Tell us about your first involvement in racing, where it all started and where it led…
I was asked by a friend from Southampton University, who kept his own ratings, to join him at the Derby to celebrate my 21st birthday, on June 3, 1970. It was my first experience of racing and we had three winners including Nijinsky. I was completely hooked and started keeping my own ratings the following day. Initially, I kept the two-year-olds and later on I rated the Pattern and Listed races.
How much of a punter were you, and how successful?
I was a punter for 24 years and had only one losing year. But I never won huge amounts because as a teacher I never had a big enough bank to risk very much, so my stakes were pretty small. My biggest win was on Fairy Footsteps in the 1981 1,000 Guineas. I thought I’d done my dough the week before when Lester Piggott ripped his ear in a stalls accident at Epsom and looked unlikely to ride her. But fortunately he did and got her home, thank God!
You were a teacher and professional footballer. How and why did you enter the world of handicapping?
I was a semi-professional footballer and started teaching PE and then moved on to economics, history and finally maths. I had met Geoffrey Gibbs, who was the senior handicapper at the time, and he was interested in a book I had written in 1992 called 21 Years of the Pattern. We discussed the book together and I was completely enthused by Geoffrey. So when a job for a handicapper was advertised, I applied and luckily got it. I owe my handicapping career totally to Geoffrey.
At what level did you play football and which teams did you play for? What was the pinnacle?
I played at the top non-league level for Altrincham and Northwich Victoria. I was the number 9, striker. I didn’t score a lot of goals for Altrincham but I did for Northwich. I had a ten-year career and the pinnacle was playing for Altrincham at Goodison Park against Everton in the FA Cup third round and we drew 1-1. It was great as I support Everton, though I didn’t that day. They kept kicking me! The replay was switched to Old Trafford and we got 35,000 at both games.
The Grand National weights are published in February. The National is a unique event – how do you view it, as a headache or do most of the horses handicap themselves?
It is a privilege, not a headache. Very few people have handicapped the Grand National and when you land the job you try and stick with it because it is great fun. A fair number of horses do handicap themselves, although I review every horse in the race. I start off with the previous year’s result as a base, then take in the top weights and everything filters down from the best horses. I do take Aintree form into consideration but don’t find I have to stick with published ratings; I can pretty much come up with a bespoke handicap. It is the only race where we don’t necessarily use our official ratings, although in 75-80% of cases I actually do.
Do you make special allowances because the race stands alone?
I usually raise horses that run well over the course in the Topham, Becher and Sefton Chases, which sounds quite harsh, but I put them up because I want to make sure they get into the National. Horses that run well over the Aintree fences often replicate their performances in the National. Once horses have shown an ability to handle the track and the fences I think it is important to get them into the race.
We shouldn’t forget that we are part of the entertainment industry and we want racegoers to enjoy exciting finishes
What is the idea behind the Handicappers Blog, available on the BHA website?
When we started the blog three or four years ago the idea was to try to explain how we arrive at various ratings. Most people know a little bit about handicapping but there aren’t many that know a lot about it, so we give them as much information as possible. Hopefully we make it interesting and help to improve people’s overall knowledge. We get lots of very positive feedback and the blog receives more hits on the BHA website than anything else.
Do you see your job as setting a puzzle for racing enthusiasts to unravel?
The basic job of a handicapper is to give all of the horses an equal chance. Yes, setting a puzzle is important. But it is even more important that when owners and trainers go racing with a runner in a handicap that they believe they have a chance. We are unhappy if they feel they don’t – and we’re equally unhappy when they think they are a certainty. Another aspect of the job is to keep our figures as consistent as possible, because people like to compare generations using our ratings. Also, we shouldn’t forget that we are part of the entertainment industry and we want racegoers to enjoy exciting finishes.
Do you get a hard time from trainers? How do you handle their complaints and frustrations?
Increasingly less so; when I started 19 years ago I used to get a hard time from some trainers who were inclined to pick on the ‘new boy’. Nowadays I hardly ever get a complaint. I think this is partly due to the fact all trainers have to go to a handicapping session in the British Racing School before being granted a licence. I oversee a four-hour class which goes into handicapping in depth, so all new trainers of the last 18 years have been on my course and should be much more knowledgeable about the idiosyncrasies of rating horses. As a result, the modern-day trainer has become much more analytical and when we discuss ratings he or she finds it easier to understand why we have arrived at a certain figure.
The key to handling complaints is to be flexible, and not to be stubborn. It’s amazing how often a horse which a trainer complains about wins its next race, and that happened as recently as Kempton’s Christmas meeting.
Who would give you the biggest ear-bashing?
The trainers today are all pussycats compared with those of yesteryear. Ginger McCain used to give us a hard time and since Neville Callaghan has retired things have got a lot easier and less volatile.
What has been your most satisfying moment in handicapping? And what has been your biggest mistake?
The closest ever finish in the 2012 Grand National between Neptune Collonges and Sunnyhillboy was the most satisfying because you can’t get much closer. In the days before the introduction of the margin of a ‘nose’ that result would have been called a dead-heat. It was both satisfying and disappointing as it would have been great to have been responsible for a dead-heat. It was an interesting race for me because I told Ruby Walsh Neptune Collonges was his best ride, but he didn’t choose it.
My biggest mistake came after about three years in the job when I became big-headed and over confident and dropped a horse of Michael Bell’s for winning, albeit a poor race. I made this extravagant decision because the winner should have won further. I thought it would be clever to drop a horse for winning. It won its next race as a hot favourite. The key to handicapping is to keep it simple: don’t try and over-complicate things.
Which are the most difficult horses to handicap and why?
There are lots, very in often Pattern races. A recent example is the Feltham Chase won by Annacotty. I expected him to finish last, so I struggled to come up with a sensible figure. I worked on a time comparison between his race and the King George, but nothing fitted. Annacotty is massively lower than any other Feltham winner I can remember. Maybe I’ve underestimated him, and he was wearing blinkers for the first time. We’ll see. Interestingly, not one of the last 18 Feltham winners has gone on to win the RSA Chase.
The key to handicapping is to keep it simple: don’t try and over-complicate things
How many handicappers do you have working for you? How often do you meet to discuss races and ratings?
We have 11 and we all cover different distances and codes. Before the all-weather the Flat handicappers used to go on safari in the winter and have fun! But now of course the job, both Flat and jumping, is all year round. We meet only twice a year as we live in different corners of the country, but we are constantly emailing and phoning each other. Every Monday each handicapper sends out a list of horses which he did not handicap last time but wants to drop, and must ask permission to do so from the person who handicapped it in its last race. This helps to give us a commonality of approach. It is so important we are consistent.
Which have been the best Flat horses and jumpers you handicapped?
Frankel and Kauto Star, both by a long way. Kauto Star is my favourite. He was incredibly consistent at the top level, year after year. Great credit to his trainer Paul Nicholls for keeping him sweet and sound for so long. Kauto Star produced 19 performances above 170 and that sort of thing only ever happens every 40 years or so. He gave me more fun and pleasure than any other horse.
Racing in the north is less competitive than at the big southern tracks. Should the handicapping system reflect this, rather than treating all winners the same?
This is a question we are asked fairly consistently. I did some research about northern-trained horses in handicaps at the Cheltenham Festival and Aintree and they actually have an amazingly high success rate. Malcolm Jefferson, Donald McCain, Ferdy Murphy and Lucinda Russell have all done very well there. So it is not strictly correct to suggest that northern horses are at a disadvantage when they venture south. But the general quality of the jumpers in the north is nothing like as good as those in the south. Our job is to give them a chance and when they go to Cheltenham and Aintree they boast a high percentage strike-rate in handicaps. Funnily, we never get a complaint about northern Flat horses being rated too highly and unable to compete in the south.
Why are handicappers so quick to put horses up after an impressive win/effort, but so slow to reduce ratings?
Historically that’s absolutely true. But in recent years I’ve been encouraging the team to drop horses more quickly. However, there is a huge proviso. And that is an integrity issue, which is one of the most important aspects of our job. If trainers knew that if they won and then their horse was pulled up or disappointed we would automatically drop its rating, there would be an incentive to cheat. We have a major integrity function to keep everyone honest. But I must say that in recent years we have been inclined to drop horses a fair bit quicker.
How do you ensure that Irish-trained horses are not advantaged when they run in Britain?
Since 2003 we have assessed Irish jump races in the same way we do every English race. On the Flat we are happy to take the Irish handicappers’ decisions. But jumping we are applying the same methodology to the Irish as we do with the English. It is worth remembering there can be a huge difference in the quality of the ground and when some Irish horses come here after running on heavy they improve on the better going.
We have a major integrity function to keep everyone honest
The novice chase situation in Britain, with two/three-runner races and lack of opportunities for high-class recruits from hurdling, is damaging the sport. What should be done?
It certainly is damaging the sport and I have just produced a paper on the subject that has gone to my boss, Ruth Quinn, the BHA’s Director of Racing. So watch this space…
You often take flak from journalists when rankings are revealed, including when you reduced the rating of Dancing Brave and co in tandem with Frankel being given a mark of 140. Was it really necessary to tinker with the ratings?
Well, it was unofficial. I did an exercise, which said this is how these figures would have looked with modern-day methodology. The guys who were handicapping in 1987 were operating in a marginally different way from they way we do it nowadays. We did it out of interest and fun, and Dancing Brave is still officially 141. Only unofficially is he 138. Frankel is 140.