Handicappers of the past worked to different levels than we do today.
So you decided to drop all of the early years?
Not yet. I brought in some tolerated ranges for each mean as it was important to acknowledge that each crop would inevitably have some ability differences and I had to recognise that. Most of the means of the last 20 years have been within these tolerated ranges.
|| TOP 19
|| TOP 38
|| TOP 57
As you can see the means for 1977 were higher than the upper limit of the tolerances by 6lb 6.9lb and 6.5lb. As a result I had to reduce the ratings for 1977 by 7lb to bring all of the means within the tolerated ranges. Clearly the means of 2012 are all within the tolerated ranges so there was no need to make an adjustment to those ratings.
How did you decide on the tolerated ranges?
The aim was to reduce the range of both the top 120+ horses and the ranges of the individual means over time. I experimented with a variety of tolerated ranges until I discovered the ones which provided the most consistent and comparable data year on year.
What did this lead you to do next?
I looked at every year and produced a suggested change to the level of the ratings which would bring the means for each year within or as close to the tolerated ranges as possible. Every year between 1977 and 1991 had their ratings reduced as a result.
Why not raise the levels nowadays to reach the levels of the past?
For the last 20 years or so, the levels of the three means have pretty much stayed within the tolerated ranges. This suggested that the Handicappers are now working to a more consistent level. It made more sense to change the ratings of the early years which varied so much from nowadays and even from year to year then.
Explain how the new figures look more credible than those before re-classification.
Before re-classification, the number of 120+ horses ranged from 145 in 1977 to 18 in 2004. Now they range from 39 in 1977, 1980, 1994 and 1996 to 20 in 2003 and 2006. The range of the three means have been similarly reduced so that for example the top 57 mean varies from 122.1 to 119.1, just 3lb as opposed to 128.5 to 118.7 (9.8lb) before the re-classification.
Which horses have had their ratings reduced by the most after re-classification?
Blushing Groom and The Minstrel have been dropped by -7 in 1977 from 135 to 128. Alleged has been reduced by -6 in 1978 from 140 to 134. Three Troikas has been reduced from 137 to 132 in 1979. It now makes her the joint highest rated filly in the ratings together with Black Caviar. Troy has been reduced by -5 in 1979 to 131, while Shergar is now on 136 having been on 140 in 1981. El Gran Senor has been dropped by -3 in 1984 to 135 and Dancing Brave has been dropped by -3 in 1986 to 138. As you can see they are all horses that raced in the first 10 years of the Classifications.
Are there any horses that have been raised?
Yes the cohort of 2004 has been raised by 1lb. as in that year the means fell below the tolerated range. This brought the champion of 2004, Ghostzapper up to 131.
Which horses are now at the top of the ratings since 1977?
138 Dancing Brave
137 Peintre Celebre
136 Generous, Sea The Stars, Shergar
If you wanted Frankel to be rated the best horse rated since 1977 why did you not just add a couple of pounds to his rating rather than drop the greats of the past?
It would not have been my decision to do that and anyway it would have been wrong. We are trying nowadays to be consistent year on year and to "fix" a rating just to get him to the top would have been against all of the principles of the World Rankings Supervisory Committee on which I am just one voice. Anyway it really didn't matter to me which horse was to be the top one after the re-classification. It was just important to have solid statistical reasons to justify whichever horse it turned out to be.
What would you say to a supporter of Dancing Brave who is now rated 2lb behind Frankel?
Frankel is the only horse to be a champion as a 2 year old, 3 year old and a 4 year old since the ratings began in 1977. He is unbeaten in 14 races. He has won ten Group 1 races. He has eight performances that can be rated at 130 or above. It is a compliment to Dancing Brave that he is only rated 2lb behind such a fantastic horse.
28th August 2012: FRANKEL - HOW GOOD IS HE?
I have been especially jealous of my colleague Dominic Gardiner-Hill over the last two years as he has had the privilege of assessing the amazing performances of Frankel. Therefore I was so looking forward to my first chance of rating his performance at York last week in the Juddmonte International.
Although I wasn't on duty I decided to go to York as it is not often you get the chance to see live the best horse in the world or indeed the best in the world for the last 26 years. Like everyone else I was stunned. Group 1's are not normally won so easily. Di Clark, the judge, gave it as 7 lengths which over 10 furlongs equates to 12lbs. as we use 1.75lbs. per length over that distance.
My first task was to decide which of the beaten horses had run to his rating. If I chose Farhh on 122 then Frankel had run to an arithmetic 134 not taking into account the ease of his victory (more on that later). Farhh is an improver. He started the season winning the Thirsk Hunt Cup off a mark of 100. Was it therefore reasonable to assume that he had improved again to 124?
This would mean that St Nicholas Abbey who is very consistent had replicated his 124 also. As he has been 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 1st and 3rd in his last five runs this looked reasonable to me and he had recorded a 124 performance in three of those races. It meant that Twice Over had run below form on 114 as he was 6 lengths behind the second and third which also looked fair as he was only just ahead of the "pacemaker" Bullet Train who thus recorded his best ever performance of 113.
Therefore using Farhh and St Nick on 124 this brought Frankel to 136 but what to call the "ease of victory" which of course is the real task of the Handicapper? I decided to add 2.25 lengths on to the winning distance for ease and style of victory = 4lbs. It would have been churlish to say it was anything less, which brought his performance to 140.
As Dominic also had Frankel running to 140 in the Queen Anne it supported his decision and it was difficult to prove that Frankel's Juddmonte win was any better than his Queen Anne victory. As there was bound to be great debate and interest in his rating, I consulted my domestic colleagues who agreed that 140 was an appropriate level for his performance at York.
We have an International system on our computers which enables us to see what our colleagues around the world have calculated for every horse that runs in a Group race anywhere in the world. When I looked on Tuesday morning 8 out of 8 of the International Handicappers who had posted a rating had come up with 140 for Frankel at York.
Of course this isn't the final figure for the son of Galileo as a great deal will happen over the next few months before his final career figure is decided in Hong Kong at our International Conference of the World Thoroughbred Racehorse Rankings. I hope that Farhh and St Nicholas Abbey go onwards and upwards so that we have the opportunity to raise Frankel on collateral form or as trainers call it "for standing in his box".
Alternatively, perhaps he will beat better horses, such as Cirrus Des Aigles (128), as easily as those he encountered at York if he runs on British Champion's Day at Ascot on Saturday 20th October. I KNOW he is the best flat horse I have ever seen and would have loved to have been able to rate him higher. However as it stands the facts make this difficult. I look forward to being able to prove it at the end of the year.
AMAZING SUCCESS OF NORTHERN TRAINED HORSES
Last week I received an e mail form a Northern based trainer who said, "It also brings our attention to the discrepancy between northern handicapping. If a horse obtains its mark in the north after three runs it is simply not comparable to three runs in the south yet is treated as such." This is a serious accusation against my Handicapping team and I checked carefully through the e-mail for some statistics to support such a view.
There were none - of course - but worried that there may be some truth in the statement I decided to analyse the success rates of Northern horses in flat handicaps over a period of 8 days at the major tracks. During that time there were five days at Goodwood, two days at Newmarket and one each at Ascot and York.
Altogether 37 handicaps were run over 9 days at four of our top racecourses where there was a Northern trained horse taking part. I dreaded that the results would show that we were, perhaps unwittingly, discriminating against Northern trained horses.
There were 548 runners in those 37 handicaps with an average field size of just under 15 so they were bound to be competitive and would give me some reasonably reliable figures. As it happened there were 38 winners in these races as Chris Nash achieved a dead heat in a 5 furlong handicap at Goodwood.
Around a third of the runners - 183 - were trained in the North and two thirds - 365 - were trained in the South. Astonishingly in some of our most competitive handicaps at the height of the flat season 19 of the winners were trained in the North and 19 were trained in the South!
This gave a strike rate as follows:
North 19 winners from 183 runners = 10.4%
South 19 winners from 365 runners = 5.2%
Overall 38 winners from 548 runners = 6.9%
So from 33% of the runners, Northern trained horses achieved 50% of the winners. I was amazed as far from discriminating against Northern trained horses the figures for one of our busiest weeks of the flat season showed that they were scoring at a very high strike rate. Even more astonishingly was that anybody backing Northern trained horses blind over the 8 days at our top four tracks would have made a profit of £3,437 to a level £100 stake!
A statistician would of course say that the sample is probably too small to make hard and fast conclusions but it certainly DOES show that on the flat last week Northern trained horses did rather well.
What about jumping? Well we have been hearing similar baseless accusations of anti-Northern bias over many years, although yet again there has been a startling lack of figures to support their claims.
I therefore looked back at the handicaps over the last six Cheltenham Festivals which is a meeting where Northern, Irish and Southern trained horses compete against each other in decent numbers.
These are the results:
Overall 64 races with 1411 runners giving a strike rate of 4.5%
Northern trained 12 winners from 170 runners giving a strike rate of 7.1%
I had a quick glance at this year's results from Aintree and discovered that there were two Northern trained handicap winners at this year's Grand National meeting, while in the Scottish National at Ayr the first three home were Northern trained from less than half the runners. The trainer who sent the e mail had a strike rate in handicaps of 12% from 2007-2011 while the national average is 9.8%.
Have I put the old chestnut of anti-Northern discrimination to bed? Probably not because just like the so called anti-Irish bias it makes a good sound bite for journalists but at least I have gone to the trouble of researching some figures to support our denial of any "discrepancy". I look forward to seeing some statistics to show an alternative view.
ANGLO-IRISH JUMP CLASSIFICATIONS
For the fourth time in six seasons the British and Irish handicappers have assessed Kauto Star as the best horse over obstacles. In 2006-07 he was rated at 179, in 2008-9 he achieved a mark of 186 and in 2009-10 his figure was 190, the highest rating allocated to any horse since the start of the Anglo-Irish Jumps Classifications thirteen years ago. Kauto Star has actually been a champion on seven occasions as he was top 2.5 mile chaser in both 2006-7 and 2007-8 as well as being top 2 mile chaser in 2006-7 when as yet he became the only horse to be champion at all three chasing distances.
This year his best run was at Kempton in the William Hill King George VI Chase where he posted an agreed figure of 180 by beating Long Run (178) by 1.25 lengths with 17 lengths back to Captain Chris (162). The last 6 seasons have been a “golden age” for British trained 3 mile chasers with Denman, Imperial Commander, Long Run and Kauto Star all regularly putting in performances at 180+.
Next season it will be fascinating to see if Long Run can return to that level, while last season’s novice chasers will be attempting to progress to winning the 3 mile championship races. Flemenstar (163), Sir Des Champs (162) and Bobs Worth (160) all have to improve massively if they are to achieve that lofty level. Of the three Bobs Worth looks the only certainty to stay the distance, but so far the Irish pair have the better form.
This season saw Master Minded (174) become champion of the 2.5 mile chase division for the second consecutive season by virtue of his win in the Amlin 1965 Chase at Ascot where he gave Somersby (165) 4lbs. and an easy 3 length beating. Just like Kauto Star, Master Minded was a versatile as well as an outstanding champion as he was also champion in the 2 mile category twice in the past.
Sizing Europe (172) was not quite at his brilliant best this year and as a result lost his 2 mile champion status to Finian’s Rainbow (173) after a titanic struggle up the Cheltenham hill in March. Both of them will face two new and improving challengers in 2012-13 as Sanctuaire (166) showed his progression as a novice by thrashing older, more experienced chasers at Sandown in the Bet365.com Celebration Chase by 17 lengths.
Such a stunning performance would have seen Sanctuaire crowned top or equal top novice chaser in any of the previous 12 seasons but in 2011-12 that title went to Sprinter Sacre (169) who is undoubtedly the most exciting novice we have assessed since Denman (161) in 2006-7 and Gloria Victis (166) in 1999-2000.
So both Sanctuaire and Sprinter Sacre are unbeaten and both have already defeated non novices.
All roads will now lead to Sandown in December for the Tingle Creek which should be a race to savour. In our view both still need to improve to beat either Sizing Europe or Finian’s Rainbow. It is distinctly possible that whoever wins that race will have to come close to Master Minded’s amazing performance of 186 in the 2008 Champion Chase.
The two mile hurdle championship is shared by Rock On Ruby (170) and Hurricane Fly (170). The former was the beneficiary of a brilliant ride by Noel Fehily in the Champion Hurdle where the consistent Overturn (166), beaten just under 4 lengths gives the form a solid look. However it remains a one off performance by Rock On Ruby which we will be looking to see him replicate in 2012-2013. Hurricane Fly gets his rating from the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown where he beat Oscars Well (162) by virtually the same distance as Rock On Ruby did at Cheltenham.
Grumeti (153) is the first juvenile since Katchit (159 in 2006-07) to be top 2 mile novice hurdler so it will be fascinating to see if he can replicate Katchit’s win in the Champion Hurdle in 2013. It will take nearly a stone of improvement to do so as Katchit performed to 166 in 2008 when winning a sub-standard renewal of the race.
For the fourth consecutive year Big Buck’s (174) is the best hurdler at any distance in Britain and Ireland. It is perhaps surprising given how many times he has run but the handicappers are still unsure about how good he really is as all of his wins come so easily and the opposition is quickly brushed aside at the business end of the race. No matter what tactics his opponents use Big Buck’s shows himself to be “the special one”. His best performance in 2011-12 season was in the Rewards4Racing Cleeve Hurdle where he gave Dynaste (161) 4lbs. and a comfortable 7 length beating.
Perhaps next year we will find out the true level of Big Bick’s ability as Simonsig (160) is the highest rated novice hurdler for 6 years. It is not often that a hurdler wins at Cheltenham and Aintree by a combined total of 22 lengths and he looks sure to improve and give the great Big Buck’s a run for his money.
On Thursday 3rd May 2012, the Racing Post's Colin Russell wrote an article criticising the handicapping system, in particular horses being raised for winning small field affairs. Colin's article was full of inconsistencies and inaccuracies, and I felt compelled to kick back. Here is my response, which was printed in the Racing Post on Monday 7th May.
"I was disappointed this year in Colin Russell’s annual anti-handicapper article and have to challenge some of his conclusions which are not always supported by the facts.
He quotes two examples of horses going up 10lbs. for winning jump handicaps at Newcastle in the last year. Playing The Field had actually been dropped 8lbs. for his previous poor run at Wetherby and somewhat surprisingly started a heavily backed favourite at Newcastle. He won by over 3 lengths despite making a serious jumping error two out and it seemed reasonable to restore him to somewhere near his best rating of 110 so he was raised to 108. The form subsequently was confirmed by the second horse Sammy Spiderman who was second and first in his next two races.
Playing The Field has subsequently run four times finishing a close up third twice and running disappointingly on the other two occasions when his jockey has reported to the stewards that he had been hanging and never travelling. On his most recent run he started 6/5 favourite so clearly the general public still feel he has a good chance off his current mark.
The second horse, which he doesn’t name but is presumably Copper’s Gold did indeed win a 4 runner race easily at Newcastle. In his case when he subsequently showed in two runs that he couldn’t cope with that rise, I dropped him 8lbs. Since then he has finished a competitive 2nd, 3rd and 2nd.
Both of these examples actually show that Colin is wrong to state that “horses go up quickly and come down slowly,” as they have both received good drops to give them a chance of winning.
However to quote two examples to make a point that we are punishing horses is hardly statistically valid. We looked at all 4 runner jump handicaps through 2011 and the findings were revealing. There were 78 of them in the year. Of the winners only 65 have subsequently run in a jump handicap BUT 13 won next time out giving a win percentage of 20%.
As the average field size in a jump handicap over a year is 9.1 giving a strike rate of 11%, your chances of winning next time out are actually nearly doubled if you run in and win a four runner handicap. We clearly don’t always “whack horses up on the strength of a seemingly easy win an uncompetitive small field event”, especially as all together 30 of these four runner handicap winners have subsequently won a handicap. That is just over 46% of them. If trainers really are not running for a small pot with the risk of a big rise, which I don’t actually believe, then they are clearly making a big mistake.
We further researched the 65 horses in our sample and looked at by how much they were each put up. One horse was left unchanged and we acknowledged the generally uncompetitive nature of these races by raising 40 of the 65 by less than the national average rise of all handicap winners which is 8lbs.
I was surprised that Colin in his research didn’t discover that five of these 65 four runner handicap winners were actually raised by more than 11lbs. Of course as all five of them won their next handicap it wouldn’t have suited his theme but maybe he felt that a 100% success rate from a sample of only five wasn’t statistically valid.
A TALE OF TWO GRAND NATIONALS
Last Saturday, Merigo showed his aptitude for Ayr racecourse by recording his fifth course victory and his third consecutive placing in Scotland’s biggest race the Coral Scottish Grand National. Merigo ended last season on a rating of 141 based on his second in last year’s contest beaten 0.75 lengths by Beshabar when running off 142 from 12lbs. out of the handicap.
He was beaten over 60 lengths on his reappearance at Haydock and then over 70 lengths at Kelso. I dropped him a pound for his first poor run and 2lbs. for his second poor run, whereupon he ran even worse at Wetherby off 138 and was beaten over 80 lengths. I now dropped him by 5lbs. to 133 and at Doncaster in January he finished 12th in the Skybet Chase still beaten around 40 lengths. This was his best run so far this season but he was still not getting competitive.
I now dropped him to 129. Even though this was 13lbs. lower than the mark he had run off at Ayr in April it was only a pound lower than his rating of 130 from that day (ran 12lbs. out of the handicap) and his previous highest winning mark was 127.
Connections found a weak handicap back at his beloved Ayr and he won narrowly as the 11/1 outsider of six. The subsequent poor form of his opponents that day made his new mark of 134 look perhaps a little high, but faced with April sunshine and 4 miles at Ayr, Merigo battled tenaciously up the straight to just outlast Auroras Encore by a head.
“You put them up quick enough but you never drop them that quick,” is a phrase often quoted at us by disgruntled connections. The handicapping of Merigo seems to put that nonsense to bed quite quickly. What was particularly pleasing was that both Merigo and Auroras Encore had won their last race showing that you can win or run well in a big handicap having run well the time before. Merigo is now back to 142, the mark connections ran him off in last year’s renewal.
There are some races and tracks where I never seem to get a good finish but the Scottish Grand National has been a lucky race for my professional pride. A head this year, 0.75 lengths and a neck last year, half a length in 2009, 2007 and 2006. In 2005 the winning distance was a short head and in 2003 a neck. In 2002 the first four finishers were separated by just over 2 lengths.
At Aintree in the John Smith’s Grand National, the first four, Neptune Collonges. Sunnyhillboy, Seabass and Cappa Bleu had also all run really well in their prep race for the big one. A year ago I had been accused by a journalist of encouraging horses not to run to protect their marks for the Grand National. The first four this year had run a total of 16 times between them before the big day.
Just like Merigo, Neptune had come down in the ratings since the end of last season. He had pulled up in the Hennessy in November off 168 carrying top weight, trying to do a Denman and I dropped him to 161. His form had tailed off a little in 2010-11 and 161 was a rating he had won off in a handicap back in 2008.
He ran a good race in the Silver Cup at Ascot to finish fourth in December again carrying top weight to be beaten just over 8 lengths and I dropped him to 159 off which he ran another good race to be second to Hold On Julio at Sandown but beaten 9 lengths and again carrying top weight. Neptune Collonges’ performance figure in both of these races was 157 and when I compressed the top weights for the John Smith’s Grand National it fitted neatly to have him on 157.
He then ran in the Grand National Trial at Haydock in February. Those attending that day will have seen four Cheltenham Festival winners and the John Smith’s Grand National winner so put the date in your diary for next year. Surprise, surprise he was carrying top weight again off a mark of 159 and just failed to reel in Giles Cross giving the strong impression that at the age of 11 he now needed a bit further than 3 miles if he was to win. At Aintree he was technically 5lbs. well in as his new mark after Haydock was 162.
Neptune Collonges was on 11st 6lbs. at Aintree, the highest weight a winner has carried since Red Rum’s third victory in 1977. It seemed sensible after the race to put the now retired Neptune Collonges back to 168 from the 157 he ran off, especially as Sunnyhillboy ran off 142 in the race but was due to go to 152 after his Cheltenham Festival victory. I took the view that Sunnyhillboy had replicated his Cheltenham run in the Grand National so as he was due to go up 10lbs. Neptune Collonges’ final rating will be 157+11=168. This is the highest rating a Grand National runner has achieved since Suny Bay was second to Earth Summit off 170 back in 1998.
So we have had two 11 year old Grand National winners on successive Saturdays, both of whom had been dropped to keep them competitive as they grew older and both of whom had run well in their prep race for the big day. It is good for racing that old favourites like Merigo and Neptune Collonges who had 9 previous runs between them this season can still win major races and in my view it is a ringing endorsement of the current Handicapping system especially as both races produced cracking finishes, a head and a nose.
POST CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL BLOG
What a great week for high quality and competitive racing. We saw some new exciting champions, some close finishes in the handicaps and drama in a number of races. Teaforthree owned by the guys and girls in Racing For Change did them proud in the National Hunt Chase. He was top rated on our ratings and performed to his pre race 146 in winning by an easy 2 lengths.
I had an interesting dilemma with the second and third horses as Harry The Viking and Four Commanders were separated by only a neck. In normal circumstances I would have called them the same horse on 142 but subsequently discovered that the jockey on Harry had changed his boots which weighed half a pound heavier than his original pair. As a result I added that to the neck and Harry is now on 143.
When I saw Bobs Worth (now on 160) beaten at Ascot in the Reynoldstown, I thought he looked nailed on for the National Hunt Chase which of course he would have been, but he showed he was no slowcoach and a potential 2013 Gold Cup winner by running on strongly up the hill in the RSA. Denman won the 2007 Hennessy off 161 as a second season Novice so that is the modern day standard for novices as they move out of that division. Let's hope that Invictus his Reynoldstown conqueror shows what he can do next season as well.
Synchronised (168) virtually reproduced his Lexus win in taking the Gold Cup. I rated the race through Knockara Beau, amazingly consistent at around 147 over both fences and hurdles. Some may say I am too low on Synchronised but to have him any higher would have meant putting up Knockara Beau beaten nearly 20 lengths in sixth which is something we are always reluctant to do. I also used Time For Rupert on 157 returning to his Charlie Hall performance of last October.
Each year the handicaps at the Festival are a major talking point and my team all strive to produce the most competitive and tight finish. The prize was won this year by Chris Nash for the Martin Pipe race in which the main distances were a neck and a neck and he had the first nine in a two and a half mile hurdle race covered by 1.5 seconds – stunning!
In previous years in pre Festival complaints we have allegedly discriminated against the Irish. 20 Irish trained handicap winners from in the last 7 Festivals at a strike rate of 6.0% appear to have put that old chestnut to bed.
Then it was the turn of the Northern trainers to complain that they couldn't win in Festival handicaps. In the last seven Festivals, a reasonable statistical sample, Northern trained horses have won 13 handicaps from 201 runners at a strike rate of 6.5%. Overall during this period there have been 1648 runners in these handicaps and 74 winners giving a notional strike rate of 4.5%.
In the lead up to this year's Festival the biggest complaint was not that were discriminating against any particular group rather we were under assessing French form and that horses coming from France to British trainers were "thrown in". People who should have known better got caught up in the hype of these "leniently treated" ex French horses. We even had a written complaint from a very well respected organisation within racing which said, "With respect this really won't do. How (French) form can be translated to British conditions without seeing the horses run here is difficult to fathom."
Clearly not for Dave Dickinson my juvenile hurdle Handicapper who got 5 horses home within a second and managed to combine French/Irish and British form into the result with breath taking accuracy. He has the most difficult job of all of us as he has so few runs to go in three different countries. Of course he consults with the Irish and French Handicappers but the final decision is his and the buck stops with him. As with the Big version of Buck's, Dave has come out of the Festival as a winner.
POST JOHN SMITH'S GRAND NATIONAL WEIGHTS 2012
Last Tuesday on Valentine's Brook Day at the Savoy Hotel in London I revealed the John Smith's Grand National weights for the race at Aintree which will take place exactly two months later. Most of the trainers were reasonably happy with the weight allocated to their horses as many had done their own calculations based around Ballabriggs being top weight or nearly top weight.
As it happened I chose Synchronised as top weight. I just felt that his overall profile as a Welsh National winner and a Grade 1 Lexus winner gave him the edge over Ballabriggs. Since we lowered the top weight to 11st. 10lbs. trainers have been much happier about running under top weight than in the past and both Donald McCain and Jonjo O'Neill spoke encouragingly about their chances.
The only trainer who was in any way critical was Dessie Hughes who felt I had not been fair to Black Apalachi. He was second off 154 in 2010 and was agreed in the 2009-2010 Anglo-Irish Jumps Classifications on 159 which is what he would have run off if he had been fit enough in 2011. As he had been off for so long and the horse that beat him (Don't Push It) was not in the race I dropped him back to 154.
In effect he is 5lbs. worse with State Of Play for beating that horse in to third place by 20 lengths. It makes you wonder what Dessie felt would have been a fair differential for those two horses. Meet on the same terms? Give State of Play 1lb. 2lbs. 3lbs. 4lbs. more than he did in 2010? I have to be fair to all horses and if I had dropped Black Apalachi any further then I believe Evan Williams would have had cause for complaint. As it happened Dessie seemed unaware that I had dropped Black Apalachi at all!
Dropping horses for long absences is NOT a given. We always look at their form before they were injured and if they were struggling then they often get a large drop (sometimes as much as 12lbs.). However if they were running well and the form still looks solid then often they are not dropped at all. Our results with horses coming back after a long absence are very encouraging. Perhaps Dessie thought that second in the 2010 Grand National wasn't good form.
Inevitably with a two month early closing race horses entered in the race suddenly start to appear and a number ran over the last week some very encouragingly. First up was Burton Port. I had dropped him 6lbs. (166-160) for his absence because the form of the 2010 Hennessy had not worked out. Diamond Harry has disappointed and had dropped from 168 to 160. Denman has retired whilst the fourth and fifth The Tother One and Niche Market have both dropped a stone since running at Newbury.
Owing to the compression at the top of the John Smith's Grand National weights he received a further 2lbs. so he is on 158 in the race. This looked neat as an average winner goes up 8lbs. so if Burton Port could replicate his 2010 Hennessy second he could win the National. Clearly he has been expertly brought back to top form by the owner's racing manager Mick Meagher and his trainer Nicky Henderson. I assessed the Denman Chase through The Giant Bolster, a wide margin winner of a competitive handicap at Cheltenham on his previous run and now on 160.
Therefore I had What A Friend running to 161 (160 +7 lengths -6lbs.) and he has been dropped to a rating of 165. It was an encouraging run by him after an absence but it is now 11 months since he was fourth in last year's Gold Cup and I have dropped him to 165 behind Burton Port who is restored to his post Hennessy 166. (160 +11 lengths ahead of The Giant Bolster -6lbs weight differential +1lb for the error as he stuttered into the last fence).
As a result Burton Port is now 8lbs. well in for the John Smith's Grand National. In February 2010 I had him on 158 and his trainer told me that I had ruined the horse's future. Since then he has won a Reynoldstown, been 2nd in an RSA, won a Mildmay, been 2nd in a Hennessy and finished 2nd in a Denman Chase. Not bad for a horse I had supposedly ruined.
Long Run I have performing to 178. Burton Port's 166 +10lbs weight and I called the half a length as 2lbs. as like his owner I believe Long Run was idling in front. There has been some total nonsense written that it was a disappointing run. For me it was an excellent trial for the Gold Cup. Last year Long Run improved 3lbs. from 179 in the King George to 182 in the Gold Cup and I have no doubt he will do at least the same again this year between the Denman Chase and the Gold Cup so he is sure to run at least in the low 180's under his optimum conditions including going up the hill 3 times and over 2.5 furlongs further.
The big question is can Kauto Star replicate his Kempton 183 in the King George at Christmas at Cheltenham in March? He will have to if he is to win the race. So far his performances in the Gold Cup have been 172, 174, 186, 0 and 169. He did it in 2009, it will be fascinating to see if he can do it in 2012.
On Saturday at Ascot I thought Massini's Maguire ran an excellent trial for the John Smith's Grand National. He is now 6lbs. well in for Aintree as like Burton Port I have restored him to a mark he has already been in the past (148-154). Just when it looked as if he was going to get caught he stayed on dourly, expertly ridden by Tom Scudamore who hardly ever gets a mention in the press but who I think is a top, top jockey. In the same race Cappa Bleu showed his 147 will make him competitive at Aintree and must also have pleased connections. His form this year is bomb proof.
At Haydock, Giles Cross who is Mr Consistent won the Betfred Grand National Trial by a neck but it was a cosy neck as the jockey was pretty motionless and I called it 3lbs. He is now 6lbs well in at Aintree (138-144). Neptune Collonges was staying on all the time confirming what I thought in his previous run at Sandown that he will be well suited to 4.5 miles. He was moved from 159 to 162 but because I had compressed him at Aintree to 157 he is now 5lbs. well in. Finally you couldn't rule out Le Beau Bai who stays on 140 and who looked as if he needed at least another mile at Haydock which is much more of a speed track nowadays despite the heavy ground.
So 4 days after I released the weights for the 2012 John Smith's Grand National there are 4 horses that are now well in. Burton Port by 8lbs. Massini's Maguire by 6lbs. Giles Cross by 6lbs. and Neptune Collonges by 5lbs. In 1999 when I did my first National I used to panic when horses showed they were well in subsequent to my release of the weights. I am more relaxed nowadays as obviously they are not all going to win. However a dead heat would be nice.
CARRUTHERS BACK IN THE BIG TIME
In 2009/10 I loved Carruthers. All handicappers would have as he was so consistent and I used him as my "marker horse". I had him on 155 after he beat Big Fella Thanks at Newbury in December 2009. I then based the Cotswold Chase around his 155 with Taranis, the winner running to 161.
In the Gold Cup, Imperial Commander (185) beat him by thirty lengths and he then ran a corker in the Totesport Bowl at Aintree, finishing just over three lengths behind What A Friend, who went in to the race on 159. It all fitted so perfectly that year.
2010/11 did not go so well. He was beaten just over twenty lengths in good handicaps at Ascot and Haydock and was sixth in the Hennessy. For whatever reason he did not appear to be as good as he had been the previous year, although he was still very consistent. As a result I dropped him 9 lb to 146.
The rest is history. His first run of 2011/12 was encouraging but again he didn't appear to quite get home, thus the application of a tongue strap clearly indicated in the race card for the Hennessy. The first six in the race were covered by around one and a half seconds so I was pretty pleased with the outcome especially as my "marker horse" became a "winning horse".
I have put him up 6 lb to 152 as a result and he will carry 11st 3 lb in the Coral Welsh National as the top weight will be Neptune Collonges, who I have dropped 7 lb from 168 to 161 after he failed to make any impact here.
KAUTO SHOWS HE CAN STILL HACK IT AT THE TOP LEVEL
When you attend upwards of 90 race meetings a year it takes something special to stir you to clap and cheer as a "neutral" Handicapper but I was thrilled by Saturday's "comeback" win from Kauto Star. The non Kauto highlights in my career have been Best Mate's third Gold Cup, Denman's second Hennessy win, Don't Push It's John Smith Grand National success and Zenyatta at Santa Anita in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
On Saturday Kauto Star provided me with a third moment of utter excitement and awe to rival regaining his Gold Cup and his victory by a distance in the King George. On Sunday after reviewing the video a few times it was my task to put a figure on his performance. To base the race through Diamond Harry (166) would have got Kauto Star to 184, which was possible and Long Run to 176 which was also possible but would have meant promoting Weird Al by 10lbs. to 174. I just could not have Weird Al getting over the magical 170 barrier for being beaten 10 lengths back in third so that possibility was discarded.
It seemed prudent to assume that Weird Al had replicated the 164 he achieved when winning the Charlie Hall at Wetherby a few weeks ago. This had Long Run running to 166 which was 16lbs. below his Gold Cup winning performance. As a result Kauto Star performed to 174 which coincidentally was the same figure he recorded at Haydock a couple of years ago when he just edged out Imperial Commander.
Long Run was not at his best but it would be folly to write him off as 166 was still 4lbs. higher than his debut run last season when he finished third in the Paddy Power Gold Cup. Just as in that contest he pulled in the early part of the race and made jumping errors thanks to the pace set by Kauto Star. Nevertheless he still stayed on to be beaten only 8 lengths whereas coming out of the back straight it appeared he might be about to be thrashed.
I was also taken with the run of Diamond Harry who was going as well as anything coming out of the back straight and who will strip a lot fitter next time. I have left his rating on 166 even though he only performed to 156 in this race. Time For Rupert I have dropped to 156 which was his performance figure behind Weird Al in the Charlie Hall. Connections now have the handicap option for his next race if they want it.
But what of Kauto Star? This was the 18th time in his career that I have him performing at 170+ and he also has two 169 performances on his c.v. as well. So he has recorded 20 performances at 169+ which is more than any horse in the modern era. What happened to the often written suggestion a few years ago that French bred horses don't last?
My other two races on the Haydock card were also of great interest although nothing like as emotional. Neptune Equester (138) has almost certainly now done enough to get a run in the John Smith's Grand National next April after he outstayed Morning Moment (123) whose jumping was brilliant in the 3 mile 4 furlongs handicap chase.
One of the most difficult jobs we have is trying to decide how to rate horses that have been off the track for a long time. In general we drop them BUT if their form has worked out well during their absence we will probably leave their rating alone and see how they go on their comeback run. The finish of the three mile handicap chase was fought out between two horses who had been absent for a total of 1184 days, Cappa Bleu and Tamarinbleu. When re-assessing Cappa Bleu I discovered that I had rated him 148 after his win in the 2009 Foxhunters chase at Cheltenham but he then lost his way. I took 8lbs. off him as that is the average amount a horse goes up for winning a handicap. My thinking was if he could now replicate his Foxhunters run he would have a chance of winning. If I had left him on 148 he would have had to run to about 156 to win at Haydock which was unlikely after time off and a poor profile when he was last in action.
Coincidentally I did exactly the same with Tamarinbleu dropping him from 148 to 140 for the Haydock race. Imagine my satisfaction when" Les Bleus" fought out a thrilling finish in the last at Haydock with only a head between them at the line. Cappa' is now on 147 and Tamarin' on 145. I called the head 2lbs. as I felt Evan Williams' horse was idling near the finish. It also means that Tamarinbleu can still run in veterans' chases carrying top weight which will be an attraction to racegoers. I have to say I was quite proud of that result.
Just to show that dropping horses for absence is not routine, I did not drop Painter Man for being off the track for 17 months as the form of his third at Stratford had worked out amazingly well as the first, second and fourth had all subsequently won and were now considerably higher than when they ran against Painter Man. Technically through them he could have been higher but we never put horses up after a long absence but by leaving Painter Man relative to the horses he ran against last time who have all gone up, he has in effect received a drop.
Most of the time trainers will email or phone us when they have a horse ready to return after injury or illness so they can plan a programme. Just occasionally they don't and make assumptions about what we might do and end up being disappointed that we have to rule them out of a race they had targeted for its return run.
So far this week, I attended a reception at the Hennessy offices in London on Monday evening. They have been sponsoring the great race at Newbury for 55 years. Amazing! Tuesday is work on the draft ratings of mile and a quarter and mile and a half horses for the World Thoroughbred Racehorse Rankings conference in Hong Kong next month. Wednesday is another trip to London to attend a meeting of the Flat Race Panel. Thank goodness for Thursday when I can do some domestic chase handicapping.
Friday and Saturday I am at Newbury for their big meeting. It doesn't stop at this time of year. Sunday and Monday will be catch up on reassessing this week's 2 mile 4.5 furlongs + chases. I normally do the 3 miles+ chases but we have a member of the team on holiday. It's not all work though as on Friday evening I am going to my colleague Matthew Tester's house for dinner. He is a great cook and wine expert. It should just get me straight for the big race on Saturday.
POST ECLIPSE BLOG 2011
6th July 2011
For most of the summer I am responsible for 10 furlong to 12 furlong Class 1 to 4 flat races. As a result I had to reassess last Saturday's Coral Eclipse Stakes. It was 31 years ago that I attended my first Coral Eclipse. I fully expected the three year old, Hello Gorgeous to win that day but despite Joe Mercer's best efforts he could not quite get to the year older Ela-Mana-Mou and went under by half a length. On the way home on the train I listened to Borg beating McEnroe in the Mens' Singles Final at Wimbledon on my transistor radio.
In those days 3 year olds received 13lbs. weight for age and two horses from that age group took on Ela Mana Mou in a field of six. Nowadays 3 year olds only receive 11lbs weight for age over 10 furlongs in early July and this year there wasn't a horse from that age group to take on the older horses. You might think three year olds are somehow disadvantaged when taking on their elders at present. I will try to suggest otherwise later.
Hello Gorgeous was rated 126 at the end of 1980 in the International Classifications and Ela Mana Mou had a performance figure of 127 in the race although he improved to his end of year 130 when winning the King George later in the month. This year So You Think went into the race rated 126 both from his Australian form in 2010 and his European form this summer. He is currently published on 126 in the list of World's Leading Horses. Workforce was rated 128 in the Arc last year and I gave him a 124 performance figure on his reappearance in the Brigadier Gerard Stakes. Sri Putra was on 116 from the Prince Of Wales's Stakes and it was also my level for him in last year's Eclipse and Glorious Stakes.
The race seems to fit remarkably well. If So You Think performs to 126 then Workforce has done a 125 as he was half a length behind. This is perfectly reasonable as he is probably slightly better at further. Workforce beat Sri Putra by 0.92 seconds which works out at around 5.2 lengths, rounded down to 5 lengths by the judge. Over 10 furlongs we work on 1.75 pounds per length so Workforce gave Sri Putra a 9lbs beating. Thus Sri Putra performed to 116. It is very rare for a race to work out as well as this and using the Handicappers' maxim "keep it simple, stupid" I have left So You Think and Sri Putra on 126 and 116 respectively. I have also left Workforce on 128 and look forward to him replicating or bettering that figure when he next runs over 12 furlongs.
At Newmarket a couple of Fridays ago, one of our top trainers said to me that in his opinion it was difficult for a 3 year old to beat the older horses at my distances until the end of July. When no three year old turned up in the Eclipse I was worried that he might be right. As a result I have researched all of my handicaps over the last 10 days when 3 year olds have taken on their elders with the following results.
They have met in 12 races with a total of 119 runners. 3 year olds have provided 35 of the runners and older horses have provided 84 of them. Amazingly the three year olds have won exactly half of these races with only 29% of the runners. The general public appear to have been taken in by the myth of the three year olds being disadvantaged at present as the starting prices of the winners have been 16/1, 6/1, 9/2, 8/1, 6/1 and 9/1.
I have also researched the record of three year olds in the Coral Eclipse since the allowance 3 year olds received from the weight for age scale was changed at the end of the season following Nashwan's victory in the 1989 edition. In that time, 7 three year olds have won the Eclipse in 22 renewals. This constitutes a strike rate of 31.8% and they have provided 30.5% of the runners. This is almost exactly what you would expect from an effective weight for age scale. Well done Admiral Rous and Geoffrey Gibbs! Come on trainers, let's see some quality three year olds in next year's Eclipse. They really aren't disadvantaged by the weight for age scale at this time of year.