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Merit Rating is a handicap 

David Thiselton Gold Circle

October 2013
Gold Circle - Racing and BettingAspects of the Merit Rating Handicapping System are causing increasing unhappiness among trainers who are left having to explain to owners why a progressive above average horse suddenly finds itself battling to win another race. The handicappers are facing a headache on how to alleviate the issue. In the old days of the Race Figure system, whereby horses simply earned a handicap mark according to the number of races they had won, trainers were able to take horses through the divisions. 
The major bone of contention with the Merit Rating System is that it usually punishes early three-year-olds with a high handicap (merit rating) figure after just one maiden win. The majority of early three-year-old maiden winners are then finding it tough to progress as handicappers. 
The anomaly is that whereas in the old Race Figure days a horse would spend the first dozen or so runs of its career proving how good it was, under today’s system certain horses are wasting these runs in order to prove to the handicapper that they are not as good as he has rated them. 
Another catch-22 situation is also that if these horses come close to winning a handicap they will remain high in the merit ratings. 
The reason why early three-year-old maiden winners are being given high merit ratings is partly because they have an assumed improvement factor built into their rating. Improvement in horses is based on a Weight For Age (WFA) system that was devised by the British Jockey Club handicapper, Admiral Rous, in 1855 and it has stood the test of time. 
In a WFA 1600m race taking place in October, for example, a three-year-old will receive 9kg from a horse that is five years and older, while four-year-olds will receive 1kg. However, in Maiden Plates in October over 1600m, three-year-olds only receive 2kg from four-year-olds and five-year-olds, instead of 8kg and 9kg respectively. Assuming a four-year-old is rated 70, this would mean that a three-year-old would have to run to a rating of 86 over 1600m in October to beat it (one merit rated point equates to 0,5kg).Four-year-olds, by the same measure, would not have to run to a high merit rating to win the race. 
In South Africa the merit ratings allotted after a race are based on a “line horse”, or a horse that is perceived to have run to its previous rating. This horse is usually one of the placed horses and as all maidens, good and bad, race against each other in the major centres in South Africa, the line horse is bound to have a reasonably good merit rating. 
In England, on the other hand, trainers can assess how good their horse is and choose an appropriate centre in which to run it. 
Very few horses in England run in maidens after achieving a handicap mark (after three runs) and instead embark upon a handicapping career with the Brighton type horses starting off on a low mark and entering lowly handicaps. 
South African trainers have not followed suit in this regard and 99% of maiden horses run in maiden plates. 
One solution to this perceived punishment of the good early three-year-old would be to change all Maiden Plates into Weight For Age races. Three-year-olds would then not have to run to a high merit rating to win them and would have room for progression in the handicaps. 
Four-year-old maidens would then find it tough, but special maidens for older horses could be introduced. Another solution is that the “line horse” policy be scrapped in favour of assessing the race in its entirety, for choosing a line horse is a matter of subjection in itself, while the line horse itself might not have had the time to reach its true level and could be overrated at the time.