Donn's Articles » Alternative handicap rule

Alternative handicap rule

It is unusual for a Pierse Hurdle to generate more debate after it has been run than beforehand, but that was the case with this year’s renewal, run at Leopardstown last Sunday.

The debate was not about the merit of Penny Bill’s victory, nor the quality of the ride by claiming rider Sean Flanagan, who came so close with Brave Right in the race last year, nor about the magnitude of the achievement by young trainer Liz Doyle, which was a shame. Rather, it centred on the ‘alternative handicap’ rule that was invoked.

The crux of the issue was this. Top weight, Newmill, who had been declared at the overnight declaration stage, was withdrawn on Sunday morning, the morning of the race. Because he was set to carry 8lb more than the next horse down the handicap, his withdrawal triggered the rule, which determined that all the weights would therefore go up by 8lb.

The beneficiaries were those horses at the bottom of the weights who were set to compete from out of the handicap. Coincidentally, the prime beneficiary was actually Penny’s Bill, number 30 of 30, who was 6lb ‘wrong’ at the original weights, but crept into the handicap proper on 9st 12lb when the weights went up.

You can see the reasons for the alternative handicap rule. Firstly, in the interests of fairness and equity, ideally every horse in a handicap will compete off its correct handicap rating. That wasn’t possible with Newmill in the race, but it was without him with the raising of the weights. From that point of view, it made sense that the weights would go up, at least by the number of pounds that the lowest-rated horse was out of the handicap if not all the way to a top weight of 11st 10lb. That wrong has already been righted.

The other reason is this. Without the provision for an alternative handicap, the weights can ostensibly be manipulated by a trainer who has a high-rated horse in his yard, without the trainer even having to run the horse. The genesis of the rule can actually be traced back to the debate about the 163-rated Hotel Minella’s participation or non-participation in the County Hurdle at Cheltenham in March 1996.

There was a similar debate around the same race in 2004, when Paul Nicholls declared the 164-rated Rigmarole. The horse had run in the Champion Hurdle two days earlier, so he was withdraw on the morning of the County Hurdle, not having recovered from his exertions. The second highest-rated horse in the County Hurdle was Sporazene, also trained by Nicholls, who would have carried 11st 12lb if Rigmarole had not been declared or if there had been provision for an alternative handicap. As it was, there was no adjustment, and Sporazene carried top weight of 10st 13lb. No fewer than 18 of the 23 runners had to race from out of the handicap, while others, including the Jessica Harrington-trained Macs Joy, were not declared because they would have been so far wrong at the weights. Nicholls did nothing wrong, he acted within the rules, but it was a farcical situation. Unsurprisingly, Sporazene won.

Strangely, the alternative handicap rule is also susceptible to manipulation, in a different way but no less effectively than the system without the rule. However, the major difficulty with the alternative handicap rule is that it creates uncertainty for everybody, and that cannot be a good thing. From a betting perspective, the uncertainty is obvious. Ante post betting is fraught with uncertainty, and that is an accepted part of the deal, but day-of-the-race punters analyse the race that they see in front of them in their morning papers and bet accordingly. It is not a good situation when the goalposts can change a couple of hours later. The authorities are effectively telling punters not to have a bet in one of these big handicaps until an hour before the first race, when you know that the weights won’t change even if the top weight does come out.

It isn’t ideal for jockeys or trainers either. Willie Mullins said that the rule was unfair. A couple of the horses that he ran in the race were small, and the trainer felt that it wasn’t fair to ask them to shoulder an extra 8lb. Dermot Weld said that he wasn’t pleased. He was using a claming rider on Vital Plot as it was, so for the weights to go up again was unexpected and detrimental to his chance. John Kiely said that if he had known that the weights would rise, he would have booked a claiming rider for On The Way Out. In all cases, it wasn’t so much the actual weight rise as the surprise element that was unsatisfactory.

It is not good enough to say that everybody should have been aware of the rule. The rule has been in place since 1998, and Sean Barry, registrar of the Turf Club’s Irish National Hunt Committee, estimated that it has been invoked six times at most. In one sense, that could be construed as a measure of the success of the rule as a deterrent to those who might seek to manipulate the weights, but it hardly makes it an integrally-known aspect of Irish racing. If you had taken a random sample of racegoers at Leopardstown on Sunday morning, and asked them what would happen to the weights if Newmill were to be withdrawn, there is no doubt that the vast majority would have ventured that they would remain unaltered. And even the few who did know that the weights would go up, how were they to have known that Newmill would come out?

The fact that the bottom weight, Penny’s Bill, a 50/1 shot, won the race, beating the well-backed favourite Psycho by a head, no doubt exacerbated the situation, as it sent punters into a tizzy. In fairness to Psycho’s trainer Tony Martin, he was wholly magnanimous in defeat, but it is reasonable to assume that, had Psycho been conceding 14lb instead of 20lb, plus jockey Sean Flanagan’s 3lb claim, he would have won. It is also reasonable to assume that, had it been a 50/1 shot that had been beaten a head, the pursuant debate would not have been so animated or long-running. However, while racing is a results-based activity, in this instance the actual result was immaterial in the context of the worth of the rule. It merely served to cloud the issue.

The key here is knowledge and certainty. Racing’s stakeholders – owners, trainers, jockeys, punters, bookmakers – need to know that the parameters of a race, especially a race as lucrative and as high-profile as the Pierse Hurdle, are set at a point in time, and will not change. The accepted norm in racing is that this is at the overnight declaration stage. It is not ideal that there is a tiny proportion of races in Ireland in which this may not be the case.

© The Sunday Times, 18th January 2009