Classics, Pattern events, even maidens, can be said to play a part in the development and improvement of the racehorse, but with handicaps, there is no point pretending. They exist, purely and simply, to provide an exciting gambling medium, and two centuries after that ground-breaking event at Ascot, the betting public's appetite for handicaps is undiminished. Look no further than the August betting turnover figures, released yesterday by Ladbrokes. Not only the Ebor Handicap, at the top of the list, but also such apparently minor events as the Sunley Rated Handicap at Sandown generated more business for the bookies than the Group One International Stakes.
Yet many punters who bet and lose large sums on handicaps have little knowledge of how or why a runner's weight is allocated, still less by whom. And while the last of those questions is easily answered - the British Horseracing Board employs a number of handicappers, each with a brief to assess a certain type of horse, such as two-year-olds, or chasers - even Geoffrey Gibbs, the BHB's senior handicapper, has no easy response on how and why. 'There is no absolute answer,' he said last week. 'It's a very subjective . . . profession. I was going to say art. Certainly, it's as much art as science.'
The essence, though, is this. Each horse which is entered in a handicap has an official handicap rating, which is a measure of the relative burden it will be asked to carry. For example, a horse rated 75 will have to give 5lb to a competitor rated 70, but will receive the same amount from another rated 80.
When a race is over, the handicapper's work really begins. Though the relative weights should, in theory, produce a multiple dead-heat, some runners are always more equal than others, and the handicap ratings may be adjusted either to increase or decrease a runner's chance next time. 'When a race is over,' Gibbs said, 'you look for a horse which has been showing current form in the circumstances prevailing on the day. You will use him as your marker and adjust upwards from that. In sprints we would work at 3lb a length, up to around a mile at 2lb a length, and beyond that at 1lb a length.'
Thus if horse A beats horse B by two lengths in a sprint, and horse B is taken as the marker, horse A's rating can be expected to rise by 6lb. The same result in a 12-furlong event, though, would cause a rise of just 2lb.
It is essentially a simple process, but one which has infuriated racehorse trainers for centuries. In recent weeks, criticism of the handicappers has been unusually concerted, but as Gibbs points out, 'the only person who is ever going to be really satisfied with your work is the one who wins.
'In a trainer's view, a horse is probably only well-handicapped when it's got six or seven pounds in hand. But being the butt of people's complaints has been the role of the handicapper throughout history. You could take the view that if everyone was satisfied, you would have something to worry about.'
Part of the problem is the subjectivity which the handicapper is allowed to exercise in interpreting the result of a race. If a horse wins by a hard-fought neck, it is unlikely to rise more than a couple of pounds in the ratings. Should it succeed by the same distance in a hard-held canter, however, a much stiffer penalty can be expected.
The result is a constant battle of wits between trainer and handicapper. 'There are many ways in which a trainer can deceive, and it's part of their art,' Gibbs said. 'You run a horse on the wrong ground, over the wrong distance, or left-handed when it wants to go right. That's part of the game, and so long as they haven't contravened the rules they're perfectly entitled to do it.'
After 31 years in the weighting game, though, very little gets past Geoffrey Gibbs, and his polite, charming manner should not be taken for granted. 'You've got to have a pretty strong personality to deal with those on the other side of the fence,' he said, 'because, human nature being what it is, if they know someone's a bit weak, they're going to have them.'
But if criticism is accepted as an occupational hazard, uninformed criticism remains a source of irritation. 'What annoys people most is when a horse is beaten but still goes up,' he said, 'but what people don't realise is that if you didn't run a system like that, eventually every horse would end up rated zero. And what a lot of racing professionals, let alone the laymen, don't understand is the relationship between handicapping and race planning. We have races for horses rated 0-60, or 0-75, and unless the race planners know year-on-year that the number of horses and their average ratings are stable, the race programme gets thrown out.'
Gibbs and his colleagues know their job and do it well, making life difficult for both trainers and punters. The only consolation for the latter group is that Gibbs himself does at least know how they feel. 'I think it's an extremely good thing that handicappers aren't allowed to bet,' he says. 'I certainly never made any money before I started.'
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