These days, at every meeting I go to, or when I’m approached by someone and handicapping is on the agenda, which admittedly is less frequently than a couple of years ago, there is one word that is almost always in the forefront of people’s minds – discretion.
Someone usually has at least one example of how that practice has been applied to their, or someone else’s horse, either beneficially or otherwise. Recently I was tipped off about a perfect example of why, as the majority of industry participants think, the word discretion should be thrown unceremoniously on the HRNZ scrap heap.
First of all, I should make it clear, before being accused of only self-interest, I have no connection to the horse in question, other than knowing the connections, and it wasn’t them that alerted me to the situation. A few weeks ago the horse won a race against which the HRNZ Handicapper deemed to be a rather weak field and, in his wisdom only penalised the horse 7 points instead of the standard 8. Okay, while it really shouldn’t happen, it’s vaguely acceptable. However, a few days later, when the same horse lined up against a number of the favourites for the Sires Stakes Final, drew the second row and was beaten 14 lengths, it was dropped 2 points instead of the normal 1.
When questioned on the reason for this generosity, the explanation was that the horse was ‘outclassed’. Really, when it was rated R54 and it was an R54 to R64 race including some of the best 3 year olds in the Country, was that such a surprise? Apparently it was deemed unfair that some of the horses that finished around the horse in that race had dropped 2 points and it wasn’t awarded the same generosity.
Also taken into account were the horse’s previous 3 starts where it had finished out of the money (and dropped 1 point each time), however one of those races was a R40 to R63 race and the other was an R40 to R80! Prior to that the horse had recently recorded two second placing’s in its’ own grade.
So, to summarise, a horse that had won $10k in stake-money in the last two months was basically given 5 points for a win. In explanation I was told that ‘It’s complex and all we try to do is be as fair as we can to any many as we can.’ Judging by that and to be fair, any horse that earns less than $10k in the previous two months can expect to lose at least two points if it finishes further back than fifth. That will be a very big list!
Yes of course the original system needed tweaking and still does, but as long as that word ‘discretion’ remains we have a problem. When I queried the action initially I was told to check the horse’s Rating History, and that would explain it. Problem was, when I did check the Rating History and found the horse had won that $10k in the past two months, it showed me that the decision was more flawed than I initially thought!
When it was instigated, the whole idea of the points Handicapping System was to make it so that everyone knew exactly how their horse would be rated, the moment after it crossed the finish line. No arguments, no confusion, in other words, anything but ‘complex’. And we wouldn’t need to employ two Handicappers instead of just the one we had a couple of years ago.
Well, actually the title should be just ‘lows’ given the events of the past week. If anyone needs to understand the immense pressure that’s involved in training a top horse, just have a look through the harness media accounts of the recent demise (thankfully not terminal in all cases) of Chicago Bull, Lazarus and Monbet.
I’ve always been a bit sceptical of the old saying that only the good horses get hurt, and while I still retain that scepticism based on the fact that we only hear about the problems associated with the well-known equines, maybe there is some truth in the theory that the best put so much into their racing that the pressure they put on their bodies can cause more damage than those who, well, aren’t as good.
All of the aforementioned horses are trained by people recognised as some of the best in the business, and yet even their expertise can’t prevent these living creatures that we all admire and love, succumbing to the quirks and whims of Mother Nature. How do we retain any form of sanity?
On a totally different matter, when the likes of Mr.X and Mr.Y were excluded from entering a racecourse back in September following the Operation Inca raids, the RIU issued a media release and posted that information on their website. Interesting to note that, following that decision being overturned by the JCA, there has been a deafening silence apart from a “we accept the JCA ruling”. Maybe it should be noted that drivers get credit for admitting they have made a mistake.
The Trainers & Drivers National Council met recently in Christchurch, and, as usual, a large range of issues were discussed.
Progress on a new system of sulky insurance, and the employment and training of Clerks of the Course was still on-going, if rather slowly, while the methods of paying trial driving fees in the two Islands were compared. The Northern scheme of monthly accounts was considered far preferable to the almost primitive paying of cash still prevalent in the South. It was hoped that the imminent establishment of a Racing Bureau in Canterbury would improve this. The number of trainers using on-line nominations was growing nationwide, and it was planned that withdrawals, driver notifications and stable returns would soon be built into the system.
Chair Rob Lawson outlined the proposed restructuring of the HRNZ Board and, while he argued against the Association losing its’ representation, he acknowledged that it was vitally important to have the best people on the Board, as opposed to those who were simply there by right. When the final make-up had been settled on, a Special General Meeting would be held in March with a view to having the new Board in place after next year’s Annual Conference. Other matters surrounding HRNZ to be discussed included the retirement of Edward Rennell, with those present agreeing that he would be difficult to replace, disappointment at the scrapping of the ‘Race Fields’ legislation, and other aspects of the Messara Report. It was felt that the latter document would be the subject of much political influence and many of the statements and proposals, particularly around track closures, were based on incorrect or lack of information.
As usual, the subject of handicapping had an airing, with general satisfaction with the current situation. Ken Barron outlined a couple of items that were being presented to the Handicapping Committee by Jason Broad, concerning two year old racing and Junior Driver concessions. Both were supported by the meeting. There was a call for the reasons behind discretionary handicapping to be published, to allow better understanding of some of those decisions.
New Council member Geoff Knight reported on matters pertaining to the Otago/Southland Branch, including high cobalt level charges, the high standard of Cadets and Juniors in the area, and a competition to encourage better adherence to the whip use Rules. Following discussion with the local starter, it had been decided that the mobile arms would be left extended in the event of a false start, so that any keen horses could be better controlled. Geoff also outlined aspects of the Craig Ferguson case and suggested that, due to the unusual circumstances, it was unlikely that charges would be laid, which has subsequently proved to be correct.
Ken Barron once again expressed concern at the lack of support for Greater Canterbury Branch meetings, possibly due to the proximity and easy access to HRNZ. It was planned to experiment with requesting submissions from licence-holders prior to calling a meeting, and then inviting those behind them to speak. Obviously Operation Inca was in the minds of the local Industry, with various rumours and scenarios circulating. The meeting discussed this, but little further could be done until the full details were revealed by the police and courts.
Todd MacFarlane advised that the Auckland TC had a policy of referring queries to the Branch, and he and Derek Balle were maintaining a good relationship with the Club through the Programming Committee. He felt that both programming and track maintenance had improved markedly in recent times as a result. The driving mentor scheme was working well, and driving days to enhance skills had been staged, with assistance from both older and younger drivers.
Those present expressed disappointment at the continuing regularity of charges under the whip rule, and that blaming the rule was no excuse. It was suggested that there should be harsher penalties for the small number of repeat offenders, should they be charged 3, 4, or 5 times. A suggestion that the RIU were considering the introduction of a rule banning speaking between drivers on track was met with strong opposition, and a certain amount of ridicule.
Rob Lawson called for an improvement in the conduct and behaviour of licence-holders stating that what used to be acceptable, was no longer, and saying that a more professional attitude was required from licence-holders. While the meeting agreed with these sentiments, there was also a call for a similar improvement from some RIU officials, for example the notification to trainers of steadily rising cobalt levels, instead of allowing them to go over the allowed threshold, then laying charges.
Issues surrounding the Cadet Scheme were discussed, with Todd MacFarlane reporting a good relationship with the Northern scheme personnel, and help from younger license-holders. Jamie Gameson outlined the need for cadets to qualify under the ITO scheme, and felt that it was up to trainers to teach their staff the basic hands-on skills, similar to an apprenticeship. The meeting agreed that it was necessary for the cadets to show an eagerness to learn, and to recognise that the majority of these young people were not academically strong.
Once again, a disappointing crowd assembled recently for the Greater Canterbury Branch Annual General meeting.
Chair Ken Barron felt that the current handicapping system was now generally accepted, with most of the changes from the original simple plan having been altered or removed. He voiced concern at the influence that the HRNZ Handicappers had on decisions made by the Sub-Committee Jason Broad was to present amendments to the next Sub-Committee meeting involving two year olds, to offset the recent drop off of numbers in that age group. Colin DeFilippi felt that there should be a limit to how low a highly rated horse should be allowed to drop back, so that horses with limited ability were not having to race against those who had won a large number of races e.g. Highland Reign. It was agreed that there were still issues surrounding programming and the discretionary influence of the Handicappers. Mark Jones questioned whether consideration was being given to allowing Junior Concessions for all races.
Various aspects of the Messara Report were discussed, including proposed track closures and the selling of the TAB. Those present felt that much of what was outlined in the report had been done without the necessary background investigation, and it would be interesting to see how much of it came to fruition.
Concern was once again voiced at the lack of horsemanship skills being shown by Cadet Scheme graduates. Ken Barron felt that this may be due to the influence of the government ITO policies, which took preference over hands on and practical experience. It was reported that senior horsemen had offered their services to help in this regard but these offers seem to have been rejected. This matter would be referred to the National Council.
Various aspects of Operation Inca were discussed, including the involvement of the RIU in police interviews, the part that the Minister of Racing played in instigating the inquiry, the costs involved, and the accuracy and flaws in a number of the allegations.
Concern was expressed at the recent cases of excessive cobalt levels, which seemed to be due to no fault of the trainers. Once again, the publication, or access to, levels was requested, so that situations that amounted to entrapment could be avoided in the future. This matter will be referred to the National Council.
Various incidents concerning starting procedures were discussed.
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