INEVITABLE CHELTENHAM HANDICAPPING CONTROVERSY IS SO AVOIDABLE
We’ve been here before. This coming Wednesday will see the weights for the handicaps at the Cheltenham Festival released. As has become tradition, there will be no shortage of controversy, with some connections of Irish-trained horses sure to feel hard done by in the face of seemingly harsh treatment.
With Irish trainers being responsible for a record 340 of the 928 entries in the handicaps, there are sure to be contentious cases in amongst them.
The origins of this annual controversy can be traced back to 15 years ago when the British National Hunt handicapping team started keeping their own ratings for Irish-trained horses. In practice, this has led to the vast majority of Irish-trained horses that have run in British National Hunt handicaps since then being asked to run off higher (often significantly higher) ratings than they hold in Ireland.
A statement from Phil Smith attached to the release of the weights for the handicaps at the Cheltenham Festival in 2017 confirmed that the intention of this action was to slash the success rate of Irish-trained runners from what they called a “disproportionate” strike rate of 18% in 2004/5 down to around 11%.
This strike rate was considered more acceptable to them as it was much closer to the 10% success rate amongst all British-trained runners in British handicaps.
The flaws in the logic that seek to justify artificially reduce the success of Irish-trained handicap raiders down to a similar strike rate achieved by every handicapper in Britain should be obvious. Irish runners in British National Hunt handicaps are a highly-selected group, thus it would be statistically expected for them to significantly outperform the strike rate amongst all the domestic-based runners in British handicaps.
Ultimately, the British handicappers can do whatever they want in their own jurisdiction, but how they treat Irish National Hunt handicappers should be called out for what it clearly is, protectionist handicapping.
The measures they have taken haven’t been enough to stop Irish-trained horses from winning a significant number of handicaps at the Cheltenham Festival in recent years, but a 40% reduction in the strike rate of Irish raiders in British National Hunt handicaps represents a significant impact, the fairness of which is valid to question.
That said, much of what has taken place in the last 15 years as described above was overseen by a different handicapping regime. There has been a great amount of change at the top table of National Hunt handicapping in both Britain and Ireland in the last couple of years due to the retirement of Phil Smith and the untimely death of Noel O’Brien.
The new heads of National Hunt handicapping on both sides of the Irish Sea have given every impression of being fair, reasonable and diligent in all they have done since taking over those roles. One gets the strong impression that the relationship between the British and Irish National Hunt handicappers is a strong one too.
So, surely it is obvious that the solution to all of this annual controversy and conflict is cooperation and consensus between the handicappers in both jurisdictions?
British and Irish National Hunt racing are linked at the hip. It makes no sense for there to be different handicapping rules and methodologies in each country. The two handicapping teams sit down together at the end of every National Hunt season and seemingly have no problems deciding on ratings that they all agree on for the Anglo-Irish Jumps Classifications.
Surely the sensible thing to do is for all concerned to sit around a table, hammer out the differences between them and come up with a common, in-sync approach to day-to-day handicapping.
Agreeing to bring their weight-for-age scales and how they rate chasers that have shown higher levels of form over hurdles (see Dallas Des Pictons) would be a starting point. Most importantly, one can’t help but think that an evidence-based assessment of how Irish-trained horses fare in British handicaps of varying levels and disciplines would allow them to agree on across-the-board adjustments to the Irish National Hunt marks to bring them to a level that the British handicappers would happy to replicate.
This would allow Irish horses to run in Britain off their Irish marks without need for adjustment, which is what currently happens on the Flat without any issues.
The potential for official cooperation and perhaps even a united approach to handicapping between the IHRB and the BHA should be all the greater given the IHRB recently completed a deal that will see the BHA help them to monitor betting patterns in Irish racing.
The organisations are willing to make commercial deals together, the two handicapping teams seem to respect each other and get along well, so what’s the problem? As much as we all enjoy debating the British handicapping of Irish National Hunt raiders every year, it really does seem very unnecessary.
In the meantime, the weights for the Cheltenham Festival handicaps are released on Wednesday and will be analysed in detail in The Flip Side.