IN response to Larry Nestadt’s open letter to Gold Circle’s Graeme Hakwins about the selection of the 2o13 Vodacom Durban July field, Hawkins asks for good sportsmanship to prevail and personal attacks to be left aside.
Before responding to the specific contents of your e-mail, headed “Open Letter to Graeme Hawkins from a Past Chairman of the National Horseracing Authority” and dated 27 June, I would like to start off by saying that we would possibly not be having this exchange of correspondence if the Handicappers had in the first instance rated the result of the SA Derby correctly.
When assessing the SA Derby result, the Handicappers took the somewhat unusual step of using the 8th placed horse, Tequila Sunrise, as the line horse and, as a consequence the winner, Wylie Hall, was rated – as a Grade 1 winner of the SA Derby – a lowly 98 with runner-up Gothic on 97 and third-placed Wild One on 95.
The SA Derby is to South Africa what the Investec Derby is to England and, as an owner yourself of a recent SA Derby winner, you will concede that this initial rating of the race did not make much sense particularly when you consider that Yorker, who also raced on Derby day in the opening event, had won a maiden and two divisional handicaps and was rated 102, four pounds superior to the Derby winner??
Upon learning of the way in which the Handicappers had initially rated the SA Derby, I immediately recognized that we at Gold Circle would have a problem as far as the log for the Vodacom Durban July (VDJ) was concerned. Winning and placed graduates of the SA Derby have performed extremely well in the VDJ in recent years and I, for one (but I am not alone), could not simply accept the Handicappers’ assessment of the race on this occasion.
I challenged the Handicappers just days after the race but at that time they were satisfied they had got it right and that Tequila Sunrise, who appears not even to have been fully ridden out in the closing stages, was the correct line horse. In any event, there is no process of review (other than an official objection by a trainer or owner) and we were thus bound by the ratings given to Wylie Hall, Gothic and Wild One respectively
Given that Tellina and War Horse, who ran fourth and fifth respectively in the SA Derby, pretty much confirmed their Gauteng Guineas and SA Classic form relative one to the other, I am of the firm view that Tellina (and not Tequila Sunrise) was the logical line horse for the Handicappers to have used. On that basis Wylie Hall would have emerged as the Derby winner on a rating of 108, with Gothic and Wild One on 107 and 105 respectively.
Interestingly, Wylie Hall subsequently ran to a 107 when finishing a close fourth in the Daily News 2000, strongly suggesting that Tellina may have been the correct line horse to use.
By using Tequila Sunrise as the line horse the Handicappers were in fact expressing the view that both Tellina and War Horse ran as much as ten pounds below their SA Classic form and I was forced to question the validity of that assumption.
Internationally, we in South Africa stand accused of rating our top horses too low and we are presently under pressure from the Asian Racing Federation to get our ratings in line. If we are not going to rate our Classic Grade 1 races appropriately then we will never measure up to internationally accepted standards.
You will have noticed I have used words such as “initially” and “at that time” when referring to the manner in which the Handicappers rated the SA Derby. The use of these words is obviously deliberate, as the Handicappers have, “with the benefit of hindsight”, conceded that they got it wrong first time round and have now re-rated the race.
In re-rating the race they have still not used Tellina as the line horse but rather War Horse and as a consequence they have raised Gothic’s race rating to 103 and Wild One’s rating to 101.
In a television panel discussion following the gallops on Thursday morning, senior handicapper Matthew Lips made a point of mentioning that “with the benefit of hindsight” they had got the SA Derby ratings wrong and that punters should not make the mistake of assessing Gothic and Wild One’s chances in the VDJ off their current published ratings of 97 and 95 respectively, “as these no longer reflect the Handicappers’ thinking.”
All of that being said, the first VDJ Log to appear following the running of the SA Derby was published on Tuesday 30 April and all of Wylie Hall, Gothic and Wild One appeared in the top 20, despite their low ratings at that time. It was already clear at that stage that the panel valued the result of the SA Derby more highly than the initial ratings suggested.
In discussion with Jet Belle’s owner, Colin Bird, I did express the view that I also believed the handicappers got it wrong, albeit perhaps not as seriously, in the Woolavington. Clearly, Cherry On The Top ran well below her Triple Tiara form while Blueridge Mountain was untried and untested over the distance and, on that basis, the logical line horse for me was in fact the winner, Do You Remember.
Had the handicappers chosen this route, the ratings of Do You Remember and Jet Belle would have remained unchanged at 101 and 100 respectively. Instead, the handicappers chose to use fifth-placed runner Jet Supreme as the line horse (notwithstanding that she made a complete mess of the start) and as a consequence both Do You Remember and Jet Belle were raised by five points to 106 and 105 respectively!
This suggests that Do You Remember and Jet Belle both improved on their established and exposed Triple Tiara form by more than three lengths in the Woolavington. Personally, this does not seem a realistic outcome/assessment.
You may well question my right to an opinion/influence on these matters. Firstly, I would be failing in my role as Racing Executive of Gold Circle if I did not monitor, question and, when necessary, challenge the Handicappers, as their decisions and interpretations have a direct impact on our racing business and our racing programme.
Secondly, but just as importantly, the NHA Board, under your Chairmanship, requested me to make myself available to adjudicate handicapping appeals as and when these were lodged. I have sat in judgement of many of these appeals and from time to time have supported both the appellants and the Handicappers, but always depending on the merits of each case.
I can only presume that the invitation to be a part of the handicapping appeal panel was extended to me by the Board as a vote of confidence in a) my knowledge and understanding of the handicapping system; b) my impartiality and c) my integrity.
Interestingly, you have never ever previously expressed any discomfort with my participation in handicapping affairs and I must therefore conclude that your very personal tirade against me is now driven by vested interest.
Whether you are in agreement with me or not, it should be obvious from the above that decisions made by the handicappers can have far reaching implications, locally and internationally, and go way beyond just the framing of the weights.
Now, with specific reference to your letter, I offer the following by way of response to each of your paragraphs.
With reference to Para 1:-
Whilst I may have strong views and am seldom afraid to voice them (in that respect I am a typical Leo), I certainly did not choose the final field for the VDJ “single-handedly”. The final field was chosen by a panel which included representatives from Gold Circle together with the Handicappers and the final deliberations took place at the NHA offices at Greyville racecourse.
In summary, the following resulted from these deliberations and a separate media release, on behalf of the Panel, has today been issued by Gold Circle (Pty) Ltd to this effect:-
“Of the 32 acceptors, the following 16 horses were “unanimously” selected:-
Pomodoro; Heavy Metal; Hill Fifty Four; Seal; Jet Explorer; Tribal Dance; Shogunnar; Whiteline Fever; E-Jet; Astro News; Cape Town Noir; Wylie Hall; No Worries; Love Struck; Gothic and Do You Remember.
Of the 32 acceptors, the following 6 horses were “unanimously” eliminated:-
Master Plan; Bravura; Zambucca; River Crossing; Penhaligon and Abercrombie.
That left four places to be filled from amongst the following horses:-
Wagner; Run For It; Punta Arenas; Wild One; Jet Belle; Tellina; Rock Cocktail; Gold Onyx; Ice Machine and Bulsara.
For the panel, this was quite obviously the most difficult part of the exercise but following a lengthy and detailed analysis of the various contenders, the Panel agreed that the next three to be selected would be Wagner, Run For It and Punta Arenas.
That then left ONE placing to be filled from amongst Wild One; Jet Belle; Tellina; Rock Cocktail; Gold Onyx; Ice Machine and Bulsara and the Panel came to the unanimous conclusion that the final slot became a toss-up between Wild One and Jet Belle.
On revised ratings there was very little to choose between Wild One’s third in the SA Derby and Jet Belle’s third in the SA Oaks but we all agreed that the Derby form might hold up the better and thus included Wild One as the final choice at the expense of Jet Belle. It is conceded that this was a close call and clearly a subjective view but one that was shared by all members of the Panel.
Tellina was excluded as, in the opinion of the Panel, he was well held on both the form of the SA Derby and the Daily News 2000.
Rock Cocktail was excluded as he has yet to win a Stakes race and has yet to be Grade 1 placed, his sole Graded Stakes performance being 2nd in a Grade 2.
Rock Cocktail’s head to head form with Wild One is 1-1. Wild One beat him convincingly in the Derby Trial, following which Rock Cocktail finished ahead of Wild One in the Daily News 2000. However, the panel took note of the fact that Wild One was finishing very strongly after not enjoying the run of the race and ultimately Wild One has a Grade 1 placing to his credit as opposed to Rock Cocktail’s Grade 2 placing.
Gold Onyx and Bulsara were excluded as the Panel believed that, although they obviously had some grounds for inclusion on current form, they both have had their chances and it has been some time since their last win. Although rated 109, the panel excluded Ice Machine on the grounds that he had yet to prove his effectiveness and ability to run to that rating over further than 1600 metres.”
Larry, I am at a loss to understand just how the process outlined above, which included the views of the Handicappers, “has degraded the reputation of our Premier horse race to its lowest level in its illustrious history”.
With reference to Para 2:-
I believe all of the aforesaid deals in some detail with the concerns raised in Para 2. I remain at a loss to understand:-
How we/I have “overridden the principles of Grade 1 racing” by excluding your horse Rock Cocktail whose sole Graded Stakes form is a single Grade 2 placing or, put differently, how would we/I have upheld the principles of Grade 1 racing by including Rock Cocktail in the final field at the expense of another?
With reference to Para 3:-
I do not “ignore the advice of the professional Handicappers” but, as explained earlier, I do reserve the right to challenge and question their decisions from time to time, just as many other stakeholders do as well. In any case, I have made it clear that the final field was chosen in consultation with the Handicappers but whether “they (the Handicappers) should have the final say in the selection of the field” is a matter of opinion which I respect, but with which Gold Circle does not necessarily agree.
For many years now, and long before my arrival at Gold Circle, it has been an express condition of entry that the Company reserves the right to decide the final field for the VDJ. The VDJ is after all a Gold Circle racing event and the Company pays the prize money and sets the conditions.
With reference to Para 4:-
Of all the points raised by yourself, this is the paragraph I took most exception to.
You allege that I “clearly favour certain trainers and prejudice the racing public, sponsors and Gold Circle by allowing this to continue”.
You do not substantiate this very serious allegation with any fact or with any reference as to whom it is that I am allegedly favouring. Whatever failings I may have, I would never prejudice my integrity by doing anything I did not believe was morally right.
Those who know me intimately also know that this uncompromising personal position has in fact cost me dearly, if you wish to measure these things in a mercenary/monetary fashion – but that’s another story for another day!
Let me state this very clearly and unambiguously. Over many years, including my time at Phumelela, I have been integrally involved with the selection of final fields for major races (and for that matter also in the selection of yearlings for the National Yearling Sale etc) and my only consideration has always been the merits of the horse.
In my book, no owner, no matter how wealthy or powerful he/she may be inside or outside of horse racing, or how important they may think they are, has any automatic advantage over any other owner and, equally, no trainer, no matter how successful he/she may be, enjoys any automatic privilege or right of entry/acceptance based purely on the merits of their own performance or ability.
I have always made sure, as best I can, that it is the respective merits of the horses that holds sway. I am also mandated by the Handicappers to inform you that, in this regard, they feel exactly the same way as I do.
While trainers may believe me to have other faults or failings, I honestly do not believe there is a single trainer in this country who holds the view that I am prejudiced in the manner that you have described and I find your sweeping unsubstantiated allegation in this regard most offensive, untrue and unfortunate.
With reference to Para 5:-
You feel…. “it is incumbent upon you to challenge the Grade 1 status of the (Vodacom) Durban July” and to challenge “the current demeaning of the race to Carnival status”.
For me, performances in Grade 1 races are the single most important criteria in assessing the credentials of horses. My point of departure when assessing the relevant merits of horses is always an assumption that trainers have their horses, in terms of readiness and fitness, at their very best for the major Grade 1 races on the major racedays.
Very often horses will “confuse” the form book by beating each other regularly in “prep” or “lead-up” races, mostly because they are at varying stages of preparedness. But in the major races, be they the two year old classics; the three year old classics; or the more important open Grade 1 races, we have to assume that all horses have been produced at their very best on these occasions.
Given this philosophy, and the fact that this year’s final VDJ field includes 8 Individual Grade 1 winners and, in addition, 10 individual Grade 1-placed horses, I cannot fathom how you can justify the remarks you make in this paragraph.
As shown above, the 2013 VDJ boasts an array of Grade 1 performers (18 in total and all, bar one, have achieved their Grade 1 wins/placings in the current season) and this number would have been even more impressive but for the scratchings, beyond the Company’s control, of Jackson, Thunder Dance, Vercingetorix, Cherry On The Top etc.
As a past Chairman of the NHA, if you do not believe in the integrity of South Africa’s Grade 1 racing programme, as I do, then I suggest that is a matter you take up with the current Board of the NHA and its Graded Race Sub-Committee.
In closing may I add the following. “Difference of opinion” is integral to the wonderful sport of horseracing and, thankfully, exists at every level and in every facet of the game. Thank goodness for this. Otherwise we would all chase the same yearlings, have the same trainer, back the same horse etc.
It can be argued that “difference of opinion” is the very foundation of the sport of horseracing; its what drives our passion for the sport and it often leads to spirited debate around a whole host of issues and possible outcomes – both past and present.
Robust debate is good for the sport of horseracing – personal attacks are not necessary.
If we truly aim to reposition horseracing as a sport, rather than a “business”, then let’s strive to improve our level of sportsmanship which at the present time is almost non-existent.
Racing and Marketing Executive, Gold Circle (Pty) Ltd
(And a madly passionate supporter of the sport of Horseracing)