Handicap Inaccuracies

The domination of Irish trained horses at Cheltenham Festival 2017 was graciously received and a great reflection of the talents of the raiding team. Sizing John’s Gold Cup win crowned a 19-9 race result for Ireland against Britain, with Irish winners coming in all disciplines. However, the great success cannot be celebrated without addressing a bitter pill for which the Irish racing community have to swallow. Since the revelation of the Randox Health Grand National weights, the British Horse Racing Authority have come under scrutiny for their handicapping of Irish Horses. It’s now an old argument that the horses travelling across the Irish Sea to contest big meetings like Aintree and Cheltenham are harshly treated so much so that leading owners Gigginstown House Stud have boycotted the National by removing some of their big guns and they’ve led a witch hunt for BHA chief Handicapper, Phil Smith who keeps his own handicap of Irish horses that generally assess them higher than they are considered at home and thusly assigning them more weight to carry in British races. Some see this as a disregard to the Irish Ratings senior body, the Turf Club and their head man, Noel O Brien. The Gigginstown juggernaut referred to Smith’s Grand National ratings as a ‘post-Brexit handicap’ while many Irish racing figures claimed the Cheltenham weights as ‘anti-Irish bias’. 
Smith’s integrity as a top quality handicapper is under the greatest judgement at the likes of Cheltenham when the Irish send large numbers of runners and I find it difficult to accept that an even balance is not what he’s trying to achieve, after all isn’t this what good handicapping is. Ireland won seven of the ten handicap races at Cheltenham with five of those winners carrying an average of 3.4 pounds more than they would have at home, ranging from one pound (Champagne Classic) to five pounds (Tully East). The other two – Arctic Fire and Rock the World – were rated to parity. Six of the seven winners carried more weight than the placed horses – Road to Respect the exception – at an average weight of 11 stone 4 pounds with six of them carrying more than 11 stone 3 pounds, including top weight Arctic Fire (11-12). 25% of the runners in the handicaps were Irish trained with 28.3% finishing in the top five. 43 out of sixty were unplaced with 10 place finishers. 
Prior to Cheltenham, I examined the ratings of all 925 handicap entries against my own system, which generally gives a close relation to the BHA’s opinion and found 213 (23.02%) horses to be well handicapped of which 78 (28.57%) to be Irish and 135 (20.73%) British. Top of these were Supasundae and Arctic Fire but I also found Presenting Percy on a par rating. This doesn’t suggest an anti-Irish view and it was vindicated in the results. Of the horses mentioned, Presenting Percy in particular was interesting as he was well touted to have been harshly assessed from connections, especially the horse’s rider Davy Russell who would ‘find it hard to win a Pertemps off that mark’. That mark was 146, which was six pounds higher than the Turf clubs opinion. With 11 stone 11 pounds on his back, the Sir Percy gelding carried Russell to the winning line 3 3/4 lengths ahead of the nearest rival and the Turf Club reacted by putting up 19 pounds making him Ireland’s leading novice. 
On this analysis I find that the removal of Don Poli and Empire of Dirt from the biggest race in the world slightly premature and that throwing the toys out of the pram was based on the belief that the Irish had better assessment than the BHA. It’s a bit deflating when you consider that such gatherings as the Anglo-Irish Ratings, which determines the abilities of racehorses on an international scale, should see Ireland as a figure claiming theirs are not as good as others see. It also asks the question if we are following that view into global Flat Racing assessments. Should we not be boasting about the quality of Irish racing through it’s talisman – the horse.
Underplaying the quality isn’t the sole problem with Irish handicapping and the inconsistency is unacceptable. My system of handicapping is a pastime and last November I found a straight forward assessment of the Stan James Morgiana Hurdle. Nichols Canyon had won the 2015 renewal on the same ground description employing the same aggressive tactics but in 2016 he ran a 17 lengths quicker time. Visibility was minimal through thick fog but the strong time and Ruby Walsh’s comments after the win were to suggest they had gone a real Grade 1 gallop. Giving the 146 rated mare, Jer’s Girl, ten pounds and a twelve length beating shows the winner in good light and with Ivanovich Gorbatov (third) and Sempre Medici (fourth) finishing as they should at the weights further boosts the form. I was anxious to see if the Turf Club agreed with my lofty 168 but was shocked when their  only assessment was to drop Ivanovich Gorbatov by a pound after a performance we saw even less of in the fog. I enquired to the handicappers office as to why one of our premier hurdle events was seen with such contempt and though their response was admirably swift, it only went as far as to say that the winner was entitled to win the race. Are we handicapping on a horse’s betting odds? Nichols Canyon was subsequently dropped for two seemingly below par efforts – once when he fell – and pre Cheltenham was rated a pathetic 155 with seven Grade 1 medals already. At Cheltenham, he made it eight Grade 1’s when he won the Sunbets Stayers Hurdle and it’s easy to claim that as a 168 rather than a 162 which they revalued him at. This was the latest in a rollercoaster review of the son of Authorized which since November has seen him drop seven pounds and rise back up  to the same mark from just four races. It seems the Turf Club rate horses on their lastest run with conservatism prevailing over recognition and no margin for underperforming. 
Inconsistency was found following the Grade 2 Ten Up Novices Chase which Acapella Bourgeois won by 32 lengths in a contest which divided opinion on its honesty. Not only was the winner promoted fifteen pounds but the Turf Club released a statement as to why this was. The horse ran a good time and the runners in behind finished as they should, identical to my value of the Morgiana but the latter claim this time was not accurate. So, we can rate a Grade 2 Novices’ Chase this way but not a Grade 1 Hurdle. Undervalued horses will result in a dominance which filters down through the system. The best horses could win the top handicaps and leading owners and stables can push the smaller man out. Empire of Dirt was allowed into the Troytown Chase off of 148 despite running to 152 in winning a Cheltenham festival handicap and those four pounds could have been the difference of the four length win to Ellmarie Holden’s Abolitionist. Should Phil Smith’s assessment of Gigginstown’s now absent National horses continue into the Irish Grand National for which they now are likely to contest, then this will not only further degrade the reputation of Irish ratings but it will bolster a trend seen in the Troytown. 
Following the domination at Cheltenham, it now more than ever seems that the BHA is holding the Turf Club’s hand into professional assessment of a horse’s ability and that their ratings are far more accurate as well as more complimentary to the talents of our horses. It’s time to shake up the system and wake up consistency. Irish Racing is made to look incompetent in this sphere by the BHA and we need better judgement than dropping Un de Sceaux two pounds for arguably the best performance of the Cheltenham festival – and possibly his career – when winning the Ryanair Chase, while raising Footpad the same amount for a wider margin gap behind Petit Mouchoir than their previous meeting. We need a more rigid rating system than one which can create the illusion that our horses are badly treated overseas and in the case of Gigginstown, convincing connections not to run in the best contests. Colin Kidd experienced a similar situation with Rashaan before withdrawing from the Betfair Hurdle. We are the best in the world at this wonderful sport so it’s time to plug any leaks in our system and to show the class of our equine athletes on the international stage. 

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