This summer’s domination of the premier all-aged clashes by three-year-olds has inevitably given rise to renewed calls for an overhaul of the weight-for-age scale.
Few are suggesting that the allowances the Classic generation currently receive from their elders are wildly incorrect, but, with the likes of Frankel and Nathaniel enjoying comprehensive victories against senior opposition, is it time they were revised?
After all, while the modern era has witnessed dramatic changes in the breeding, preparing and campaigning of thoroughbreds, the weight-for-age scale which underpins racing – formalised by Admiral Rous in the mid-19th century (see panel page 47) – has not undergone fundamental alteration in decades.
More radical thinkers believe that the events that establish the sport’s true champions, races such as the King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Stakes, Sussex Stakes, Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and Champion Stakes, ought to be run on level terms, as indeed they are in almost every other major sport. Is that a realistic option, or is everything fine just as it is?
Handicapper defends system
It is hardly surprising that Phil Smith, the BHA’s head of handicapping, is a defender of the status quo so far as weight for age is concerned, but his defence is based on statistics and rational argument rather than gut feeling.
The sophisticated software that the BHA has used for monitoring success rate by generation is not currently available, but the last check was done only two years ago and Smith insists that “the differences in success rates by ages by distances and by months are infinitesimal.”
Former senior steward David Oldrey accepts that they may indeed be infinitesimal taken year by year, but they can add up. Oldrey suspects that the current scale is not far out but says: “They may be tiny, tiny differences, but if you let twenty or thirty years pass they will build up and you may find it’s time for another adjustment.
“Probably every revision there has been has had horses maturing a little bit younger. They began by saying no horse is mature until it is six, but we have slowly worked back until we are effectively saying that they are mature as four-year-olds unless they are running over extreme distances. The pressures of the breeding world are all the time pushing towards earlier maturity.”
Smith argues that when results of the big races suggest weight for age allowances may be unfair, there is often another explanation. He says: “After Teenoso won the King George at four in 1984 nine of the next 11 winners were three-year-olds, leading to a clamour at the time that it had to be because the scale was advantageous to three-year-olds, but the reality at that time was that three-year-olds were packed off to stud asap and there just weren’t any (top-class) four-year-olds around.
“Of course since then we’ve had a plethora of older winners, and in 16 more runnings there have been only three three-year-old winners – Galileo, Alamshar and most recently Nathaniel – so now some are saying that the allowances are disadvantageous to three year-olds. They are not; it’s just fashion as to whether the best older horses are allowed to stay in training.”
Looking at some of the key all-aged clashes of 2011, Smith says: “The July Cup, the King George and the Sussex, the first three Group 1 races where the generations met, were all won by three-year-olds, but Frankel and Dream Ahead were the top-rated horses so we were pretty hopeful they would win anyway. And with the fillies, where three-year-olds took on older horses in the Falmouth, the Nassau and the Rothschild, all were won by older horses [Immortal Verse did strike a blow for three-year-old fillies in the Prix Jacques le Marois].
“People tend to look at results in isolation and conclude something is wrong with the weight-for-age scale, but I think it’s stood the test of time pretty well.”
Some believe that it was expecting too much of Canford Cliffs for him to concede 8lb to so well developed a three-year-old as Frankel in the Sussex Stakes, but that, argues Smith, misses an important point.
He says: “People were saying to me before the Sussex that Frankel must be a certainty, because we had him on 130 and Canford Cliffs on 125, but for Frankel to replicate the 130 he recorded in the 2,000 Guineas at the end of April in the Sussex Stakes at the end of July he had to have improved by 6lb, because that is what the weight for age scale tells us. As it happens, by our figures he improved even more than that.”
Is the breed maturing quicker?
Thoroughbred Owner & Breeder’s veterinary expert, James Tate, questions whether today’s racehorse is sufficiently immature to deserve such advantageous allowances. He says: “Because the Flat horse is targeted at the three year-old Classic races, over the last few centuries it has also been bred to become more precocious.
“As a result, today’s thoroughbred matures earlier than its predecessor and so the majority of horses bred for Flat racing have only a small amount of developing left to do by the time they reach their third birthday.
“Obviously, each horse is different but the current question is whether today’s average three year-old is sufficiently under-developed compared to the average four year-old to be receiving a significant amount of weight from it, particularly in the period from June onwards. That is a question, in my opinion, that should be put to the statisticians.”
Smith is not sure that horses are maturing any earlier, and nor, he says, is top trainer Sir Henry Cecil, with whom he discussed the subject at Newmarket recently.
Sir Mark Prescott doesn’t think they are either, and he argues that it would not necessarily matter anyway. He says: “I don’t think it matters if the breed has changed. I don’t think they mature any earlier, and if they don’t mature any earlier it doesn’t matter if they are all 10lb better or 10lb worse, so long as the differential remains the same.
“You can’t say a horse is the best in the world if it wins by a length in receipt of 8lb”
“The times for horseraces tell you that horses aren’t improving very fast despite treadmills, artificial gallops, veterinary attention, scoping, scanning and all the rest. Watering is a factor, but I think the Admiral was spot on.”
There are currently only a handful of races in which two-year-olds can meet their elders, but among them are championship sprints like the Nunthorpe, the Haydock Sprint Cup and the Prix de l’Abbaye.
When Kingsgate Native won the 2007 Nunthorpe, it was widely perceived that the 24lb he received from mature runner-up Desert Lord was too generous, but with hindsight we can see he was simply he was a top-class sprinter, and the best horse in the race. Interestingly, when he was second two months later in the Abbaye, his allowance reduced by 6lb to reflect the progress a typical two-year-old is expected to make in that period, he beat Desert Lord by an almost identical margin.
Smith is comfortable with the current scale of allowances for juveniles and says: “If we had a lot more two-year-olds running against their elders and they were winning disproportionately then we’d have another close look. But all changes have to be statistically driven – you can’t make changes on a gut feeling – and there aren’t the statistics at the moment to suggest we are too far out.”
Sir Mark Prescott, who might be the modern day’s closest equivalent to Admiral Rous in terms of the meticulous detail he records of gallops, is in no doubt that the scale is right. He says: “When you work a two-year-old with an older horse, which you don’t do very often, and then you write down it’s rating based on that, it’s right. It’s just incredible really.”
Scrap the allowances
Brough Scott, Simon Holt and Donn McClean are among a small but significant body of purists who believe that true championship races ought to be run without weight for age allowances.
Scott is aware of the practical objections, but argues: “British Flat racing has to think the unthinkable, or else it’s going down the pan. It needs to be brave and this is the sort of thing we ought to be thinking about.”
If we are trying to make racing work with the widest possible audience, Scott says, how can people be expected to understand how we hail a horse a “champion” when it has been allowed a big advantage? The championship races, he argues, ought to be pure tests on level terms, although a sex allowance might be acceptable.
For Scott, though, it’s not just a matter of what would be understood best by a wider public. He believes it would benefit the breed.
“The best thing for the breed would be that you had to prove yourself utterly on the track. The premise I always go back to is that you shouldn’t earn a stud value too lightly. It’s one thing to be the top three-year-old, but are you really the best horse around? By the time you run in the Arc, it should be what’s the best horse in the race. Weight for age is fine as a method for getting more competitive racing, but when it gets to championship races you can’t say a horse is the best horse in the world if it wins by a length and it’s in receipt of 8lb.
“The real champions, the real superstars, would win anyway. Frankel would have beaten Canford Cliffs without weight for age. Mill Reef would have won the Arc on level terms, and Sea The Stars might have won it too.”
Head of handicapping Phil Smith has a more pragmatic hat on when he declares himself “absolutely against” scrapping weight for age.
He says: “It would only be in Britain, because the chances of getting international agreement are zero. We’d have to do it in isolation and then the Frankels of this world would be running in the Prix Jacques Le Marois, not the Sussex Stakes, because why would they run against older horses at level weights here when they could go across to France or to Ireland and get a significant allowance?”
Sir Mark Prescott takes a similar view. He argues: “If you want three-year-olds to take on older horses in championship races you have to have a weight-for-age scale which reflects their development.
“Without it they simply won’t run, it’s as simple as that, unless they are trained by maniacs or they are unbelievably good.”
Admiral Rous: the most influential man in racing
The notion that younger horses should carry less weight than their mature elders in order to equalise their chances was first formalised in 1850 by Admiral Henry John Rous (1791-1877), although it was already widely accepted that younger horses required a weight concession if they were to be competitive against mature rivals.
Admiral Rous was a former naval commander and Member of Parliament who was first elected a steward of the Jockey Club in 1838 and became the most famous of all turf administrators and reformers.
A man renowned for his integrity and vigour, he was an expert handicapper, and through experimentation with weights and the meticulous investigation of his own detailed observations he codified a relationship between age and maturity, expressed in terms of weight.
The tabulated allowances he introduced in 1850 were revised in 1873 and then underwent relatively minor changes until overhauled in 1976 by Major David Swannell, who translated the differences into a sliding scale of allowances designed to reflect the physical progress that the average thoroughbred racehorse makes as it matures. The most recent revisions were made under Geoffrey Gibbs in 1990.
The modern weight-for-age scale is shown on the previous page: a table of weight, age and distance. It lays down the varying weights horses of differing ages should receive from their elders over the full range of distances through the year, shown fortnight by fortnight, in order to reflect the speed at which the typical thoroughbred develops before it is considered fully mature aged four.
The distance of a race is a major factor in determining the allowance, and at the extremes the difference is huge. Even at intermediate distances over a relatively short space of time the difference can be significant. For example whereas Canford Cliffs was required to concede Frankel 8lb in Goodwood’s Sussex Stakes at the end of July, it would have been only 3lb should they have met at Ascot in October. That 5lb difference would equate to around two and a half lengths.
Rous is credited by turf historians Roger Mortimer, Richard Onslow and Peter Willett as having “formed the link between the rough and ready racing of the 19th century and the highly organised sport we have today.”
Sir Mark Prescott would probably go even further and reckons that without the handicapping principles and the
weight-for-age scale that Rous proposed, racing would not have evolved from the matches and run-offs that were the norm in his day into the competitive spectacle we know today.
“Admiral Rous is probably the most influential man in racing,” Prescott says. “He was extraordinarily ahead of his time, and I can’t think of any other sport in which one man has had such a defining influence. His legacy is extraordinary.”