Winning Systems - Flat Racing - The Rise of the Handicaps

In his latest blog for attheraces.com, Dr Peter May assesses the rise of handicap races on the flat over a 20 year period and gives his thoughts on the findings.

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In a recent posting I wrote about Spring and early Summer being the most exciting time of year for flat racing.  Lightly-raced non-juvenile horses competing in non-handicap races in order to gain experience and prove they were worth pitching in against the best in the pattern events makes for an exciting racing cocktail. 

Or so I believed at the time of writing.  But 2016 feels different, where are those intriguing races I wrote about?  It feels like we are being fed a diet of pure handicap this season, and the excitement in significantly muted as a result. 

Perhaps it’s me, perhaps my rose tinted spectacles provide a biased view of seasons past and 2016 is no different from any other year.   Or maybe there has been a change, and the early months of the turf season will no longer offer the entertainment of old. 

I needed to know for sure and the only way I could determine whether my gut feeling was right or not was from the data.  So with anorak firmly in place, rain-hood secured tightly by the elasticated cord fastened under my chin, I started to thumb through some old formbooks.

This may sound like an arduous, thankless, task, but I can assure you it isn’t.  The pages of old, dusty formbooks contain the sparks to rekindle many faded memories making it an exercise well worth undertaking. 

If you have a spare couple of hours I recommend digging out a couple of formbooks and start paging through, in your mind you’ll soon be back at trackside reviewing some of the most enjoyable races of your betting years.

I decided to go back 30 years to start with, so Raceform Annual 1986 was my first choice.  The eighties were undoubtedly the Golden Age of flat racing.   Whether it was Shergar’s imperious success the Derby, Dancing Brave winning the Arc, or Oh So Sharp recreating Meld’s achievements by securing the Triple Crown, it truly was a time of great horses.  

And, to make the Sport even more enjoyable, in those days off-course Bookmakers would accept £25 bets from anyone.  Furthermore, the Summers were longer, the weather was warmer, and I only backed winners, well that’s how I remember the eighties.

In order to refine my analysis, I decided to focus on the month of April which would allow me to make a direct comparison with the latest complete month of 2016.  My random number generator selected the number 18, so April 18th 1986 was my starting point. 

On that day there were two flat racing meetings in Great Britain.  The main offering was from Newbury and there were five non-juvenile races the first of which was a maiden contest won by Paean, the future Gold Cup winner. 

A Group race followed; then three handicaps.  Interestingly the following day there were again five non-juvenile races featuring just one handicap at the start of the card so that Racegoers that were held up in the notoriously bad Saturday traffic as they neared the Berkshire track didn’t miss an important race. 

Racing was also held at Thirsk on the 18th April 1986, where the five non-juvenile races featured two handicaps, a 15-runner non-handicap seller, and a 10-runner three-year-old stakes race.

So in total there were five handicaps from the ten races used mainly to break up the card to allow Racegoers to get a cup of tea, or sandwich, much like half time is used in football or the mid-session interval in snooker.

Moving on ten years to 1996 and, although the Conservatives were still in power, there was a mood for change in the air and the political scene was on the verge of a seismic shift.  But did this also apply to racing?  Well, on the 18th April 1996 there were two flat racing meetings, the same as in 1986, but not at the same tracks, ten years later we find ourselves at Newmarket and Ripon. 

In total there were eleven non-juvenile events, of which five were handicaps, there was also one claimer, three maidens plus a Group 3 contest and Listed race.  It was a nicely balanced day with handicaps accounting for less than half the number of non-juvenile races.

Ten years on and the political shift was well entrenched, but trouble in the financial markets was looming even though the highly paid, expert, Economists didn’t see it coming.  Only one flat meeting was staged on the 18th April 2006 and that was at Newmarket where the six non-juvenile races included two handicaps. 

The following day, though, there were two meetings, Newmarket again plus Beverley.  In total racing fans had 13 non-juvenile races to enjoy but seven were handicaps, a shift was apparent and for the first time in this review the number of handicaps exceeded the number of non-handicaps.

So we come to this season and, on 18th April 2016, we again find two race meetings, but this time at Pontefract and Windsor.  Between them there were twelve non-juvenile races, however the number of handicaps had increased to an incredible ten. 

Gone were the claimers, the sellers, and the informative stakes races, just two maidens made up the dozen.  The rise of the handicap to a position of dominance was clear to see.

I know you’re thinking that a single day cannot be used as a reliable yardstick, so for those of you who want a more comprehensive overview, based on a larger sample size, I have listed below the race grade breakdown for the whole of the month for each of the years covered:

Breakdown of the Number of Non-Juvenile Turf Flat Races

Month                                    Handicap Races                       All Non-Juvenile Races               Handicap Percentage

April 1986                                                  103                                                        204                                              50%

April 1996                                                  148                                                        295                                              50%

April 2006                                                  133                                                        215                                              62%

April 2016                                                  211                                                        299                                              71%

So, what effect has this shift in race programming had on the Sport?  Well, it’s important to remember that the original aim of racing was to find out which horses were fastest, and to determine a hierarchy based on ability.

Handicapping does nothing for this, in fact it could be argued that it encourages trainers to deliberately disguise the ability of their runners in order to win more races at a later date.  

So why are they so popular?  Well, essentially handicaps are the Bookmakers’ race of choice, not because more people want to bet on them, but because their highly competitive structure suits the Layers by allowing them to generate maximum profit from minimal input. 

In this respect they are the closest a live sporting contest can get to a casino game or virtual racing, and, given the Bookmakers’ high degree of influence over the way racing is run, it is not too surprising to see them dominate the calendar. 

But is this shift away from a programme designed to meet the needs of racing to one designed to meet the needs of Bookmakers good for the sport in general?  My view is that it isn’t and by reducing the variety of races on offer it minimises interest in racing from existing fans, as well as potential new supporters, and makes placing horses more difficult for trainers. 

Within the current programme there are too few options for the majority of horses.  For example, a trainer of an average, winning, non-juvenile has no option except to run the horse in handicaps.   With respect to the betting public, a continual stream of handicaps punctuated by the odd decent contest is repetitive, boring, and uninspiring. 

To correct this, the BHA needs to focus on its original objective, specifically to define the ability hierarchy, by increasing the proportion of non-handicaps. 

Such a move would make the sport much more intriguing to all involved and would create a programme that not only widens the variety of contests for punters to consider, but provides trainers with far more options for their runners, whilst allowing horses to gain experience and progress without incurring weight penalties which limit their future opportunities. 

Handicap races do have a minor role to play in racing, but they are designed to stop horses winning, a concept not found in any other professional sport and one which has little appeal to non-racing fans, so they certainly should not dominate if racing is to regain its former appeal amongst the general public. 

More importantly, the current race planning trend is reducing an ever increasing proportion of the sport to the level of a casino game due to the homogenising nature of the weight adjustment.  Once racing fans are conditioned to expect almost all races to be near-random, weight adjusted contests, Bookmakers’ desire to completely replace live horseracing with its computer generated equivalent, a far more lucrative option, becomes a very small step to take.

The only way to avoid this is for the BHA to introduce a programme which maintains the link between race outcome and form, and necessitates the punter to invest time and effort in the analysis of results, race patterns and trends, in order to solve the racing problem. 

This requires punters invest in the sport, not just the bet.  The continued dominance of handicaps encourages more random approaches to bet selection such as always backing the horse whose jockey is wearing the West Ham colours, or betting on lucky number seven in the first race, because these happen to be no less accurate than any other approach due to the equality of chance produced by the structure of the race.

However whilst this does increase Bookmakers’ revenue and profits, the sport itself becomes an irrelevance since punters could be betting on anything.  Under these conditions racing becomes the loser.

Winning Systems - Flat Racing - The Rise of the Handicaps
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