Wimbledon’s shock defeat of Liverpool in the FA Cup Final is by far the most celebrated act of the 1987-88 football season. During 40 league games, Liverpool proved themselves by far the better team, winning the title with 90 points compared to Wimbledon’s 57.
Now cast Frankel in the role of the mighty Reds, let Excelebration be the Wimbledon of the piece and the FA Cup Final the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes on British Champions’ Day. Could Excelebration upset the imperious beast of the legendary Sir Henry Cecil?
It could happen. But what would it mean if it did? As this is the de facto championship event, should Excelebration be determined as the champion? Does it even matter what has gone on before?
Well, yes, we all know that it does. And the method of objectifying the evidence of results in racing is handicapping.
While the jockeys’ and trainers’ prizes in the QIPCO series are decided by the mere facts of wins and places, the equine champions are determined by the handicap ratings published by the BHA. These figures seek to answer the question of relevance thrown up by any single race in isolation.
The British Champions’ Series should be applauded for this decision. Rather than using some points system which is merely an exercise in playing with numbers, it is employing a method which is more successful in identifying real merit. The future of the breed depends to some degree on the best horses being identified, after all.
I find it amazing that the BHA doesn’t publish rules about handicap figures
Handicapping is described as “a system, of theories, assumptions and methods erroneously regarded as scientific”. Despite a fundamental role in the sport which goes far beyond the determination of champions, handicappers themselves are either reluctant to formalise the axioms of their approach or else they are simply not capable. Why?
It is not as if structural rules are impossible. There are computerised handicaps, like that of the mathematician John Whitley’s company Racing Research, which do the job so well that some of the sharpest betting minds have learned to rely on the output. Computers have to have rules.
If challenged as to their judgments, handicappers either fall back on enjoying the consensus of their colleagues or the autonomy of the position. But why no rules?
Determining the result of stewards’ inquiries after interference is a subjective task, but rules have been published by the BHA with great success. This has hugely increased the confidence over verdicts.
Yet handicapping has yet to be similarly demystified. Let’s say that Excelebration defeats Frankel by a length at Ascot, the pair coming well clear. To determine whether Frankel ran to his best and was defeated by a better horse, handicappers may refer to the margin back to the third or the proximity of a vastly inferior horse further back.
But the distances between horses at the end of a race are heavily influenced by such things as the pace of the race and ground conditions. In the end, it sometimes comes across that the facts of a race are employed as a mere justification for a handicapper’s instinct – whether consensual or not. You need only to read what various handicappers write to understand as much.
Some refer to the horribly flawed construct of finding a single horse whom they believe has run to form – a “marker” or a horse to “rate the race through”. Others may employ race times or race standards.
I find it amazing that the BHA doesn’t publish rules, or at least guidelines, to which the public and professionals can refer, to understand the numbers which handicapping throws up. There seems to be an understandable zeal to give the sport more modern resonance – from which the British Champions’ Series itself was born – yet there is no transparency to handicapping, no way in for the intelligent newcomer.
And so what happens after October 15? There is a pregnant pause while the champions are determined by a method which has no published rules or principles.
Wouldn’t it be good to know how handicappers do it, folks? Perhaps we have all got by happily accepting the autonomy which the handicapper has over his figures, even if they are peer-reviewed after publication.
But this is 2011. And the outcome of the British Champions’ Series depends on handicapping’s nebulous methodology.
Peel back the curtain chaps. Let’s find out how you do it.