It’s probably as good a time as any to present this article, given that we’re staring a New Year in the face and that the race designated the world’s most popular handicap has just been run.

Of course that reference was to the Melbourne Cup. Arguably, a 3200m event is not the ideal to be given such praise, as it is outside the distance range of most classically-bred racehorses, and something either at 2000m or even 2400m might be considered by the purists to be more deserving of such an accolade. However, you will know what I mean and that very few people reading this magazine are likely to have put more effort into figuring out a race in 2008.

Some of the overseas specialists delete all handicaps from their analyses as one of the very first steps in considering any program. I don’t think this is appropriate to Australia or New Zealand. Apart from the fact that most of our races are handicaps of one kind or another, I am biased enough to believe that our handicappers are the best and that, particularly these days, very little gets under their guard. As a result of this, I may surprise you by the first of my “great angles”, which is that on most occasions you can accept the handicap as fair and reasonable, and one which reflects any particular horse’s ability in that race on that day.

You’ll notice that I said “most occasions”, because I draw the line in handicaps where, because of the conditions of the race, a horse has been allocated a weight which, in my view, it cannot handle for one of several reasons. The physical makeup of some horses is such that they are challenged by high weights, and this is especially true of races for females, where you will see talented but small mares trying to carry heavier weights. Again, their weights will have been determined by the standard of the opposition and the conditions of the event, but on the purely physical level it may immediately raise a doubt in my mind.

This brings me to the second of my angles: claims and allowances. Everybody knows what an apprentice claim is, but I am doubtful whether some people give it any more than a cursory glance. Also, I believe that people who do take it into consideration and quite seriously, may often fall for the trap of assuming a kid can do the job of an experienced fully-fledged professional rider.

In every period, we have wonderful new riders emerging from the apprentice ranks, but as all hardened and experienced punters know, you often can’t put an old head on young shoulders: mistakes will be made while the youngster is learning his trade and you do lose something (mostly) in conceding the claim.

I believe you are usually better off with a senior jockey, unless there is a significant reason for the claim (for example, carrying a really heavy weight, brought about by a situation where there is a mandatory topweight at acceptance time, and everybody else is on the limit).

If I could use an extravagant example here, why don’t you compare Damien Oliver or Glen Boss with A. Hopeful, a 3kg claiming apprentice who is on his way up but is still learning? Other things being equal, the senior jockey will ride the better race, so if you don’t feel that your horse is necessarily handicapped out of the race by its weight, you may be on a better chance if  the claim is not made.

That brings me to the next handicapping angle, the barrier. We can probably link barriers and claims, but let’s stick with them separately and we can think about the possible links after we go through quite a deal more. My regulars are well aware that I’m fanatical about barriers, and at the risk of being labelled an ostrich, I have passed the stage of even bothering to debate with anybody who brings up statistics in this regard.

I say use your eyes, watch the horses jump from the barriers, and with one hand on your wallet ask yourself which horses have the initial better options. If you don’t answer that it is the horses with the better barrier draws, it’s going to take you years before you get to accept my position on this. Is this smug on my part? No, it’s what I’ve learned over the years. Of course, the truth is that certain races will be won by horses from outside barrier draws, there is no denying that, and races like the Doncaster have shown over a long period that large fields in a top Randwick 1600m event are very evenly served by the draw. They’re anomalies.

But did you notice there was a word in there: “top”? In anything but the top class, you are going to get a range of jockey abilities and probably a great range of class as well. But in the very top 1600m races, for example the Randwick Doncaster and Epsom handicaps, it’s unlikely you will strike anything but the best jockeys. At random, I pulled up the Doncaster for 2008, and the placed jockeys were Glen Boss, Darren Beadman and Dwayne Dunn. The next two were Hugh Bowman and Damien Oliver, then Blake Shinn, Jim Cassidy, Corey Brown, Michael Rodd, Rod Quinn, Jamie Innes and Craig Newitt. Luke Nolen, Zac Purton, Dan Beasley and Stephen Baster completed the lineup.

As you will note, there wasn’t one apprentice in the race. Well, it wasn’t a claiming race anyway. To what extent are you disadvantaged by backing an apprentice in a non-claiming race? Let’s think about it like this. I’ll pick a weight for age event to make the point. If you have a situation such as occurred with Samantha Miss in the Cox Plate where she had 47.5kg, you go looking for an incredibly gifted and fully fledged rider, and poor Glen Boss has to spend the week prior to the race dieting like crazy (by my standards anyway) and going several rounds with champion boxers (that frightens the heck out of me, just thinking about it).

There would be plenty of kids around who could ride comfortably at the weight, and arguably because they hadn’t spent the week on a crash course, they may have more strength or at least be operating closer to 100 per cent.

Nevertheless, they would not have anything like the expertise and proven genius of the champion big race rider.

Now what about if there was an apprentice claim possible? My position would be that if you couldn’t win with 47.5, you couldn’t win with 44.5 (and you would sure be searching for a kid who could ride at that weight . . . perhaps one of the girls could but not many of the boys). When the opportunity is there, I am far happier to entrust the job to the expert and to allow the trainee to learn his trade at somebody else’s financial expense.

Don’t get me wrong on this one, I have an open mind on apprentices, but I do think that we hear far too much from the Saturday morning shock jocks on the issue. Every weekend you will hear the standard comments. (“He comes in well with the claim” and “Now he is taking a claim he won’t be carrying as much weight”.)

Have you heard a sillier comment than the second one? It’s not exactly Sherlock Holmes stuff, is it? And yet we get it, along with the other brilliant insights which unfortunate punters accept as gospel because they are coming from the mouths of “experts”. As far as I can see, if an expert comes up with a statement like that, he is being paid under false pretences. My warning in this regard, as far as our “greatest angles” are concerned, is that the apprentice claim aspect is greatly overplayed and has to be (to coin a phrase) weighed against what is lost when an apprentice replaces a senior rider.

I have seen too many situations in which youngsters are called upon to make split-second decisions but they do not have the necessary experience to deal with what they come up against. I mean they simply haven’t, in most cases, been in enough races, and they are still learning. If you went to the dentist, and remember you would be outlaying big money, would you feel just as confident if the dentist said something along the lines of: “Look I’ve got the apprentice on board today, and I am going to pass you over to him (or her) because this looks to me to be a pretty straightforward sort of job, and he can do just as good a repair in your mouth. Naturally, this will cost you a little less because he’s still in his training.”

Another possibility might be, still hitting you where it hurts, if you go to your trusted doctor’s surgery, and you are unfortunate enough to be greeted with some unhappy news. Things look a little grim. When you are being wheeled into the operating theatre, and things are serious, the specialist comes up to you and says something like: “I decided that my intern needs experience in this area, and while he hasn’t done many operations as serious as yours, I am going to put him in charge of this one.

I think it will be every bit as successful as if I did the job, but of course we have to accept that I’ve done about 2,000 of them and he’s done two or three, so if there’s an emergency and he has to make an incredibly quick and vital decision, well yes, there is a risk he’ll make a mess of it all; but on the other hand you can rest assured that I’ll give you a decent discount.”

Get it? Is an extra half a point in the price, because of the apprentice’s claim, worth the risk? And there must be a risk, because the bookmakers aren’t fools. Have a look at the car parks. My stamping ground is Sydney, of course, and I can assure you that a stroll around the reserved car park there will indicate to you, via the initialled number plates, where several of the BMWs, Mercedes and the like will be garaged that evening. And if the bookmakers are frequently prepared to stretch the odds a little because of the engagement of a 3kg claiming apprentice, you can take it as read that they believe their chances have just improved.

Another way of putting that, and every bit as logical, is that the horse’s chances have just diminished. If you think you can read that move in any other way, I’m blessed if I can. The days when fearless bookmakers rolled the odds out to attempt to outsmart fearless punters (we all know the legendary story of Bill Waterhouse in that regard) have, I am afraid, long gone.  The age of the computer has seen to that.

This is obviously going to be a two-month effort, isn’t it? On to the next major handicapping angle, which I suggest is one that we all should make time to pay much more attention to than we do. It is the good old win and place  percentage of the horse. I remember looking at a system once where the horse with the top win  percentage was the prime consideration, and a whole lot of other rules spun off that one. Obviously, there will be handicapping situations in which the win  percentage will really spell it all out. And yet with the benefit of hindsight you sometimes realise that this was a race that was virtually over before it was ever run.

For example, and is probably the best example of a lot, look at the two-year-olds. Two-year-old races are hard enough at any time, but really some of the major clues, and in fact often the only clue, can be drawn from what one of the youngsters has already done heading into today’s race. Quite recently, in an article, I made the point that I have a personal aversion to betting on two-year-olds before the Golden Slipper carnival. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t clues to be taken from a formguide about these babies. The two-year-old that wins a race, and then lines up again with top weight against a field of maidens, often salutes again. I’ve taken this further on numerous occasions so we’ll just store the point away. But there is any number of other examples of horses with high win/place  percentages scoring good wins at good prices over much-preferred opponents.

I’m not going to get into class this month because it’s too big a topic and we don’t have enough space, but it’s worth commenting even at this stage that a horse with an excellent win  percentage, coming to the city for the first time, is a greater risk than a horse which has been competing strongly at today’s level in the city. You would want decent odds to support the visitor, regardless of its record.

There are exceptions that stick in your mind, horses which go all the way to the top, having come out of nowhere. I think I’m right in saying that both Campaign King and King Phoenix were two absolute top liners who were both in that category. Both arrived in the city with fantastic percentage records, and if my memory is holding up I think King Phoenix held onto his 100 per cent place record all the way through to the top rank, whilst of course Campaign King became one of the best horses of his age. Memory is a strange thing, but I dare say I will hear if
I’ve got that wrong.

You can be pretty sure that there will always be examples like this, although rarely as good. But I guess my basic point is, and it’s a good place to stop and promise you the other half next month, is that in many cases (not all, but as I say, many) the old cliché is true: winners keep on winning, and losers keep on losing.

Click here to read Part 2.

By The Optimist