Should the Longines IJC be left to randomness?
Kudos for the Hong Kong Jockey Club being able to pull together an attractive LONGINES International Jockeys Championship (IJC) at Happy Valley next month in the midst of COVID19.
The format of the contest has taken on more of a Ryder Cup look, Hong Kong versus Europe and Great Britain, than the normal, wider spread of represented countries but, to state the obvious, these are not normal times.
The visiting side of Ryan Moore, Pierre-Charles Boudot, William Buick, Mickael Barzalona and the two young guns, doubling as a celebrity racing couple, Hollie Doyle and Tom Marquand, looks a great mix.
The increased prizemoney - on top of what was already higher than normal prizemoney for the four series races - looks a positive,too.
The trainer incentives? Hmmm. This has been tried In international races series before without making a dent but, on a domestic stage, could it convince some trainers to target the series legs with what they consider to be better than the run of the mill Class 4 and Class 3 horses?
We'll wait and see on that. In my experience, trainers tend to have the horse in mind when programming for them but, at the same time, that same experience says it would be foolish to underestimate the allure of more dollars in a trainer's own pocket.
But this blog isn't about any of that - it's more about the conceit of suggesting that all jockeys will somehow be afforded an equal(ish) chance of winning the series.
There have been times during the history of the series when a rider, often a visitor since there were more of them, sometimes a locally-based rider, has commenced the IJC with little apparent hope of taking the prize.
The 2014 example regularly wheeled out is North American star Irad Ortiz junior - seen here celebrating that one of his 4 rides was not 100-1.
Agreed, getting 3 out of 4 with little hope is unfortunate, but the real impetus for change seems to have come from complaints closer to home last year, when Karis Teetan won the IJC after drawing 4 rides all under 9-1.
That's what can happen in a random draw - random does not guarantee a mix. Genuinely random draws will also contain data series that seem too one way or the other.
Now the Jockey Club plans to intervene in the random process, to improve the "fairness" of rides at the 2020 IJC by having its in-house assessors "use their discretion to give preference to horses who have shown reasonable recent form. This will form the basis for a process in which each rider will be allocated four rides based on an estimated average of each horse’s chance."
So, while acknowledging the good intentions involved in the manipulation of ride allocations, I would also offer a reminder that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
The model which has been put forward is the World Super Jockey Series in Japan, where a similar allocation of rides takes place. It is by no means foolproof.
At the 2019 WSJ, Irishman Colm O'Donoghue did get one 2.3 favourite in his list, along with rides at 196-1, 73-1 and 31-1. As luck would have it, his best result came with the 31-1 shot.
US-based Julien Leparoux was slightly less fortunate, being allotted rides at 23-1, 37-1, 256-1 and 3.4-1. And in case it seems like there is a home town fix going on, Tomohiro Yoshimura had to work with his 4 mounts at 7-1, 72-1, 13-1 and 66-1, getting his best finish out of the 66-1 chance, who ran fourth.
And that is in Japan, where it is set weights racing, not handicaps, so the job of separating wheat from chaff should be more straight forward.
It might also be worth pointing out the IJC is run at Happy Valley, where barrier draws are important - a draw can be the difference between the same horse being 8-1 or 25-1 in the same race - and race shape even more important, and that tends to be somewhat randomly-generated as a race proceeds.
And then we come to the proposition - "reasonable recent form." On Wednesday night, for example, Strathclyde was bet down from just over 20-1 to win at a tick over 9-1, fifth favourite. His last 5 placings had been 10, 7, 11, 14 and 11, beaten a total of 53.25 lengths, and with one third placing from his last 12 starts over the previous year.
So what column was he going into, had the new allocation process been in place? Actually, that we know, because he was included in the "outsiders" category for the composite bet type, along with six other runners not regarded as serious chances.
Or maybe he would have been precluded from running? Champion jockey Zac Purton recently put forward a proposal that only horses which had finished in the first four at their last run be eligible for the IJC races. Well, that's fine, except that, over the past 10 years, it would have excluded 71 of the 121 place getters in the IJC legs and 24 of the 41 series leg winners, including some that started favourite.
On the table here, the very first leg winner, Something Special for Ryan Moore in 2010, had a market rank of one - i.e. favourite - after arriving at the races off an eighth, preceded by an eighth, a ninth and a third.
So what would be the criteria for deciding on good form, in order to include or exclude?
Note on this second table of the IJC results from 2014-2017, Joao Moreira ran second in Leg 1 on a horse with form of 6-6-10-9, which started 2.9 favourite.
There are many other instances of this, as there would be if we ran the rule across all racing in Hong Kong.
The drop handicap system often means that horses with poor form numbers have come down to a handicap where they are suddenly of interest.
Next example. Early this season, Wins All's first 5 starts read: 13-1 (fin 11th), 54-1 (11th), 96-1 (8th), 178-1 (12th) and 381-1 (14th) then drop to Class 5 and won, well-bet at just over 5-1.
When you look at these past IJC results, something that does occur to you is that longer-priced horses are over-represented.
And one of the reasons for that is that IJC races are not like other races at Happy Valley - although, with 6 Hong Kong-based riders this year, that might not be quite as obvious.
Quite frequently, the first 1650m leg winner of the night leads throughout and leaders are usually a little over-represented themselves.
Why? Because, while they are the same horses around the same track, the jockeys are not the same and the chemistry between the jockeys is totally foreign to a midweek meeting at the Valley.
It is far more...polite is probably the right term.
Horses which would never be afforded the luxuries of soft leads, or even getting in from a wide position, are given much more leeway by the visiting riders on this night.
Horses are also ridden very differently - many of the riders, unfamiliar with their mounts, act on feel and instinct so a noted backmarker that happens to jump well might suddenly find himself leading without much opposition.
These hidden aspects of an invitation jockey series make it tougher to analyse than regular Happy Valley races and the fact that it comes out differently to what's expected shows in the results.
On this table, the left shows the odds breakdown for the last 10 editions of the IJC, on the right the same breakdown for all races at Happy Valley in the same 10 seasons.
And what stands out is the under performance of the favourites, the horses the market rated 10-1 (11.0) or less.
Filling just over 72 % of the placings in Happy Valley races generally, they managed less than 65 % in IJC races, where the group from 10-1 to 20-1 is the big gainer. The fringe chances benefitting from a more polite, less competitive environment.
And under the winners, we see those fringe chances do no worse but outsiders do better.
When we talk about the allocation of someone's view of good and bad form, with the randomness reduced, is all of other random stuff taken out too?
Of course not.
There's a danger of straying into Jeff Goldblum's character in Jurassic Park, Dr Ian Malcolm, warning about humans trying to organise the universe and lecturing that "racing will find a way".
There were other options the Jockey Club might have tried to level the playing field while keeping it random but "trust us, we know the winners" was the path chosen.
Hopefully, it works out but, regardless, the IJC is always a great event on the Hong Kong racing calendar and December 9 should not be any different (COVID19 notwithstanding).