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Another race for the handicappers to assess and no doubt a number of restrictions to consider when doing so. (Picture credit: Michael Bega (The Citizen)).

The merit rating system was introduced in SA more than twenty years ago and, based on the amazing work of Dick Whitford during World War II, is aimed at rating an entire population in relation to each other according to racing merit.
 
Whitford, regarded as the father of modern handicapping, was the chief officer of a British patrol ship during the war and whiled away the long hours of inactivity by creating a single composite handicap of all the British runners of 1941.
 
He completed this laborious task only because of the fascination of continually discovering “groups of horses that meshed with each other with astonishing precision.”
 
His ratings were put to the test and worked out “exceptionally well”.
 
The crucial point though is that Whitford was able to rate each horse without any restriction.
 
The UK is admittedly the best place in the world to apply the merit rating system because low class and high class horses can be kept apart from the beginning of their careers.
 
In SA, handicappers initially had free rein to apply the merit rating system. 
 
However, it was then pointed out it was unfair to punish placed horses in conditions races. A lower rated horse might have run close to a good horse only because the latter was having a preparation run. There is also a tendency for these races to turn into a sprint for home.
 
The handicappers thus made the concession of a limited raise for the winner of a conditions race i.e. six points maximum, and no raise for any placed horse.
 
However, more concessions followed and they continue to pile up.
 
A recent example shows just how skewed the overall rating of the population has become as a result of all these restrictions and concessions.
 
The horse Unzen, in his second career start, comes out and wins the BSA Sales Cup over 1450m at Turffontein Inside beating an unraced maiden called Tyrconnell by half-a-length.
 
You obviously can’t rate a horse against an unraced maiden, so you have to look further down.
 
In third place beaten 4,25 lengths is 91 rated Raffles, in fourth place beaten 4,85 lengths is 105-rated Grade 1 Gold Medallion runner up Now I Got You and in fifth place beaten 7,10 lengths is 95-rated Mover And Shaker.
 
Interestingly, the 3-4-5 in this race finished 1-2-3 in the BSA Sales Cup in Durban over 1300m, except they were in the opposite order.
 
The form of the Durban race has thus stood up quite well.
 
The handicappers in choosing one of those three as a line horse would have arrived at a roundabout 115 rating for Unzen if using Now I Got You, roundabout 109 if using Mover And Shaker, and roundabout 99 if using Raffles.
 
They opted to rate Unzen 108.
 
Unzen subsequently runs unplaced in the Grade 3 Graham Beck Stakes, beaten 4,75 lengths.
 
But … oh no … there is a condition in this race that says the winner cannot be raised more than six points and the placed horses cannot be raised at all!
 
Winner Anfields Rocket went into the race having won a maiden and two handicaps. It should be born in mind that one of the “handicapping guidelines”, is that winners of handicaps can not be raised more than 8 points.
 
For his second handicap win Anfields Rocket was raised a maximum eight points to go to 96.
 
So the maximum Anfields Rocket can be given for winning the Grade 3 Graham Beck is 102, despite having beaten the ultra consistent 109 rated Royal Victory by 1,75 lengths.
 
The latter earned his 109 by being runner up to Cousin Casey in both a Grade 2 and a Grade 1 race. 
 
The previously unbeaten Shoemaker, who had won two Juvenile Plate races, also went into the Graham Beck rated 96.
 
However, because of the race conditions, he couldn’t be raised at all for his narrow second place finish.
 
So Unzen is now 108 whilst two horses who beat him fair and square, Anfields Rocket and Shoemaker, are on 102 and 96 respectively.
 
Little wonder the handicappers sent out a press release recently to firstly inform the public that they are subject to many restrictions when trying to achieve their goal of creating a single composite handicap of all of the South African runners and, secondly, to point out that as a result the “best weighted” column in the Computaform was often not a true reflection. 
 
It should be remembered that Whitford based his ratings on the three or four best runs out of seven, so a decent handicapper is unlikely to drop a horse after just one run. 
 
Unzen, the winner of a R400,000 event, beat Raffles again in the Graham Beck and had four horses rated more than 100 behind him, including Grade 1 winner Thunderstruck. 
 
If Anfields Rocket had been given his correct rating, which would be around 113, then Unzen would have run to roundabout 103, which is just five points lower than his best effort to date.
 
Nevertheless, the owner of Unzen has a right to feel aggrieved at being rated much higher than horses who beat him fair and square.
 
However, the question is where does the blame lie.
 
Rather than bash the handicappers, surely a campaign should be started to free them from all of these restrictions.
 
They are also obliged to use a line horse, which is apparently an obligation foreign to all other racing jurisdictions around the world.
 
Usually, handicappers are allowed to apply their own logical and experienced assessment of the  race overall, as opposed to an assessment based on the previous form of one or two horses within that race.
 
So the line horse obligation is a restriction in itself.
 
Furthermore, choosing one line horse over another can bring about a significantly different merit rated raise for relevant horses … that should be enough to show it up as a ridiculous system. 
 
In addition, why in SA are handicappers blamed almost universally for ruining the longevity of horses’ careers?
 
Sometimes owners and trainers will disagree with the handicappers’ assessment, but there is never a complaint when they run against a horse who  has been overrated.
 
The point here is that it is impossible for the entire population to be disadvantaged by handicapping that is perceived to be wrong. It stands to reason that if the handicapper rated one horse too highly, another horse is going to benefit from it.
 
This is a normal anomaly of handicapping.
 
British analysts talk about those horses who are still “ahead of the handicapper” and those whom “the handicapper has not yet caught up with”.
 
These anomalies allow astute punters to gain a possible edge when doing their own assessments.
 
Furthermore, surely it is the race programmers i.e. those who put on the show and decide which races are going to be run on which days, who are the ones  responsible for keeping the punters and the players happy.
 
The handicappers job is only to assess the merit of horses.
 
To use an analogy, it is the task of a boxing promoter to organise events that will attract crowds and which can benefit the careers of boxers.
 
It is not the task of the Rankings committee to ensure that the promoter puts on matches that will be of benefit to both boxers and which will attract the necessary interest.