Best not meeting the best under current feature race selection rules


By Denis Ryan – Editor – The Informant


John Galvin with his champion two-year-old Melody Belle. 

One of the most discussed issues in racing, especially around this time of year, is the set of rules that govern the starting order in major races.

Amongst those in the frontline of that debate right now is John Galvin, the director of authorised syndicator Fortuna whose horse Chance To Dance was balloted out of Saturday’s Gr. 1 Windsor Park Plate at Hastings.

As an option to kick off his season, the Irish-bred gelding started in – and won – the Listed Haunui Farm Karaka Classic at Pukekohe a day after his stablemate Gingernuts had notched his third Group One win in the Hastings feature.

“I firmly believe that Group racing should be all about the best meeting the best; I imagine it would be hard to get any participant in the racing industry to disagree with that,” says Galvin.

“There may, however, be some who would argue for an exception or two from that general principle. That may well be why, when the NZTR Handicapping Review Committee met in late 2015 to consider rule changes and amendments for Group racing, changes were made that effectively provide advantage to horses on lower ratings over horses on higher ratings in non-handicap Group weight-for-age and set weight and penalty races.”

As Galvin points out, the rules are rather complex, but essentially any horse that has won or placed in a Group One or Two race or won a Group Three or Listed race in the 18 months prior to a Group race they have been nominated for will rank ahead of horses that may be on a higher handicap rating but have not won or placed in black type races as outlined.

For example, a horse with a handicap rating of 90 that has won a Listed race would rank ahead of a horse with a rating of 100 if that horse had not placed at Group One or Two or won a Group Three or Listed race in the previous 18 months.

“You would think that the Handicapping Review Committee would have good reason to make these changes, given that they do push against the basic principle of the best against the best,” says Galvin. “From what I can gather, however, the Committee was swayed by the argument that up and coming four-year-olds who had won Group or Listed Races as three-year-olds would be kept out of some Group races (particularly in the spring) by older horses who had historically high handicap ratings.

“We have to consider that if one group of horses is being favoured over another group in order to achieve a certain outcome, that is unfair on the group who are pushed out.”

“I am not privy to the actual issues considered by the Committee but perhaps they were swayed by arguments that these four-year-olds may choose to race In Australia if they could not make the fields for Group races here, or that their connections may choose to sell to overseas owners, again because they could not get a start in these nice races.

“These arguments do have merit, but we have to consider that if one group of horses is being favoured over another group in order to achieve a certain outcome, firstly that is unfair on the group who are pushed out and, secondly, there may also be unintended consequences.”

Galvin backs his argument by citing the impact of these rules on the Windsor Park Plate. In all 19 horses made the final withdrawal deadline, 14 to start and five on the ballot. The lowest rated horse among the 14 that made the cut had a handicap rating of 90. The two horses ranked 17th and 18th, Chance to Dance and Amarula, had ratings of 101 and 100 respectively.

The 15th and 16th ranked horses, Rock On and Charles Road, had handicap ratings of 85 and 81 respectively, which was significantly below the two horses immediately behind them in order of entry.

The field of 14 contained just two four-year-olds, Gingernuts (rating 105) and Volpe Veloce (94). The rules set by the Handicapping Review Committee were not needed for Gingernuts, whose rating was the third highest, whereas Volpe Veloce was clearly advantaged by the rules.

“Let me hasten to add that these observations are not intended to take aim at any horse or their connections,” said Galvin. “There were two other top four-year-olds, Bonneval and Jon Snow, who would not have had any trouble making the field, but the connections of both had option to pursue their opportunities in Australia instead.

“The point here being is that if these rule changes were designed to make it easier for promising four-year-olds to participate in New Zealand Group racing, but with the exception of Volpe Veloce, there were actually no others that made the final 14.”

Galvin takes his argument further by referring to the “unintended consequences” of the selection criteria

“Of the six starters with handicap ratings lower than Chance to Dance and Amarula, their ratings ranged from 99 down to 90, yet only one was a four-year-old and only one finished in the first six. The first six finishers had ratings ranging from 108 to 99.

“Imagine the reactions of the connections of both Chance to Dance and Amarula, horses with ratings of 101 and 100 respectively. You would certainly think that they would have good reason to feel aggrieved and again I come back the basic principle of ‘best to meet the best.

“As the racing manager of Chance to Dance, I have had great difficulty in trying to explain the reason for these rules to my large group of owners.”

Galvin further states that the scenario around the third and final Group One race of the Hawke’s Bay carnival, the Livamol Classic, paints a similar picture.

“As the Livamol field stands at the moment, the same two horses, Chance to Dance and Amarula are ranked 23rd and 24th on order of entry and I calculate that 13 horses ranked above them are lower rated and only one of those, Charles Road, is a four-year-old.

“Again, I ask if this is fair. I am sure that there will be withdrawals from the field during this coming week, but the point is that these rules seem to be patently wrong and should be reviewed.

“Last Friday I received an email referred to as the NZTR CEO Update, which included the following comments from CEO Bernard Saundry:

A focus on ownership will be one of NZTR’s priorities over the next 18 months.

Owner participation is the bedrock of our sport. Without owners, there can be no racing.

In the 2017-18 season we will begin a dedicated programme of work, designed to break down the barriers to horse ownership and improve the ownership experience.”

“Exactly Bernard,” responds Galvin, “but let me make my position clear. I am not a breeder, I am not an administrator, but I do represent over 600 people in our various syndications who are “Owners.”

“What I want for these owners is a system of entry into Group races that is fair, transparent and does not seek to advance a certain category of horse up the queue. We should be adopting the basic principle of “the best meeting the best” and applying that principle without fear or favour.”