We have become so used of late to things being deferred, sometimes indefinitely, that the opposite may come as a surprise when it happens.
It is not always a pleasant surprise, but the BHA’s decision to bring forward the starting date of the nursery season by about a week is one that can easily be welcomed.
The first marks for two-year-old handicaps have been published and the first such race this season takes place – or took place, depending on when you are reading this – on Wednesday at Catterick. The original intention had been for that to be at Goodwood next week.
Assigning accurate ratings to lightly raced youngsters is a challenge at the best of times and is probably going to be even more difficult this year. The BHA’s two-year-old handicapper does a good job, but it is still fun – and potentially rewarding – to try to figure out where he might have got it “wrong”.
Those initial handicap marks – from 112-rated Master of The Seas all the way down to 10-rated Living On A Dream – may be found on the BHA’s own site. I have gone through them with a view to identifying a handful that sectional analysis suggests may be ahead of their marks.
First, though, a general observation about nurseries which should be worth keeping in mind during the early skirmishes. Unlike some racing sayings, “back top-weights in nurseries” has some substance to it, though such a blind approach can be improved upon with a bit more effort.
The following are the performances by BHA mark and by weight carried (the two are linked) in July and August in the last three years:
In simple terms, the higher an early nursery runner’s mark, and the higher the weight it carries, the better it can be expected to perform compared to chance.
Two-year-olds running off marks higher than 90 have beaten 55.8% of their rivals in July and August in the last three years, while those carrying 9st 6lb or more (sometimes the same horses) have managed 58.3%. Par is 50% and both are good returns.
The reason for this stems from the inadequate poundage allowance for margin beaten used by the BHA, and which is reflected in the next-time performance of horses by finishing position more widely, as illustrated by research I previously did into handicap results on the flat in Britain in 2016.
If poundages are sufficient then those impact values should be pretty much the same for in-form horses, even if they are not around 1.0 for all last-time positions as is a stated intent of the BHA handicapping team. Instead, last-time winners outperform last-time seconds, who in turn outperform last-time thirds, and so on.
When poundages are insufficient, this will manifest itself most clearly when horses of widely differing abilities take each other on at level, or near-level, weights as the superior horses are not penalised enough. That is exactly the situation going into early nurseries.
Do not ignore lesser horses carrying lighter weights, for some of them will be well-treated. But greater focus should be on the better types, due to carry more weight than their inferior rivals but not as much weight as they should.
This is what I came up with (my sectionally adjusted ratings are in square brackets).
ACKLAM EXPRESS  (BHA 77, N Tinkler) ran an overall time faster than the handicap winner which followed when scoring at 5f at Hamilton on 12 July and about 34.67s for the final 3f in running down Madreselva. Put overall time and late sectional together and the gelding looks to have a length or two in hand of his initial mark, with 6f likely to suit him also.
ARMY OF INDIA  (BHA 88, M Johnston) won by seven and a half lengths at Lingfield last time against modest opposition, but it is they who have paid the price more than he. Army of India ran a solid time and better sectionals, his “B” grade efficiency (found in the Sectional Tools tab of the Results for that 12 July race at Lingfield) a reflection that he raced within himself in the first half of the 6f contest.
COMMONSENSICAL  (BHA 77, T Dascombe) came second toFancy Man in a 7f novice at Haydock on Saturday run in a useful time (quicker than the following older-horse handicap), and that despite going quite fast up front, running fully 37.95s for the final 3f. He qualifies for nurseries despite just two runs and no wins. Yet.
NO RECOLLECTION  (BHA 76, A King) was third in the race in which Commonsensical came second and also shaped as if ahead of the mark he has since been given, a few lengths faster than ideal in the first half of the race but still going as short as 1.22 in running before being denied. No Recollection is another twice-raced maiden with a future in nurseries.
SARSAPARILLA  (BHA 76, J Gosden) found only the promising Fly Miss Helen too good in a fillies’ maiden at Newbury on Saturday, in a race run in a decent time, but the splits she put in mid-race suggests she is better even than that. Either way, she has it in her to win a nursery at 6f or an easy 7f held onto for a bit longer.
ZAMAANI  (BHA 89, S & E Crisford) ran into one in future Woodcote Stakes winner Twaasol at Windsor in June then made amends in a minor race back there by a clear margin and in an overall time which compared pretty favourably with the older-horse handicap that followed. He did it by running quite quickly from the get-go – as the TPD sectionals in the Results show – before shrugging off his rivals from 2f out.