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Friday, 14 December, 2018

Time to ensure handicappers are neither seen nor heard

The Thursday column

Dominic Gardiner-Hill (left) with the man he will succeed as the BHA's Head of Handicapping in May, Phil Smith, pictured at last month's Longines World's Best Racehorse ceremony in London
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Congratulations to Dominic Gardiner-Hill for being named this week as the BHA’s new head of handicapping. In May he will replace Phil Smith and let’s hope we hear a lot less of him than we have of Smith down the years.

That is not to denigrate the outgoing head honcho. He has given fine service to the sport in his time as the main man when it comes to allocating weights to horses, but his profile has become higher than is helpful.

Handicappers should, in my view, be neither seen nor heard and next week, for the final time, we will be hearing and seeing plenty from Smith as he gives his annual address to the nation when the weights for the 2018 Randox Health Grand National are announced.

What is intended as a well-meant display of transparency, as Smith details why he has given particular horses weights that are out of step with their official rating, has become a source of bickering, ill-feeling and negative publicity that I would be doing my best to nip in the bud if I was staging or sponsoring the race.

Only last week, Gigginstown House Stud’s racing manager Eddie O’Leary, brother of leading owner Michael, claimed the National “can only get better when Phil Smith goes”, which strikes me as a rather grotty and graceless claim but sums up how toxic the Phil Smith show has unintentionally become.

The point is nobody is ever going to be appeased by an explanation as to why a handicapper has given a horse more weight than it would have carried under normal circumstances, in the same way nobody would ever find satisfaction from these absurd demands for referees to explain their decisions after matches.

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Nor should handicapping be personalised. The ratings and weights should just appear without any individual’s fingerprints on them, giving the impression of an efficient system, created and honed by a group of wise people, that does the job in a consistent and acceptable manner.

As well as Smith providing a punchbag for disgruntled Grand National connections once a year, handicappers invite debate and discussion on a regular basis as they spend much of their time not locked away in a room surrounded by spreadsheets and whirring computers but at the racecourse.

At least one of the 12-strong BHA handicapping team is currently on duty at around 40 per cent of the 1,500-odd meetings that take place in Britain every year, to assist the stewards when they are looking into surprisingly good or bad performances and also to be available to chat to owners and trainers about their horses’ marks.

Openness and transparency have their place in life but for me the BHA’s stance on handicapping should be quite simple: this is the weight we have allocated your horse and it’s up to you whether or not your horse runs.

I fail to see the purpose of giving owners and trainers the opportunity to remonstrate or even calmly state why they feel their horses have been hard done by.

And nor does it strike me as an efficient use of resource or money that could be directed into more worthwhile areas to have handicappers traipsing here, there and everywhere given travel expenses are unlikely to be cheap.

In the same way that fourth officials in football should not be current referees who managers may attempt to influence in a way that might benefit them in future matches, nor should handicappers be put in a position where attempts might be made to sway them towards leniency by a particularly forceful trainer or owner.

It is interesting that one of Gardiner-Hill’s main items in his in-tray will be the implementation of the recommendations of a report into handicapping practices by Lydia Hislop.

I have learned whose opinions to take on and whose to respect down the years and Hislop’s views fall firmly into the second category, but I am slightly disturbed to see the report recommends, among other things, “that more should be done to explain and publish handicapping methodologies and become more open and transparent,” plus “enhanced communication with trainers including an improved process for trainers to appeal against handicapping decisions to an independent panel”.

Hopefully this does not mean more time and money devoted to listening to trainers trying to get their horses’ ratings dropped, which is what all trainers naturally want even if their reasoning is based on pure self-interest rather than information to which the handicapper might not be privy, albeit it is hard to think what form that information might take.

If explaining handicapping methods is done via an insightful section on the BHA website I’m all for it. But my recommendation would be to withdraw handicappers from the racecourse, instruct them to spend their working weeks focusing entirely on the core job of allocating the most suitable possible ratings and get stewards to access them via a video-call if they want to use their expertise on racedays.

And, while I would happily provide owners and trainers with a templated form to occasionally fill in and submit by email if they genuinely thought their horse was being harshly treated, the idea of an independent panel being assembled and operated at further expense to deal with disputed pieces of handicapping sounds like an unnecessary cost that will serve only to undermine the BHA assessors.

Good officials, in any walk of life, do their job in excellent anonymity. Racing’s handicappers should be no exception.

Conte calamity following a familiar pattern

There can be no more woeful source of analogies than buses. In the good old days this was limited to the painfully overused reference to London buses when something that had not happened for a long time suddenly occurred twice in quick succession.

But since then it is now almost a legal requirement for a team of underdogs who defend well to be described as parking the bus and for managers who criticise their players to be said to be throwing them under the bus.

Most self-respecting cliche-mongers would resort to the original bus-related analogy when assessing the unusual failure of Premier League-winning managers to remain in their job for more than a season after their triumph.

It almost never used to happen. Indeed apart from Kenny Dalglish with Liverpool and Blackburn, you had to go back to Howard Kendall in 1987 for the previous time a manager failed to complete another season at the helm after steering their side to the summit.

But it has now happened four times in the last five seasons and appears likely to happen again with Antonio Conte’s relationship with Chelsea looking extremely rocky.

And if he does get the elbow, as is widely expected after hideous defeats against Bournemouth and Watford, it would be the third successive season in which a manager has been fired within nine months of masterminding a victorious campaign.

Last February Leicester sacked Claudio Ranieri, which remains one of the few managerial terminations that have ever caused me to feel sympathy for the victim, while Jose Mourinho was removed from the Chelsea hotseat in December 2015 after the Blues’ calamitous defence of their crown.

Furthermore Sir Alex Ferguson retired straight after the last of his 13 title triumphs in May 2013 and Roberto Mancini, the previous season’s winning gaffer, departed from Manchester City a few days before Fergie’s swansong was completed.

You would struggle to believe Pep Guardiola will feel the remotest hint of pressure next season if City complete the job in the next few weeks but in football we have learned to take nothing for granted.

No certainty of a happy-ending for Irish racing TV coverage 

Brian Kavanagh, the chief executive of Horse Racing Ireland, may well be right in one sense when he says rights to screen Irish racing live into people’s homes does not generate significant revenue.

In a tangible sense Irish racing makes more from the sale of rights to broadcast races into betting shops, but there is a danger to any business or organisation if they underestimate intangible values.

And there was a significant intangible, and therefore impossible to accurately measure, value to ensuring Irish racing had the biggest possible home audience.

Because televising sport into people’s homes is an effective way of stimulating interest in that sport, and when it comes to racing there is more to gain from this than from other sports.

Someone captivated by live coverage of rugby union might start paying to watch it live, but while racing stands to benefit similarly from new racegoers, it also gains from an increase in betting activity that follows a greater level of engagement from those who watch and like what they see.

That’s why the switch of the Irish direct-to-home rights from ATR to RUK carried the same kind of indirect risk that Uefa took when allowing its UK Champions League audience to shrink, albeit for greater direct reward, by handing the rights from Sky and ITV to BT Sport.

Trainer Robbie McNamara is one of a number of Irish racing professionals to express their discomfort at the new deal and it will be interesting to see what effects the switch of coverage from ATR, which comes as part of a basic Sky package, to RUK, which requires a separate monthly subscription, will have.

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Good officials, in any walk of life, do their job in excellent anonymity. Racing’s handicappers should be no exception
E.W. Terms
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