Always upsetting someone: The unenviable life of a racing handicapper

“There’s one line in the rule book: the job is to give every horse an equal chance of winning. It’s not rocket science to understand that concept, it’s how you apply yourself to achieve that is the essence of the job.”
Always upsetting someone: The unenviable life of a racing handicapper

Handicapper Garry O’Gorman. Photo: HEALY RACING.
Handicapper Garry O’Gorman. Photo: HEALY RACING.

“There’s one line in the rule book: the job is to give every horse an equal chance of winning. It’s not rocket science to understand that concept, it’s how you apply yourself to achieve that is the essence of the job.”

That is Garry O’Gorman’s explanation of what he sets out to achieve on an almost daily basis as part of his role as senior flat handicapper in Ireland. With a host of other racing professionals, be they bookmakers, trainers, owners, jockeys or even punters, claiming to know best about ‘their’ horses, it’s oft seen as a poisoned chalice.

The role, no doubt, is a prestigious one, but taking it on and doing it fairly and to the satisfaction of all interested parties requires considerable skill, with a thick hide a significant advantage. O’Gorman, though always an avid racing fan, comes from a different background, and that, he believes has been an advantage.

“I’m a lawyer by training — I did a law degree in Trinity — and I was at the bar for seven years. I left the bar and joined the Turf Club in 1999.

“I suppose there is no real acknowledged background for handicapping, I was always mad about racing and loved the idea of working in racing but didn’t quite see the opportunity until the handicapper job was advertised. I was as cynical as the rest of us and thought ‘sure, somebody’s name is probably on it’.

“Funnily enough, I applied for the jumps vacancy a couple of years beforehand and didn’t get an interview, and then I applied for the flat job, which would be my preference, and got the job. I think fate may have been involved.

“Some people say it’s a horrible job. I think one of the reasons why I fit the role was that I hadn’t got a recent background in racing. I grew up near the Phoenix Park racecourse and was a bit of a racing anorak growing up, but I wasn’t an insider.

“You’re going to upset people in the job, you’re going to piss people off sooner or later. I think it’s more difficult if you were from the industry, if you were immersed in it, related to half of racing people, it might upset you more. I was, essentially, an outsider coming in and, in fairness to my predecessor Ciaran Kennelly, I think he was right in thinking that background might be an assistance.

“I enjoy the job. I enjoy the responsibility of it. There are a lot of trainers who have only handicappers in their yards and it’s crucial they get a fair crack of the whip.

“The biggest difficulty starting off was that there were two handicappers and one was retiring, and the other was going to Hong Kong, so, in the space of six months having been on the job, both handicappers were on the way out.

“I was really fortunate that the Turf Club’s then chief executive, Cahir O’Sullivan, had the foresight to bring in the retired English handicapper, legendary figure Geoffrey Gibbs, and he was happy to come and live in Ireland and nurture me in my apprenticeship.

“The job itself is quite seasonal. You’re racing about three or four times a week during the summer, and then doing a lot of work before and after the meeting. It’s the sort of job where it’s much easier in the winter months, when you’re not as busy and you’re doing projects and the end-of-season conferences.

“But it’s high pressure during the summer. Mark Bird and I are the flat handicappers and we work closely together. We have daily deadlines to meet but you’ve got a fair bit of flexibility working from home, once you meet those deadlines. It’s not your typical 9-5.”

Much depends on the handicappers’ fair assessment of horses, but there is often little to go on, and thus O’Gorman and his colleague must be open to change as form develops over time.

“There are races, like maidens, where you might have a limited amount of information to go on and you’re using that as best you can. You’re not going to be too dogmatic about your opinion at the time of the race.

“You might say you think this race reaches a certain level but, because of the lack of information, I’m going to really have to keep an eye on this and be prepared to change my mind later on, down the road, in relation to how the race works out.

“With handicaps, they’re running off handicap marks which you have assigned. You have to decide that if it was a really good handicap, you might raise the first three or four but if it was a poor handicap, you might just raise the winner. And then you have the obvious question of just how much a horse had in hand when winning, as the winning margin might not reflect that.

“The structures of handicaps are such, you try to drop horses where you can if they’re underachieving or not running to their mark.”

Given our current situation, the pattern committee has been working to ensure as much of the programme as possible will be fitted in to whatever length of season we can have in 2020. That’s good news for last year’s two-year-olds, who are this year’s classic generation.

Assessing last year’s youngest performers, O’Gorman assessed: “I think what was most noteworthy was how Aidan (O’Brien) had half a dozen colts finish second in European Group 1 2-y-o races and maybe another half a dozen that were third, but he didn’t hit the board with a Group 1-winning two-year-old colt.

“He had a lot of very good two-year-olds but they would have been below par last year compared to some other years. That isn’t to say they won’t come out and be successful as three-year-olds but as a starting point you wouldn’t be bullish with optimism that we’d see some true champions coming out this year. But we live in hope.”

The fillies were of a similar standard but there was one standout development, which O’Gorman described: “I think what was most striking was that Jessica Harrington really marked her ascension from being a part-time Flat trainer and somebody more associated with jump racing. She clearly had a high calibre of two-year-old last year, and they turned out to be an exceptional crop.

“When I spoke to her I said ‘you’re now in Aidan O’Brien territory, having so many good horses and not enough places to run them. This is the price of it, you might say, but you’re now at a different level, in a different zone’.”

That issue is, of course, exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis, which continues to keep the country in lockdown. Racing in Europe, particularly amongst the stronger nations — Ireland, Britain and France — is quite tightly linked, with the European pattern committee working to ensure individual schedules provide for the best possible overall programme.

With each country responsible for its own decisions with regard to how they deal with the pandemic and that having a knock-on effect to all that takes place within the country, moving ahead with the horse racing season is fraught with uncertainty.

“It’s quite tricky,” admitted O’Gorman. “There’s no textbook here on how to proceed. In France, what they’ve done is put back the trial races by three weeks and there will be a knock-on for their classics.

“It’s only the three-year-old classic generation that will warrant that sort of treatment because the pattern is very intricate. There’s a listed/group race for every type of horse over every type of distance pretty much every month, and the English, Irish and French races are aligned, and the pattern committee has to agree on everything being where it is.

“The key thing at this stage is to what extent will our horses be allowed to travel. At the moment, the French authorities are still banning horses coming in from abroad. It could change during the summer but how the pattern races will be rescheduled will, largely, be determined by that factor.

“The French Guineas is now due to be run in early June and, at the moment, the Irish Guineas is scheduled for the week beforehand. The English, if they come on stream, could be the week after the French.

“That’s typically how it might work, with a week between each of the Guineas, but if there’s a ban on horses travelling, there’s no issue in having them all on the same day. That indicates just how important it is to know if or when horses might be allowed to travel.

“Aidan O’Brien or Jessica Harrington, for example, don’t want to run five or six horses in the Irish Guineas because they can’t travel.

“They (European Pattern Committee) might have to amalgamate similar-type races down the line but, in the long term, there won’t be too many changes to the schedule.

“What I think might happen is that our season (of top races) will wrap up, as usual, on Champions Weekend, and there will be additional group/listed races put on in October and November, extending the season a little, obviously bearing in mind other factors.”

O'Gorman's dark horse to follow

“When we give a horse a rating, it is reflective of what they have achieved to date. In Timeform, it might have a big ‘P’ attached to the rating, but we don’t speculate as to what it could achieve, at least not in terms of a handicap rating.

“Every year you’d have two-year-olds who win races and are put away and so don’t run in the big races, but they win in a ‘could be anything’ fashion. Most of them don’t hit the mark, but you’d be asking yourself which of the could-be-anything horses could be the one?

“The one filly for me, from last year, that could be anything is Ridenza, trained by Michael Halford. She won a maiden nicely in Leopardstown and I think she had an injury afterwards. She’s back in training now and she’d be the one now that I’d throw out there as one that might just step up and make the grade.

She’s only won a maiden but it’s the manner in which she won it, and I suppose it’s 20 years of experience. It’s hard to describe an elephant, but you know one when you see one. Sometimes you have a bit of intuition which tells you this one could just make the grade.”

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