Written by BHA Chief Operating Officer Richard Wayman
Attracting the best horses from around the world to run in Britain is – and always will be – one of our sport’s most important objectives. Seeing the likes of Nature Strip, Kyprios, Vadeni and Torquator Tasso in action on our racecourses over the past month, as well as horses such as Honeysuckle and A Plus Tard over the winter, provided an extra element of international competition that made what were already fantastic races even more compelling.
International competitors are generally welcomed across our sport and not just in Group and Grade 1 events, while the special relationship with our friends from Ireland is integral to the exciting competition we see at our major festivals and many other meetings every year.
In September 2020, however, we took the decision that overseas-trained runners should not be permitted to run in our lowest grades of rating-related races; namely, Class 5 and 6 handicaps and classified stakes on the Flat, and Class 5 handicaps over Jumps.
That was a far from straightforward decision as we are acutely aware of the wider challenges over race competitiveness we currently face and the associated implications for the racing’s appeal to racegoers, bettors and other fans of the sport.
Nevertheless, there were three key reasons why the industry’s Racing Group, comprising representatives from across the sport, considered this to be the appropriate step to take.
Field Sizes in Low Grade Handicaps Firstly, our lower class handicaps generally already provide competitive fields. Whilst we would acknowledge that there are times of the year – particularly the summer – when field sizes at all levels are under pressure, Class 5 and 6 handicaps consistently deliver higher average field sizes and lower failure rates (i.e. races with five or fewer runners) than the rest of the race programme:
Field Sizes and Failure Rates (July 2021 – June 2022)
Average Field Size Failure rates % Class 5 & 6 Flat Handicaps 9.47 6.8% All Flat races 8.90 12.9% Average Field Size Failure rates % Class 5 Handicap Hurdles 10.61 1.7% All Hurdle races 8.47 18.1% Average Field Size Failure rates % Class 5 Handicap Chases 8.43 11.2% All Chase races 6.84 39.0% So, whilst low field sizes are undoubtedly a serious challenge for the sport in Britain, on the whole lower grade handicaps deliver competitive racing on a consistent basis.
Eliminations of lower rated horses Secondly, whilst the number of horses in training is showing signs of decline, the population of lower rated horses in training has grown in recent years.
We now publish a monthly horse population report, which can be viewed on our website: British Horseracing Authority | Racing statistics and data. In June 2022, total horse numbers are 2.8% below where they were in June 2021, and 3.0% below their pre-pandemic levels in June 2019.
The report also shows, however, that lower rated horse numbers have grown and they now make up a larger share of the horse population than in the past. For example, in June 2022, 2,773 (or 26.6%) of Flat horses in training were rated 70 or below. In June 2015, the same group of horses totalled 2,214 and made up only 21.8% of Flat population.
One of the results of this growth in lower rated horses has been that at particular times of the year, it can be difficult for them to find a race to run in. The table below shows the levels of eliminations suffered over a recent 12-month period and, more specifically, that 58% of those eliminations occurred in low grade handicaps.
Eliminations (July 2021 – June 2022)
Total Eliminations Eliminations in races in which no overseas runners are permitted 2,616 Eliminations in all races 4,535 Allowing overseas trained horses into low grade handicaps would only exacerbate the challenge for domestically trained runners to get a run somewhere, particularly in the spring and autumn when this problem is at its greatest.
Handicapping Thirdly and finally, it is a key aim of our handicapping team to ensure that all horses are treated even-handedly so that we can achieve a fair outcome for horses racing in British handicaps. Our handicappers constantly monitor data to ensure that by consistently applying our standard handicapping policies and practices, we deliver equitable outcomes that don’t favour any particular group of horses.
Impact values are statistically derived figures that allow us to assess whether a specific factor sees horses winning handicaps more or less often than expected. An impact value of 1.00 means that horses have won no more or no less than their fair share of the races. Below 1.00 means they are performing below expectation, above 1.00 means they are performing above expectation.
Our analysis of handicap results dating back to 2012 shows that in lower grade handicaps, despite the efforts of our handicappers to treat all horses fairly, overseas trained runners consistently performed above statistical expectations when they were permitted to run in them:
Overseas trained runners in British handicaps – Win Impact Values (2012-21)
Flat Rating Band Win IV Jump Rating Band Hurdle Win IV Chase Win IV 0-50 1.21 0-100 1.4 1.1 51-55 1.9 101-105 1.08 0.78 56-60 1.45 106-110 1.52 1.39 61-65 1.95 111-115 1.54 1.49 66-70 2.04 116-120 0.84 1.03 71-75 1.07 121-125 1.12 0.68 76-80 1.3 126-130 1.33 1.03 81-85 0.64 131-135 1.13 0.78 86-90 1.44 136-140 1.07 1.1 91-95 0.72 141-145 1.43 1.41 96-100 1.43 146-150 1.63 1.34 101+ 2.73 151+ 1.98 0.42 Given the cost of bringing a horse from abroad to Britain, it would be reasonable to expect higher win impact values than the standard 1.00. However, the impact values for horses rated up to 70 on the Flat and, to a slightly less extent, up to 115 over Jumps illustrate that in lower grade handicaps, overseas trained runners significantly outperform domestically trained horses. It is also worth adding that the historical sample sizes are at their largest at these lower levels, thereby increasing the reliability of the data and its message.
The Racing Group has reviewed this policy on two occasions since it was introduced – in May 2021 and again in February 2022. Britain welcomes international competition and, indeed, attracting high quality horses from across the world to run in our better races remains a key aim for all within the sport.
For the reasons outlined above, however, the case for encouraging moderate horses from overseas to run in Britain was considered to be far less compelling. Indeed, it is reasonable to question whether providing a handicap programme for lowly rated overseas trained horses delivers a significant net benefit that does anything to support the future of our sport.
As such, unless our circumstances change in the years to come, we’ve no plans to ask the Racing Group to revisit this matter yet again.