Handicapper’s Blog: Changes to two-year-old handicapping practices have had positive effect

29 Nov 17

The BHA’S handicapper of two-year-olds Graeme Smith takes stock following the 2017 Turf Season to look at the impact of changes made to the race programme and handicapping practices.

The conversion of the vast majority of two-year-old maiden races to novices, when horses who have won are allowed to run, in 2017 meant there was no longer a need to offer winning debutants the opportunity of going straight into nursery handicaps.

As such, the rules on handicap qualification were modernised to require two year olds to have either three runs or two wins to their name before a rating was allotted.

This meant the BHA’s handicappers had more evidence on which to base an opening mark, and the effect of this on the competitiveness of nurseries was a positive one on several measures.

A good place to start measuring the competitiveness of handicaps is always the tightness of the finish. The median winning distance of all nurseries up until the end of October had been consistent at a length through the last 5 years but dropped to three-quarters of a length this season.

The percentage of races where the winning distance equated to no more than 1lb of weight (using our standard pounds per length ratio, for each individual distance, of a neck for 5f and half a length at 1m) rose to 28.8% from an average of 26.4% over the previous 5 years.

The trend has also been mirrored in betting markets. The average starting price of favourites has increased slightly, but more notable is the outsider rate. This is calculated as the percentage of runners whose starting price is double the number of runners in a race, and at 16.3% it shows a marked improvement from the historical range of 17.8% to 20%+.

Odds-on favourites are always undesirable in handicaps, but the odd one is inevitable when dealing with unexposed horses. Pleasingly, this year has seen a marked decrease in their number, and with only 2.8% of 177 nurseries in the period having an odds-on market leader their incidence is comfortably less than half that of any of the last 5 years.

Three of the quintet came in races with 3 or 4 runners and the only one to start at shorter than 5/4-on was Ventura Knight, who was 5lb well in under a penalty for winning the previous week. Four of the 5 won.

Handicaps should be for horses that have shown their hand to a degree, and a certain level of protection should be offered against those that are completely unexposed. We’re pleased that the rule changes, coupled with our assessments, had a positive effect on competitiveness in 2017, and we’ll be striving to improve on these stat’s again in 2018.