Marten’s Perspective: Non-Triers or Gamesmanship?

September 8th, 2014 | Marten's Perspective

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I am always on the watch for a ‘touch’ even though, these days, it is much harder to engineer them than in past days.

The stewards are quick to ask the trainer for an explanation if a horse shows a significant improvement in form – especially if the money is down in a major way.

Not many trainers are prepared to risk losing their licence by blatantly ‘stopping’ one even though they may have a ready excuse for the poor run. There are, though, many perfectly legitimate ways of getting a horse beaten without having the jockey pull its teeth out.

One is, quite obviously, to run the horse over the wrong trip. This applies especially to the third run, which may qualify the horse for a handicap mark. The second is to run it on the wrong ground and the third is, more obviously, to run it when it is not fit.

The writers in the Racing Post are quick to mention a handicap debutant that has ‘shaped well’ in its previous starts. There are some trainers – no names here – that are obviously very adept at this. 

There are others, though, who seem naive in the extreme. For example, if you run a nice two-year-old in a maiden at Newbury on its debut then if it runs well the handicapper will have a mark in the mid-70s as a starting point.

By contrast if the horse makes its debut at a midlands or northern track it has a better chance of starting from a lower mark. I take with a pinch of salt the view that the handicapper ignores a horse’s trainer, pedigree or the venue at which it runs. 

We are now well into the nursery season and such is my respect for Matthew Tester, the BHA handicapper of two-year-olds, that my eye is always caught by a short-priced horse in a nursery. This is because it suggests that Matthew has underrated the chance of the horse. Of course if there has been an element of concealment that can happen but, generally speaking, in my experience he gets it right.

One relatively recent development has been the increasing value of the top handicaps and, as a consequence, the incentive to prepare a horse to win one. 

The Ebor was worth almost £165,000 to the winner compared, say, with the Group 2 and Group 3 races the same day, worth £113,000 and £45,000 to the winner respectively.

That is the reason why the top trainers – Sir Michael Stoute, Luca Cumani, John Gosden and William Haggas spring to mind – allow certain horses to work its way to the top via a top handicap or two.

Take a look at the early careers or Conduit and Presvis, trained respectively by Sir Michael Stoute and Luca Cumani. 

The former was beaten on his first two starts at two before winning a maiden at Wolverhampton. He was then beaten on his three-year-old debut from a mark of 79 at Sandown before winning a handicap at Epsom’s Derby meeting off 85. By the end of that season he had won the Group 1 St Leger and the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita, ending the campaign on a rating of 125. He then went on to win the King George and the Breeders’ Cup Turf for the second time.

Presvis had a similar profile, ending his career the winner of almost £4.5 million in prize money having started from a handicap mark of 72.

Halling, winner of five Group 1 races, was beaten at Yarmouth (by 18 lengths), Thirsk and Windsor on his first three runs before taking a Ripon handicap off 75.

There is no way that Messrs Stoute, Cumani and Gosden were ‘cheating’ in their handling of these talented horses. They simply worked the system to derive maximum benefit for their owners, bringing their horses along steadily in order to allow them to mature and build up confidence. In the case of Previs the trainer had no choice, because the horse had proved very hard to keep sound in his younger days.

It is quite easy to spot the potential improvers, and now is the time to look out for them. Watch for any three-year-old that has been given a relatively light campaign – possibly rested during the summer – and appearing in one of the valuable back-end handicaps.

I have a few names in mind and I will make it my business to bring them to your attention in my services.

Bye for now