2016 Novice Race Experiment

Article 15_007_1
15th November, 2015


1.1 BHA Press Release

    On the 19th October 2015, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) put out a Press Release covering a major change to the 2yo Race Programme for the early part of the 2016 season. It announced that the majority of Maiden races (i.e. confined to non-winners) through to early July 2016 would be converted to Novice races (previous winners allowed to take part carrying a weight penalty for the win(s)). The full text of the BHA Press Release is linked to below.

    It is worth recording that the announcement came as a surprise to the general racing community and perhaps a rushed decision to "do something" after a long period of inaction or unsuccessful minor tinkering. Two other 'surprise' announcements came out of the BHA through to early November and perhaps the new leader of the BHA - Nick Rust - had made the activity more decisive. The first of the other announcements was that Bookmakers who did not include their Offshore Business in the Levy negotiations (i.e. not paying anything back to British Racing on that business) would be barred from Sponsoring British Racing. The second was another major general change with a Tripartite body formed, formally signed up to, between the BHA, the 'Horse People' (trainers, jockeys, stable staff, etc) and the Racecourses. The agreement detailing, for the first time, how decision making within British Racing would be managed within a formal agreement between the major stakeholders.

      Full BHA Press Release

    The BHA put these three bullet points at the top of the Press Release, in bold text.

    The following sections put some scope and context to the changes in relation to the existing shape of the early 2yo season. The 'Discussion' section then considers what the effects of the change may be in reality. That Section including thinking about how the changes will react with a major issue which was not, or little, discussed after the BHA announcement. This is the 800lbs Gorilla-in-the-room, no elephant, which may well be the major factor in how the changes actually work in Real Life. The Gorilla that is the BHA Handicapping System and its interaction with Trainer methods, jockeyship and, whisper it, Schooling in Public.

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1.2 Scope of the Races Affected

The following quote from the BHA press release gives a basic outline of the scope of the changes to Maiden races :-

"The trial will see the significant majority of Maiden races (c. 90% or around 175 races) converted to Novice contests
between the start of the Flat Turf season and the beginning of July when Nursery Handicaps commence.
It is designed to provide a more attractive programme for winning two-year-olds to compete again,
and to reduce the number of small-field races.

    The first Nursery Handicap in 2015 was run on July 2nd with 243 races for 2yos having been run to end July 1st. The following bullet points summarise those 243 races :-

The following points further identify how this experiment by the BHA affects a particular subset of the horses and trainers involved in the 2yo Seasons :-

    To summarise the points above the Novice Race experiment affects less than 40% of the 2yo horse population and less than 25% of the whole set of 2yo races during the season. It is heavily targeted at precocious sprint (5f to 6f) juveniles who are a distinct group and type in the 2yo population. The set of trainers who specifically target early 2yo races is small and the majority of trainers have early runners only when they have a horse who happens to show the right signs of forwardness in development. Out of the total of 278 trainers that ran a 2yo in 2015, only 83 ran a juvenile before the end of April and 144 by the end of May.

    Another big point to note is that one of the main drivers for this change by the BHA was to increase the number of runners in Novice Races. With the current situation being that the average number of runners per Novice event is under 5 and the average Starting Price (SP) on the favourite at 10/11. The number of Novice races run in 2015 during the period covered by the change in 2016 was just 14.

    For general interest the change in race types available to 2yos during the period 2002 to 2015 is summarised in the table linked to. Note how in the period the number of races during the Turf Season has increased from 942 to 1,084 at the peak. Despite this overall increase the number of Conditions, Novice, Claimer and Seller races run have all declined notably. While the number of Nurseries and Maiden races have increased hugely, presumably because they are better for the Levy (bookmaker friendly), unlike the marginalised race types.

    During the same period the percentage of races run on the 'All Weather' (AW) surfaces during the Turf Season has risen dramatically. A large number of those AW races at newly created floodlit evening meetings in later season. Again, a change mostly, if not totally, driven by bookmaker demands. An overall point to note is that large changes have occured to the 2yo season race structure over the last 15 years without there being any discussion with interested parties. The latest change to convert some Maiden races to Novice events seems 'unusual' in the sense that it has been announced in advance rather than being implemented in stages, by stealth.

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1.3 Bonus Prize Money Schemes

    Over recent years a £10,000 Bonus Scheme has been in place for a range of qualifying 2yos races. It has developed through various forms having had the 'Racing Post' and BOBIS naming for periods, as an example. In 2015 it became the Plus 10 Bonus Scheme (or '+10' for short). This pays out £10,000 bonuses for a set of 2yo races spread thoughout the season. A winning horse in a Bonus Race only qualifying for the £10,000 if it was nominated early in its life for the Bonus scheme and the entrance fees paid. The £10,000 is then split between the horse's owner, trainer, jockey & stable staff along with whoever paid the early nomination fees. Those payees would typically be the horse's breeder and whoever owned and put the horse through the yearling sales.

    In 2015 approximately 75 of the Maiden Races to July 1st carried a £10,000 Bonus. At the time of writing this document there was nothing on the 'Plus 10' website to suggest the Maidens changed to Novice events would not be included in the £10,000 scheme. The website specifically includes all Novices in the scheme which is presumably an area which needs clarification. WIll the 'all Novice Races' hold, or just those which would have qualified as Maidens?

    It should be noted that a single horse can win an unlimited number of Bonuses. Under the new Race structure in 2016 this would appear to be a driver for trainers to target Novice races with previous winners. The connections of those previous winners would not care if their horse's presence in a Novice race 'scared off' non-winning 2yos. producing small field, uncompetitive events, that the change of Maidens to Novices is hoped will defeat.

[Update January 2nd, 2016. The 'Plus 10' website had been updated upon checking and the text for the qualifying 2yo races in 2016 has been amended. At this date it read :- "All Class 2, 3 and 4 Maiden, Novice and Conditions and Class 5 Fillies Only Maiden and Novice races*".The asterisk noting that if the Prize Fund for the race was greater than £100,000 then it would not qualify for the Bonus. With multiple 'ands' and conditions strung across a single sentence the quote from the 'Plus 10' website is a little diffcult to parse. For example, are the only Class 5 race qualifiers "Fillies' only" maidens and Open Novice Races with males in? Or are the only qualifying Class 5 Novice Races for "Fillies Only" as well? In 2015 there were more than 80 Class 5 'Open' Maidens, spread through the season, which qualified for £10,000 bonuses which now seem to have been removed from the 'Plus 10' Scheme, leaving aside the changes to the Maiden/Novice race balance in early season. This needs checking but the 'Plus 10' scheme seems to have moved towards only applying for more valuable maidens and for Fillies' races at Class 5. Perhaps an attempt to force racecourses to make the Prize Money fund available for a race equivalent to the Class 4 basic entry level (Class definition sets the minimum Prize Fund) before that maiden will qualify for a 'Plus 10' Bonus? ]

    Tattersalls, The leading thoroughbred sales company in Britain, will be introducing a bonus scheme in 2016 for graduates of their 'Book 1' sale. This is their Prestige sale which normally produces the highest priced yearlings sold in Europe each year. The scheme offers a £25,000 bonus for any graduate of the 'Book 1' sale and was targeted at Maiden races and multiple wins by a single horse disallowed. The link goes to the Tattersalls Press Release which was put out later on the day of the BHA announcement. Tattersalls say that any qualifying Maiden race which the BHA reclassifies as a 'Novice' will still be included in the scheme. They further note that a horse will only be allowed to win one Bonus.

    It is worth noting that the Tattersalls Prestige Sale has drifted back to being predominantly stocked with 7f+ 2yos with many of them '3yo Prospect' types in their connections' thoughts. This means there may be limited overlap between early season 5-6f Maidens the BHA change is directed towards and the typical graduate of the Sale. In 2015 a total of 17 graduates of the sale had run before the Nursery races began in early July. 4 of the 17 had won a Maiden by that point, 3 over 6f and one over 5f (by Gifted Master who went on to win an 8f Group 3 event in late season & clearly untypical of a precocious 5f 2yo speedster).

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1.4 Race Qualification Criteria

    Another subtlety to consider is the issue that a good number of 2015 Maiden races had qualifying criteria attached to limit the range of horses that could run in them. Typically these would be attempts to group together cheaper purchases & 2yos with less 'good' pedigrees (whatever that amounts to) to produce lower quality maidens. These lesser maidens would also hopefully be more competitive and not have the same issues as existing Novice events. For example, if a well bred Southern raider can run in the weakest Northern Maiden race they may tower over the opposition and saunter home as the short priced favourite. With betting on the race minimal and adding little to the Levy payment to British Racing.

    Although not specifically referenced in any document this author could find, the message appears to be that any qualifying Criteria for Maiden races reclassified as Novices in 2016 will remain in place. The following bullet points give a brief explanation of the main qualifying criteria types currently in use. There are a small set of further intricacies below these main criteria. As a general comment the wide range and arcane nature of these qualifications rules is a barrier to people being able to understand 2yo racing comfortably.

    As an example of a further subtlety the reader may care to investigate why sponsorship by the European Breeders' Fund (EBF) renders a range of, otherwise Open Maidens, not quite fully 'Open'. As another example of arcane variations a small number of racecourses frame conditions for some 2yo Maiden races whereby horses having their first ever run, their career debut, receive weight allowances of 3lbs or 5lbs. Hamilton and Haydock are two of the culprits.

1.5 Weight Penalties for Previous Winners (Update)

    The summary of the Weight Penalties in the box below was added to the article on February 8th, 2016. The information gleaned from a number of sources including the Flat Race Programme Book.

    1. Open Novice Races

    Class 5 and Class 6
    Weights: Colts and geldings………..9st 2lb; fillies…………………………8st 11lb
    Penalties, for each Median Auction or Auction race won……………………….4lb
    For each other race won…………………………………………………..............7lb
       (Selling and Claiming races excluded for the purpose of penalties)

    Class 4
    Weights: Colts and geldings………...9st 2lb; fillies......................................8st 11lb
    Penalties, for each Median Auction or Auction race...........................................3lb
    For each other race won......................................................................................6lb
       (Selling and Claiming races excluded for the purpose of penalties)

    Class 3
    Weights: Colts and geldings……….…9st 2lb; fillies…………………...........8st 11lb
    Penalties, a winner of a race…………...…………………………………………..6lb
    Of 2 races………………..……………..…………………………………………..10lb
       (Selling and Claiming races excluded for the purpose of penalties)

    2. Median Auction and Novice Auction Races

    Class 5 and Class 6
    Weights: Colts and geldings…….……..9st 2lb; fillies…………………………8st 11lb
    Penalties, for each race won………………..……………………………………….7lb
       (Selling and Claiming races excluded for the purpose of penalties)

    Class 4
    Weights: Colts and geldings…………...9st 2lb; fillies…………………………8st 11lb
    Penalties, for each race won……………………..…………………………………..6lb
       (Selling and Claiming races excluded for the purpose of penalties)

    Class 3
    Weights: Colts and geldings…………9st 2lb; fillies…………………...............8st 11lb
    Penalties, a winner of a race………………………………………………………….6lb
      Of 2 races………………..……………………………………..…………………….10lb
       (Selling and Claiming races excluded for the purpose of penalties)

    There are a few points to note from a non detailed look through the penalties. The main one would be that the BHA seem to be trying to use the cumulative penalties in Class 4 to 6 Novices to make it very difficult for a 2yo to win more than 3 races. For example, a triple winner in a Class 4 Novice would be burdened with an 18lbs penalty and carrying 10st 6lbs if a male. The basic weights for maiden 2yos in these Novices will be 3lbs below the typical level in Maiden races in 2015. A male Maiden carrying 9st 2lbs in a 2016 Novice compared to 9st 5lbs in a 2015 Maiden. Note that penalties for Class 3 Novices are capped at a maximum of 10lbs and are not cumulative for triple race, or higher, previous winners. There were only 16 Maidens at Class 3 level in the entire 2015 season and only 7 before the Nursery races began in early July.

    Another point to note is that the BHA department responsible for Race Planning have made it clear they see this Novice Race exercise as a Trial. The Penalty Structure used will be a big part of the post-Trial review of effectiveness of the exercise in meeting the BHA's stated aims. The BHA will presumably be open to comment and input from any interested parties in racing, including racegoers and punters, so the option is there to make comments to them during and after the Trial in 2016.

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    A section which could do with more input and only a small range of reactions noted. If readers have any other references to include then please send them to B2yoR via e-mail or Twitter.

2.1 Initial Response

    Greg Wood of the 'Guardian' newspaper wrote a brief news piece on the day of the BHA announcement, which had a hugely misleading headline. The majority of the piece was taken from the BHA Press Release. The more interesting part of the item were the quotes he had elicited from Richard Hannon jnr. on the changes. Hannon said :-

"Ninety per cent is probably a bit high but I think we could do with more novice races and conditions races, especially in the build-up to [Royal] Ascot [in mid-June], when there aren’t enough races for two-year-olds. It’s a step in the right direction and the good thing is that the BHA is listening. The bottom line is that we need more conditions and novice races but we need a few more maidens, not 90%, becoming winners’ races. Maidens are maidens and should be for maidens. All horses need an opportunity."

    The reaction from Hannon not suggesting that the 'consultation' with trainers had extended to asking them what they thought of the trial solution the BHA announced. Adding to the feeling that the BHA announcement was part of a new policy of pushing to get things done rather than have more years of prevarication and talking. Instead, announce a smallish, well bounded, but significant change and accept at the start that the feedback & results from the trial may lead to further changes or adaptations.

    Going back to the Hannon quote and it could also be read as the trainer who runs most 2yos each year just wanting more of 'everything'. More Maidens, Novices and Conditions races. Of the 278 trainers with a 2yo runner in 2015, the majority would probably not have the same response. Michael Stoute & Luca Cumani, for example, probably stifled a yawn because it meant nothing much to them. Then they would start talking about the particular changes to Race Planning that would suit their strategies. The large majority of trainers have less than 10 individual 2yo runners each season and "lack of races" is not really an issue.

    The 'Racing Post' (RP) produced a basic news item on the day which just quoted the BHA Press Release and had no other quotes, nor comments. Apparently the RP produced another item the following day which did include trainer quotes. This author has not seen that article and a link to it would be welcomed. Apparently one trainer (Beckett?) said something on the lines of the change "not causing problems for trainers who always have horses in races trying to do their best". Which would be a fascinating comment, if true, given the issues considered in the following 'Discussion' section. Perhaps Beckett is one of the few trainers willing to recognise the existence of an 800lbs Gorilla-in-the-Room that most racing insiders step round, in silence, when in public.

    A search on the Internet mostly produced articles which were just re-hashes of the BHA Press Release. Instructive in their own way, about how little actual thought and independent thinking goes into a lot of the information 'pressed' onto us via news sources. One exception was an article by the 'Flatstats' racing system and information provision website. As a general comment B2yoR would suggest that the Flatstats take on having to abandon, or being very careful in, using existing approaches to analysing 2yo Maidens is too prescriptive. We do not know yet how trainers will react to the changes and, in particular, we do not how many of the reclassified Novice races will have previous winners in. For example, what if 100+ of the 175 early Novice Races in 2016 have no previous winners in the field, and are in effect, Maiden Races. We also do not know yet what the Penalty Structure for winners will be and how quickly the BHA might react if the structure needs adapting.

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2.2 Bill O'Gorman

    On the 3rd February, 2016 former trainer Bill O'Gorman (Provideo, Timeless Times, etc.) sent an e-mail to a number of recipients, including the 'Racing Post'. The full text of the e-mail is reproduced in the box below. It relates to the progress, or otherwise, of the change of many early season 2yo races in 2016 from Maiden races to Novice events which allow previous runners to take part.

    As far as I know there has been no announcement so far of the format of the 2yo races this year. Quite possibly the plan has already been strangled by the "bigger" trainers, just as it was when previously mooted - and agreed unanimously at public meetings!

    The facts are basically these:

  • The more two year olds a trainer has, the keener he is to retain the [recent] status quo. As Ralph Beckett remarked when he organised the previous abortion " more maiden races means more winners".
  • Open 2yo races are the equivalent of Grammar Schools - they enable less privileged trainers to rise in the profession. Under the present system it is unlikely that a Paul Kelleway or Ron Boss will emerge. [ I'm not sure about David O'Meara - but as he is making his name mainly with second hand horses this success may reflect as much upon the skill of their previous trainers as upon his own]
  • Although 2yo races as a % of all races, and in relation to individual runners, remain largely unchanged there has been an enormous swing away from condition races and towards maiden races. Whereas there used to be one maiden race for every seven 2yos, there is now one for every four. Given that the vast majority of them are quite unrestricted [median auction being a ridiculous device aimed at allowing minimal prize-money without necessarily restricting the class of runner], this obviously suits big strings but does very little for genuine competition.
  • The title of novice race ought to be dropped. The new races ought, IMO, to be for "non-winners of 4 races" with a sensible weight scale of: fillies 8.7, colts 8.12, a winner - 7x, of 2 races or one of £8k - 10x, of 3 races or of £20k collectively - 12x. Debutantes might be allowed 3 lbs?
  • Any trainer worth his salt ought to have no qualms about running any horse capable of winning a maiden in these races. The argument that it might be disadvantageous to those running for a low handicap rating is not particularly defensible. In fact we ought to re-impose the "first four " requirement for nurseries: it is ridiculous to be allowing 2yos rated in the 50s to win a race, other than a seller.
  • Someone is certain to trot out that these races will be less attractive as betting opportunities. I disagree: the average SP of the favourite in every race that Provideo was declared for at the 4 day stage in 1984 was 13/8, and the average for maiden races today is almost exactly the same.

    Regards, Bill O'Gorman

    The text from Mr. O'Gorman speaks for itself but a couple of items are worth highlighting. The first is that we still have not heard what the penalty structure will be for extra weight carried by previous winners in the new Novice races. The issue raised is whether there is ongoing lobbying towards the BHA from 'established' trainers to try to get the Novice race trial amended, if not plain dropped. The second point is that Mr. O'Gorman advocates dropping the 'Novice' naming and instead call the races for "non-winners of 4 races" (or 3, to be agreed) and have a relatively simple weight penalty mechanism. This seems to be a good suggestion in the B2yoR view.

    The e-mail hints at a resistance from established trainers to change since their ability to mop up, mostly unrestricted, maidens would be lessened. In a subsequent e-mail exchange Mr O'Gorman made the point that many trainers are underachieving and are against being asked to compete in a tougher set of examinations (races). The reader may care to think about whom Mr. O'Gorman considers to be the "the poster child for underachievers". Again, this is a view which B2yoR would support and change takes too long in British Racing.

    This article makes the point that one of the most interesting effects of the Novice Race Trial is how it will interact with Trainer's Methos, jockeyship and Schooling in Public. Mr. O'Gorman made the following point in one of his e-mails :-

    The present two year old system may help enormous stables to justify their existence, but it does so at the expense of the sport as a whole: most two year old runs are by horses that Have No Intention Of Running Well. The proposed races might redress that to some extent if only by putting the non-establishment trainers more on the front foot once they think that there is "somewhere to go next" with a winning 2yo.

    Mr. O'Gorman has written at length about how the Central Handicapping System in Britain, and the way it has developed in the last 30+ years, affects how trainers perceive their role and therefore the methods they use. The following link goes to an article he wrote in 2014 for the Mark Johnston stable 'Kingsley Klarion' monthly publication. This gives a good overview of his thoughts including making the point that trainers are "obsessed" with getting their horses "well in" in regards to the BHA's Official Rating handicapping system. A number of spin-off issues come along with the fact that Central Handicapping is baked into British Racing system and the article deals with these, including the argument that British Racing produces a lower number of high class horses because of the system. Mr. O'Gorman has produced a detailed article covering this issue and B2yoR encourages readers to seek this document out.

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    The change the BHA has announced feels like a large one which might have adverse consequences. But, the situation at present is that we have little idea how the changes will impact 2yo racing in the early stages of the 2016 2yo Season. You could suggest as a basic hypothesis to test, that the changes will have close to no impact. The majority of new Novice races will be run with only maiden horses taking part. A smallish number will have previous winners in, perhaps those at more important tracks, and those horses will produce a handful of multiple winners. At the other end of the response we could propose that a known set of trainers will pitilessly farm the new Novice races and we will have a raft of horses racking up 3-6 wins, say, by June's close. Hannon, Johnston, Fahey, Channon, David Evans, etc. will make a mockery of the trial and we will enter July with 100 horses still maidens who would not have been previously.

    The following quote comes from the BHA Press Release and is by Ruth Quinn, the BHA's Director of International Racing and Racing Development. Which sounds like a sprawling department to try to find a focus for.

"We accept that this is a major change and therefore potentially a brave move. However, only by making such a significant change does the BHA feel that it can offer a meaningful improvement to the programme for winning horses, whilst also reducing the number of small-field races at a time when this is such an important issue for the sport. The changes we make will be on a trial basis at first and we will monitor the success of the trial before committing to anything in the longer term. It is anticipated that early season Novice races will largely be contested by debutants (akin to existing Maiden races), but it is hoped that the amended programme would act as an encouragement for the majority of two-year-old winners to run again."

    With Mrs Quinn noting it is a 'brave move' or perhaps a wild experiment. The tool that she sees as the key to making the plan work is the Penalty Structure whereby previous winners will have to carry extra weight in Novices. There is no indication that there will be some sort of 'Winners of 2 or less Races' as part of the race conditions to stop horses running up a string of wins. If we look at the previous Penalty Structures used they have typically been a 5-7lbs Penalty for each of the first two wins and no extra weight for any further wins. For example, a male non-winner in an Open Maiden typically carries 9 stone 5lbs currently (131lbs) which would see him taking on a dual winner receiving 10-14lbs in a 2016 Novice equivalent. The dual winner might be carrying 10st 5lbs, for example, which would put a number of trainers off asking that of their 2yo. But, we can see from the example that a 10-14lbs Penalty is the most you could realistically impose. Which would mean that unless you make Penalties cumulative for all 3rd+ successes a dual winner capable of running to an early season 90 rating is going to be able to find a good number of opportunities.

    The overall B2yoR view on the changes is positive and let us run the experiment and see what it brings. Fiddling around with race conditions and prize money has not proved to be the answer so let us try something really different and get some new data and insights. It is managed trial on a particular part of the 2yo season and not of as wide a scope as some have throught. Part of the B2yoR approach to analysing races is to understand the structure of the 2yo season and how trainers methods and strategies interact with the race opportunities available. An initial thought might be that these changes will end that advantage and the new 2yos season will be unpredictable. The B2yoR view is that the changes will still allow someone who understands how trainers think and plan to have an advantage in the new set-up. Also, someone who has a proper grasp of what types of horses, in terms of physical types & mental readiness, can run up a sequence of wins, or alternatively which maidens can overcome penalised previous winners, will be in a strong position. Having become a little jaded following the 2yo season with a set pattern for many years B2yoR is also enthusiastic about how the new structure will give new data to analyse about trainers and horses.

    One point to note is that the driver of reducing the number of small field races is a relative sideshow. There were only 14 Novice events in 2015 in the period involved and they are now hidden amongst a set of around 200 Novice races. That clearly is not the primary purpose of the change. The issue we should focus on fully is how trainers react to the new Novice races when they have close to no choice of running elsewhere. We might find that we end up with less horses running at all before July and a below 8 runner average field across all of the new Novice races. But, those horses which won in early season would have run whenever they like so we will have solved the problem we had of lack of opportunities for early season winners. To be replaced by uncompetitive races and less runners because trainers cannot break their existing mindset of how to treat Novice races.

    Another issue raised which B2yoR has little time for is that "there will be a lesser spread of winners". Every multiple winner in 2016 will, in theory, be ensuring that some other trainer, owner, jockey, etc will not get a share of the action. The first point to make is that the existing 2yo 'cake' is shared out with massive imbalance and we would need some evidence to be convinced this will make it worse. Since a lot of the races will be in early season with cheaper, precocious sprint 2yos is it not an opportunity for smaller stables to work a new niche that has been presented?

    But, the overarching point is that horseracing is a competitive sport and not a rosette-for-every-pony Horse Show. If you are failing to get winners then trainers need to look at their methods and make changes. In the B2yoR view too many of them do the same things for decade after decade and never progress. Which makes studying trainers' methods relatively easy. This needs to be a harder 'School' and no-one 'deserves' some success. As a general point the Racing Media in Britain is too fawning and full of luvvyness. Every trainer, jockey, etc. involved is marvellous and there is not the expected range of abilities from Poor, up though Average to Good. The next time a Pundit starts talking about someone 'deserving' extra wins, horses, rides or whatever, insist that they provide a list of the non-deserving cases to take the wins, etc. away from. Who are the Poor trainers who are getting more than their fair share since the 'Everyone is Marvellous' distribution of abilities is a Fantasy.

    We will finish this discussion by considering the core issue affecting how this change will play out but first a digression to have another go at a Pundit. Too hard to resist. On the Attheraces (ATR) 'Sunday Forum' programme former jockey Dale Gibson, now high-up in the Jockey's Association, was asked for his thoughts on the Maiden to Novice race change. From memory, he didn't like it and plonkingly announced that the issue could have been fixed by making all the Novice Race worth at least £10,000 and trainers would have run their horses in them. Gibson has a Pundit style which brooks no argument and his decisive announcements being of the type that people tend to like from their 'Authority Figures'. Unfortunately, on many items, pedigree analysis would be another, his authoritative style hides a lack of insight into the limits of his knowledge. If you read through the BHA Press Release fully you find this information towards the end :-

    Mr Gibson was on a programme as an expert to give his views on racing issues so it would not have been too much to ask that he had done some background research. Instead, spouting his own entrenched view as he does in other areas. At the anecdotal level you could challenge the "more money means more runners" proposal because Conditions races are a step above Novice races but have the same small field and uncompetitive races issues. But, we are getting to the core of the issue by asking the question "Why don't the majority of trainers run their horses in Novice races, regardless of how valuable you make those events?"

    The B2yoR view has long been that most trainers do not run horses in Novice races because it is dangerous to your handicap mark. You need to keep your Official Rating (OR) as low as possible to be competitive in Nursery races and running in 'higher class races' endangers that. The handicapping method that the BHA uses draws on techniques which assume certain types of races attract a certain quality of horse as a minimum. Races with previous winners in, like Novice & Conditions races, are tagged as being a step above maiden races and attract OR ratings in line with that, no matter the actual level of the performance the field runs to in any particular race.

    Consider a 2015 type Novice race with two previous winners in who have ORs of 87 and 92. You run your maiden 2yo in it which you think is an OR65 horse and can compete in nurseries off that level. The Novice race is run at a crawl and the OR92 rated horse puts one length into the 87 rater in the last 1f. Your 65 horse is only another 2 lengths back having been flat out for the whole race to hang onto the other two who were jogging for most of it. But, the BHA handicapper can only take a very literal view of the form and your 65 horse gets a starting OR of 80. You are stuffed and it may take a double figure number of runs in handicaps to get your horse back to a competitive 65 OR.

    Clearly not worth the risk. To characterise it, using stereotypes, the only horses who run in existing Novice races are firstly previous winners the trainer thinks is up to the OR80+ rating and being competitive off that level. The others are maidens thought up to that level, poor horses who will struggle in any nursery trying to blag some prize money and those from trainers like Channon & Dave Evans who ignore the risk. In both cases because those trainers will run 2yos 20+ times if needed to find something to win. In Channon's case he will run in Novice races specifically to earn an inflated OR rating for horses he is looking to sell on or to increase the profile of his many homebred 2yos. There is probably another set of 2yos that run in the current Novices which is for trainers who do not know what they are doing and/or have unreasonably high opinions of the 2yos they train.

    Now, avoiding running in races which attract inflated handicap marks is clearly both a legal and sensible tactic for the large majority of 2yos that most trainers handle. But, a trainer cannot avoid every risk and slowly run Maidens, for example, can get over-rated by the BHA handicappers so a trainer has to take some care in those races as well. A trainer may also want to hide the full extent of a 2yo's abilities while it runs in maiden races so that it gets a starting OR in nurseries which it can definitely win off and perhaps win a couple or three. One way to do this, in the British set-up, is to leave your 2yo underdone in fitness and mostly clueless through it's preparation at home. This will ensure to some extent that the horse cannot show its real ability in races. Bring the 2yo up to full fitness and professionalism from the fourth outing onwards. You can discuss where this fits in the 'Spirit of the Law' sense but it is acceptable as the rules stand.

    The trainer will also often co-opt the jockey when the horse is in the race by asking the rider to 'ensure' the horse finishes far enough back at the finish to enable a low, or at least competitive, OR figure. This is the point where the 800lbs Gorilla-in-the-Room becomes an issue and deciding what counts as 'Schooling in Public' or not. In any race a jockey has to ensure that their mount is given the best possible chance to achieve the best possible placing. The Stewards will take into consideration that fields in 2yo races will include a good number of inexperienced horses who are not able to put a competent race together yet. The B2yoR view is that, at present, the Stewarding is too lenient and the situation has developed whereby rides clearly targetted at not achieving the best position, nor finishing as close up as possible at the finish, have become acceptable.

    To make an analogy, in professional football currently the majority of penalty areas, while a corner is being taken, resemble all-in wrestling matches. In many instances the majority of players in the box are committing fouls which should result in the Referee (the Steward equivalent) penalising those fouls. But, they have not been dealt with previously so an expectation has arisen that this sort of action and behaviour is acceptable despite being against the written rules of the game. On the odd occasion a referee penalises, correctly, this offence everyone will be mortified and complain about 'lack of consistency'. The penalised side will use the phrase "if you are going to start penalising that offence then there will be multiple fouls at every corner and each side will finish with less than 11 players". Which, on reflection, just highlights the fact that the referee is in an impossible position and unable to fix this mess acting individually.

    B2yoR has watched a lot of 2yo races in detail and a lot of 2yos are ridden in ways which seem, in the B2yoR opinion, to be on the wrong side of the 'Schooling in Public' line and are actually 'Protecting an OR' or 'Concealing ability' rides. If you watch many races they will break up into a competitive small set at the front and then a gap back to the rest from early on. The jockeys in the two groups will look different in their actions and overall intent. The bigger fields of maidens assisting a jockey in finding a place to hide and opportunities to find interference, closing gaps, and the like. The Stewards are also in the position that they cannot get half the jockeys in from one maiden race to ask what they thought they were doing, even if it was necessary. The meeting would run too late and they are also hampered by the fact that, errr, non-involving rides on 2yo maidens has become acceptable. Another reason why running in small field Novice races are a bad idea. Where is the jockey going to hide his mount?

    During the 2105 season, to B2yoR's knowledge, a handful of jockeys were invited in by the Stewards to explain the rides they gave their 2yo. In all cases the explanations were noted by the Stewards but no further action was taken. As in the football case, precedents have been set which appear to condone behaviour which is actually against the rules and the Referee or Stewards do not have the tools, nor resolve, to fix the problem themselves. It needs a centralised Authority to take a stance and reapply acceptable standards.

    That background means that the most interesting aspect of the change to Novice races, which didn't get discussed, was how trainers will react to it and how it will impact on jockeyship and Schooling in Public issues. Will trainers be able to realign their methods and accept running in races which are Novices? Will some maiden races cut up to become the equivalent of the current small field Novices because a dangerous OR90 horse is running in it?

    Consider you are a trainer who targets appalling quality Maidens at Beverley, Catterick & Redcar to run your 'Nursery Project' 2yos in. What are you going to do if they all have multiple winning Mark Johnston 2yos, or similar, in them? How do you avoid that problem? If you are a jockey who has learnt how to finish far enough back from an OR72 Maiden winner at Redcar to satisfy the trainer's aims how are you going to 'strangle' that same horse now there is a proven OR90 horse in the field? Oh, and the OR90 horse is a thorough professional and a hold-up horse who only ever does enough to win by half-a-length. You should get the picture that seeing how these competing requirements from the the different groups involved in 2yo races plays out in early 2016 should be informative to watch.

    There is one other wrinkle to note, the BHA Handicapper of 2yos for the last 20+ years - Matthew Tester - has announced his retirement at the end of the 2015 season. Which means the new person will be undertaking their first attempt at handicapping a new cohort of juveniles while the Rules of the Game have been changed markedly. Which, hopefully will not end up like putting the least experienced apprentice on the most clueless 2yo. One side of the partnership needs to know what it is doing.

    One word of caution to the BHA and the general audience would be to not to make any firm decisions on the effectiveness of the change to Novice races based on the 2yo races run through April to 'early' May. In 2015 there were only 38 juvenile races run to the end on April. Those races involved just 202 different horses (7% of the season total) handled by 83 individual trainers (34%). They are an unrepresentative, and too small, sample of the 2yo season to be making definitive judgement on. The season then gets going more fully with 85 juvenile races through May and 116 in June. The month of May is one of the most exciting of the season because a range of larger stables will be having debut runs for their best early 2yos as a preparation for Royal Ascot.

    For example, we could see a very high class 2yo for trainers like Hannon or Johnston win 3 races in April plus a number of other dual winners. The reaction will be that "this is not working" but we should wait and see how the season develops through May. Consider that in the last two seasons those trainers have run Tiggy Wiggy & Buratino on the first day of the Turf Season and under the new set-up they would be able to hoover up a number of weakish early races if the trainer thought that was worthwhile. They may well not, the 'Timeless Times' multiple winners of yesteryear were typically 12-20lbs below the top rating 2yos of their season.

    When the high class debutants from larger stables come along in May we could find that the newcomer and maiden 2yos are winning the 'right' share of Novice races and outclassing most of the penalised early season winners. With the races in early April being a new 'niche' for trainers wanting to press on early with expendable types to get dual race wins. For reference, there was a single dual winner in 2015 by the end of April (Ravenhoe for trainer Johnston), in 2002 there were 5 dual winners by the end of April (44 races) with two of those 2yos successful only at Seller level in races which no longer exist. The first Seller of 2015 took place on April 30th.

    A final thought, are we going to see the return of Multiple winners racking up 6 wins or more? In the last 12 seasons just 3 horses have managed 6 wins in an entire season. That trio being the Group Winning quality set of Monsieur Chevalier, Zebedee & Tiggy Wiggy, all trained by a Richard Hannon. There have only been 2 x five time winners in the last 6 seasons and none in the last 3. What odds would you give of a horse racking up 6 wins or more before the Nurseries start under the new system in 2016? The B2yoR view is that it is a shorter than Evens shot and probably by a natural type who can rate 95 in early season and finds the right opportunities by chance initially, rather than it being a long term plan.

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