Two-year-old trial extended to end of the year
It was greeted with scepticism when launched but a trial to convert the bulk of two-year-old maiden races into novice contests will now be rolled out for the whole of 2017.
Many feared the move would be exploited by trainers with horses hoovering up multiple races, but instead field sizes grew and starting prices increased.
The trial, which ran from the start of the Flat turf season to July last year, will now continue for the whole of 2017 – including all-weather races after the end of the Flat turf season – when 442 races, or 82 per cent of maidens, will become novice contests, adding to the 80 per cent before July, when nurseries start.
There will also be changes to the handicapping system under the BHA scheme, with two-year-olds now needing to win twice rather than once before being allocated a handicap mark entitling them to compete in a nursery, in which they still qualify after three runs whatever the result.
The measures have the unanimous support of the Racing Group – a cross-industry representative body that makes recommendations on the racing programme outside of the Pattern – and seek to address a long-held concern that two-year-olds who win in the early part of the season, before the introduction of nurseries, have very few opportunities to develop.
Further changes include the two-year-old handicap ratings being published before the beginning of the programme of nurseries, while the rule preventing a once-raced winner rated 81 or above, or a twice-raced winner rated 86 or above, from running in a handicap has been removed.
Richard Wayman, BHA chief operating officer, said: “We were very encouraged by the success of the trial in 2016 and the feedback we received from many horsemen. That feedback included a clear consensus that, as part of a wider package of measures, the trial would be even more effective if it was extended to the full year.
“The conversion of maiden races to novices provided more opportunities for two-year-olds and improved field sizes without any impact on the competitiveness of races.
“The extension of the novice programme means lightly raced winners will now have plenty of opportunities without having to run in handicaps, and the revised qualifying criteria will mean handicappers would have more evidence to accurately assess and rate two-year-olds, thereby reducing the risk of a lightly raced horse being significantly under or overrated.”
The more evidence the better
BHA deputy head of handicapping Dominic Gardiner-Hill said: “We appreciate trainers and owners will often want a mark to be allocated to their horses as soon as possible. However, it is our job to uphold the integrity of handicaps by trying to ensure horses are entered off a fair mark.
"This hasn’t always been easy as we have had to allocate marks to two-year-olds on the basis of limited evidence. The more evidence we have upon which to base these decisions the better in the long run for all owners, trainers and, in particular, the betting public.”
There will also be a 50 per cent increase in the share of auction races within the two-year-old novice and maiden programme due to concerns raised by trainers that the lack of opportunities was forcing them to run horses in open company where they were struggling to compete. This will be achieved by converting some existing open maiden and open novice, as well as median auction races, into auction races.
An auction cap in median auction races and increasing opportunities at seven and eight furlongs in the autumn, with a corresponding reduction in races over sprint distances, will also be introduced.
Change of heart
Trainer Ralph Beckett, a critic of the original proposals, said: “The extension of this trial to cover the whole two-year-old programme is an obvious step based on its success in 2016.
“The nursery handicapping changes should make it transparent for all involved, enable the handicappers to assess horses accurately and hence benefit horsemen, while the increased number of auction races is based on statistical analysis in order to make best use of the horse population, and give opportunities for all.”
In the period of the trial in 2016, 75 previous winners ran again, compared to 35 in 2015. Of those 75 winners, 27 per cent won a further race in this period, against 23 per cent in 2015.
Average field sizes in novice races rose from 5.08 to 7.84. The extra competitiveness was also reflected in winning SPs, with the average SP of a maiden winner nearly 10-1, and just over 13-2 in novices.