Handicapping tools

There are numerous tools available to us when assessing a race.

Depending on the type of race and the profile of runners contesting it, we may lean more heavily on one particular tool than another handicapper assessing a different type of race.

Time analysis

When we refer to the time of a race, we are describing the official time taken from the start of the race until the winner crosses the finishing line. On the Flat this is usually recorded electronically.

We use calculations to compare the times of races over different distances at the same fixture. These are adjusted for the distance of the race, the weight carried by the winning horse, any weight-for-age, any adjustments to the usual course (rail movements), any significant wind and the respective ability of the horses involved.

The resultant figure is referred to as a speed figure, or in some instances a time figure.

Speed figures

A speed figure tells us which races at any particular fixture on a particular day were truly run, meaning we can largely take the result at face value, and which perhaps provide a less-than-true reflection of the relative merits of the horses involved.

A well-run race would return a speed figure very similar to the performance figure we believe the winner to have achieved in that contest.

A falsely run race could reflect the fact the pace was on the steady side or conversely overly strong. In both cases, the result is more likely to be an untrue reflection of the relative ability of the horses involved.

This information is very useful to us. For example, a steadily-run race will almost certainly lead to the runners finishing more bunched than might otherwise have been the case because they tend to tire at a later stage of the race than normal and not to the same extent.

In this instance we might adjust the poundage used to calculate performance figures, using a higher multiplier to exaggerate the distances between the finishers.

In a race run at an overly strong pace, the horses tend to tire at an earlier stage and to a greater extent. This tends to result in them finishing at longer intervals than under normal circumstances. In this scenario, we might adjust our multiplier downwards to close the distances between them and achieve a fairer reflection of their relative abilities.

In both cases, a good race analyst will often arrive at the right conclusion with the naked eye, but speed figures not only confirm what has likely been seen but also quantify the extent of the discrepancy.

Speed figures can be a very useful tool when rating a race where there is little proven form to go on. However, you have to delve a little deeper than simply drawing a direct comparison with the time of another race. Are you sure you’re comparing like with like? That’s where sectional times come in

Sectional timing

For further depth of time analysis a race can be broken down into sections, often from jump to jump in National Hunt and furlong by furlong on the Flat. Some Flat courses have the infrastructure in place to record ‘sectionals’ electronically; others are still a work in progress. For those that don’t have the technology yet, it’s possible to take sectionals with a stopwatch or a dedicated computer programme, depending on the camera angles that are provided.

Sectional times are particularly useful for helping understand the pattern of a race. For example, a speed figure compares the time of a race with other races on the same card, but solely using the time of one race as a guide to another (often where there is little previous form to go on) can be misleading. If the races have been run at different patterns it could be like comparing chalk with cheese. If the sectional times tells us the 2 races have been run at a similar pattern, the first race becomes a much better guide to what the form of the other is worth.

Sectional times certainly add detail to speed figures and can confirm whether a race that produces a slow time has been run at a steady pace or an overly-strong one. That information can affect the multiplier we use when working out the poundage differences between horses – we may increase it when a steady pace leads to an overly bunched finish and decrease when a strong pace has strung a field out. Sectionals on individual horses can also confirm which horses may be flattered by their finishing position and which may be better than the result suggests.

Sectionals can also be used to put a time into context. For example, when this year’s Coventry Stakes winner Calyx won on his debut he recorded a relatively slow time compared to the handicap run over the same distance. When those races were broken down into sectionals it showed that Calyx was significantly behind the handicap on time by halfway. The fact he was able to get as close as he did to the handicap’s final time suggested he was well above average. He also happened to draw upwards of 5L clear of a strung-out field as he did. Those distances suggested he might be good but that was dependent on the opposition not being substandard. The clock left no margin for doubt.

Historical standards

When handicapping some races – usually maidens or novices – we have little or no previous evidence to use. Newmarket’s Wood Ditton, staged every April for unraced three-year-olds, or the first juvenile hurdle of the Jumps season are extreme examples of this scenario, in which literally all of the participants are either making their racecourse debuts or else are newcomers to the discipline.

In order to rate these races and ascribe performance figures  to the horses involved, we therefore place greater emphasis than normal on the handicapping tool called Historical Standards. This is based on our historical record of all races.

Historical information can often provide us with a ballpark figure to suggest what the latest running of any particular race is worth. Based on the premise that races will attract similar types of horses each year, past performances can be a useful initial guide to the worth of the latest editions.

A simple average of past winners/seconds/thirds/etc. of a particular race would give a basic overview of what has happened previously and what has possibly been achieved in the latest edition.

But standards differ from a basic average in that they take into account the finishing distances between the principals in that latest edition, thus producing suggested figures based on what has actually happened interwoven with the historical evidence.

The main thing to remember about race standardisation – or indeed any other handicapping tool – is that it is only a starting point. Race standards provide a historical context and a guide as to where initial calculations suggest the latest edition of a race should fit. Alongside this tool we also use others, such as time analysis to derive our initial figures.

As more evidence becomes clear – that is, as more horses from a race like the Wood Ditton run again – the initial figures that rely more on race standards may need to be raised or dropped. This is called collateral handicapping  (or back handicapping). This process ensures past performances are reviewed as the form-lines develop and also provides a more accurate record of what happened on the day for when those figures are, in turn, utilised for race standards in the future.