Matt Chapman questions ‘cop out’ BHA handicap changes in Ruby Walsh debate

The Brits were thrashed at Cheltenham.

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After a drubbing at this year’s Cheltenham Festival, the BHA recently announced tweaks to the way British Jumps horses will be handicapped.

The Irish claimed seven of the nine handicaps at Prestbury Park in March – as part of the 23-5 rout – before going on to completely dominate the Grand National, won by the Henry de Bromhead-trained Minella Times.

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In an attempt to redress the perceived differences in ratings on either side of the Irish Sea, the BHA will gradually reduce the marks of a whole host of British horses in training.

Matt Chapman and Ruby Walsh discussed the handicapping changes on the latest episode of Paddy Power’s From The Horse’s Mouth podcast. While they both agreed the ratings in the UK had gone too far in recent years, Matt is unsure whether simply reducing the marks is the answer. 

Matt: “It’s a very difficult conversation to debate because it’s all down to opinion. I have no idea whether the Irish horses are just better and the English horses are worse or are the English horses badly handicapped compared to the Irish. To be quite frank, no one can ever answer that question because we’ll never know.

“There is a handicap system in place but at the moment the Irish horses seem better. Eventually, the changes that they make we’ll get some sort of idea whether they’re right or wrong when horses go into Graded level out of handicap company. If suddenly the British horses that are now going to be better off are now whipping the backsides of the Irish horses or vice versa in the Grade/Group 1 then we’ll have an idea.

“To be honest with you it seems a bit pathetic to get beat and lower ratings, and that’s your answer but it might be the right answer. It seems a real cop out to me just to lower the ratings and say we might have a chance.”

Ruby: “I don’t think it’s a cop out. Deflation in handicapping has to happen in order to keep the system in line. It has to happen. You saw it this week in Ireland, Garry O’Gorman deflated most of the horses in the Irish handicap system by 2lbs after watching Urban Beat and Frenetic winning as they couldn’t compete at Group or Listed level. In his eyes he had all his sprinters and horses up to a mile-and-a-quarter too high so he brought them all back down as he had a line to go on.

“The English National Hunt system needs to be deflated considerably. They’ve risen from when Kauto Star was in training with a rating of 191 and never come back down.

“You look at Stratford on Saturday there’s a horse running in the 1.55 called Presentandcounting. He has an official rating of 147 for winning at Stratford, Cartmel and Perth. He was second at Aintree in June behind Ruthless Article off a mark of 122. You mean to tell me for winning those races he’d line up and compete against Denman – the RSA winner in 2007 – when he ran in the Hennessy off 161. He wouldn’t get anywhere near it. It’s inflation.

“The inflation has kept going and all of a sudden you have horses like Presentandcounting, who could be a good horse, but to me how you can get to 147 winning ordinary races in the crux of the problem. He was a 115-rated hurdler and now he’s 147 over fences. It’s a penalty for winning every time when actually you shouldn’t been penalising the winners. More often than not it’s the horses that are beaten that should be coming down. It’s put the whole system out of kilter.”

Matt: “The ratings for some time now are absolutely ridiculous. We’re in the middle of a Flat season that everyone generally considers to be as good as they can remember. It’s really good but when you look at the highest-rated horse they’re not that highly rated at all. When you get a proper Flat horse like Frankel or Sea The Stars you’re looking at 130+. Well for most of this season the highest-rated horse has been 125. It shows you the complication of handicapping. Here we’re saying this is an amazing Flat season because we have a whole group of horses we’re excited about but the actual ratings aren’t that high. That’s a good thing.

“In the Jumps world it’s the opposite. I see some horses running around the summer rated 135/140 and if they’re running in 2m chases that means they’re 30lbs off the Champion Chase but you know if they were in the Champion Chase they’d be lapped after 4 fences. It’s a crazy system. I know there’s a ground differential but if they were running now on Good ground and the Champion Chase was on Good ground they’d still be lapped by 4 fences.

“The whole system needs changing but I’m still not convinced by just lowering them against the Irish horses, though. If all the Irish horses are lowered as well then fine because we can bring down the whole system. Just to say we’ve got beat up by the Irish so let’s be 5lbs better in with every horse and we might have a better chance… I’m not sure if that’s the answer.”

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