Sunday, September 15, 2013

Give a sucker an even break

Gus and I had a very pleasant trip to the races (Bath) yesterday, but again we had nothing to show for it.  We've had a very wet couple of days and Saturday (yesterday) was very wet here.  Happily, though, the band of rain was moving, as generally happens, from west to east, so it had already passed over Bath (depositing 21mm on the course) by the time that we arrived.  And as the track had been very firm prior to this deluge, it was still good ground even after that soaking.  And Ethics Girl was ridden very well (by Adam Kirby) and ran very well under 9 stone 7lb, finishing 2.75 lengths off the winner despite running out of room in the final half-furlong - and finished 7th!

She's in very good form at present, and just needs everything to fall into place for her to win in the near future - but, of course, as summer has markedly turned to autumn already, we might be struggling to find suitably sound underfoot conditions.  Still, we're still only halfway through September, and it's far from a given that we'll have unbroken wet tracks for the remainder of this month and then through October, so we won't give up hope.  We'll just have to hope that, when we do get our right conditions, we just don't keep running into well-handicapped three-year-olds - as happened again yesterday, when the only three-year-old in the field yet again won the race.

This is a major problem.  As we know, the pressures against keeping horses in training are getting ever higher, as costs rise and prize money doesn't.  At least the fall in prize money seems to have been arrested, but we're still a long way off being in sight of much of a meaningful rise out of the depths into which it has sunk in recent years.  This is a big problem for racing - but the group of horses who are most in need of help are the decent, reliable, genuine older handicappers, a nucleus of horses who ought to be the bedrock of the racing programme.  However, these are the ones most threatened: over and above the prize money levels, these horses are banging their heads against a brick wall because they are inevitably never better than fairly handicapped (and often worse) - which means that they are always vulnerable to the young, unexposed, well-handicapped improvers.

And here's the cure.  James Willoughby has been highlighting this problem on RUK, and correctly pointing out that the longer the race, the bigger the problem; and he thinks that the problem is the weight-for-age scale, which gives a larger allowance the longer the race.  However, I don't think that that is the problem, as the results of weight-for-age races suggest that the scale is just about right, and isn't skewed at any distance in favour of any one age-group.  I think that it is just that the youngsters are much more lightly-raced and much less exposed than their elders - and the longer the race, the less exposed the youngsters are, not least because they'll probably have done the small amount of racing which they have done by that stage at shorter (ie less suitable) distances - whereas the short-distance horses will probably have been racing over their ideal trips from the outset.

In short, the 75-rated older horse is correctly rated as he/she is a 75-rated horse.  But the 75-rated three-year-old is probably (or many of them are probably) 90-rated horses whose ability has not yet been fully made clear.  The three-year-olds who properly should be rated 75 (or, again, many of such horses who will ultimately end up rated 75) are probably rated in the 50s or 60s at this stage.  I know Ethics Girl was - her two wins at three came off 62 and 69.  (I'd love to be able to run her in 0-70s now!)  Even as a four-year-old, her two wins came off 70 and 71, whereas this year, as a seven-year-old, she began the season rated 81, and she definitely isn't improving at this age.  And she's still the same horse (and, lest anyone thinks that we were doing anything underhand to get her a low rating in the first place, she has tried every time she's run - and watch the replays if you don't believe me).

Anyway, the suggestion is this.  For the spring and summer, there are plenty of handicaps for three-year-olds only, and plenty for four-year-olds and upwards.  And
some for three-year-olds and upwards.  But one gets towards the end of the summer, and suddenly all the handicaps are for three-year-olds and upwards - and the three-year-olds, especially over longer distances, win just about all of them.  We know that in any race we contest there can only be one winner, with the rest of the horses beaten irrespective of how well they run.  We know that on the very rare occasions when the horse does win, one gets very little for it.  That's life and that's racing - it's a competitive sport, and, in Britain, a poorly-funded one at that.

However, what is very hard to swallow is the knowledge that the system discriminates so badly against that most admirable of horses, the nice older handicapper who tries every time he runs; what is so hard to swallow is the knowledge that the system means that such a horse might as well be banging his head against a brick wall.  The system shouldn't try so hard to freeze such an animal out of training - and this could so easily be fixed by keeping a healthy split of three-year-olds-only and four-year-olds-and-upwards handicaps throughout the year.  There'll still only be the same amount of winners, but at least the suckers will feel as if we're being given an even break, which isn't what it feels like when one takes an older handicapper to the races at present.  This system already works well in the spring and summer - so why not in the autumn?  Simples!

1 comment:

neil kearns said...

Dear Meerkat
You got this one spot on the relative improvement in three yaer old merits the question in terms of human development what age would at woo, three ,four year old plus equate to ?
If one looks at golf as a parallel there comes appoint where it is accepted that the older players can't compete and have their own (senior) tour perhaps something similar say a programme of four year old plus handicaps could be added in to the calendar in the second half of the season at the expenses of all older(ie not two year oold maidens) as by the second half of the season they should already have been given sufficient racing experience
And possibly there would be some room for trial races on the all weather for those horses who need experience ( no prize money) just a gallop with rules