Written by Rob Waterhouse
The time-honoured weight-for-age (WFA) Scale fascinates form students and provokes much discussion, research and argument.
An illustration of this is the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) paper to justify where they have modified their scale recently.
Also, Australian handicappers take a very different view and use a very trimmed scale, which I say is at great cost to our staying races. But I concede some small changes to the classic scale are appropriate.
It is important to understand the WFA scale’s evolution and history.
The history of the WFA Scale
Weight-for-age scales have always been part of English racing.
Weight-for-age principles had been long in use before the 1740 Act of Parliament, which set in stone a weight-for-age scale for Royal Plates. Racing men of that era were acutely aware of the difference between different age groups. There was a famous match race in the 18th century at Newmarket where the two-year-old received 98lbs (44.5kg) from an older horse. The baby, unsurprisingly, won!
The Craven Stakes (first run in 1773) was run at weight-for-age till the 1870s (when it became a three-year-old colt race). In the early weight-for-age scales for individual races, two-year-olds are often shown as to carry “a feather”, i.e. “catch weights” - light as you can!
The first race meeting in Sydney, in 1810 at Hyde Park, races were run at a WFA. It is fair to say that Admiral Rous published the first scale which had a monthly changing table as such, but racing programs pre-Rous gave weights for up-coming races that were similar in pattern to the Rous scale, i.e., cognizant of age, time of year and distance.
Purpose of a WFA scale
There are three primary purposes of a wfa scale:
· As a handicapping aid for handicappers
· To help measure the relative merits of horses in different age groups and different years
· To anticipate likely improvements of horses
It should also be said clearly: there is a strong ‘public policy’ argument that young horses be favoured. That is: three-year-olds should win a much larger proportion of races than their representation would suggest.
WFA scales’ strengths and weaknesses
The weight-for-age scale is “beautiful thing” and accurate in assessing the change over the season of actual open class races themselves but not so precise for individual horses themselves. The class of Group races, of different age groups at different times, closely reflects the weight-for-age scale.
Contrary to common perception, they are however, less helpful in assessing the amount of improvement young horses will make. On average, horses only make about half the improvement the WFA scale anticipates, consequently it is not open to say, as in the BHA document, that the weight-for-age scale “is based on a theory of how the average horse develops”.
"The weight-for-age scale is beautiful thing." - Rob Waterhouse
Sadly, WFA scales do a poor job with lower class racing. They are terrible with, for example, Australian maidens – I know (counterintuitively) there is, in fact, little difference ratings wise, where the prizemoney and venue is the same, between two-year-old, three-year-old and older maiden races at any time of the year, over any distance, in Australia.
The temptation to meddle with the WFA scale
Unfortunately, there have been and will be always moves to meddle with the WFA scale.
The BHA decided to alter the UK scale because they could show three-year-olds won a disproportionate number of staying handicaps. But I think it was a mistake to alter it. It is, in fact, great for racing that fresh three-year-olds have their “day in the sun.” The UK changes reduce the weight difference between two and three-year-olds over 10f or more, by up to three pounds.
Official handicappers in Australia allow younger horses a very miserly allowance in staying races with unfortunate consequences. In NSW, for three-year-olds, in races 1800m or longer, on a sliding scale, between 3.5kg and 1kg is allowed. UK handicappers allow, over 16f in January 13.5kg. A big difference!
"It is, in fact, great for racing that fresh three-year-olds have their “day in the sun.” - Rob Waterhouse
Inadvertently, because of the parsimonious Australian allowances, great harm is done to our staying ranks, as three-year-olds are not aimed at a staying career early in their careers, unlike yesteryear.
There are ways of auditing the WFA scale
Weight ratings (excluding the weight-for-age bonus) must reconcile with time ratings. From that, the weight-for-age scale can be tested. Also, in a season, all ratings form a “normal curve” graph and should produce very similar graphs to other years. And of course, a study of ‘group one’ weight-for-age racing results is appropriate, see below.
I recently did a study of all Group 1 weight-for-age races in Australia since 1991 (when anabolics ceased having their effect here). The sample size was over 5,000 runners. (The Australian scale is slightly different to the English one).
Were I asked my advice on the Australian weight-for-age scale, in light of the above study, I’d suggest:
· two-year-olds need a bigger concession
· While the strike rate is good, more three-year-olds should be encouraged to participate and a bigger concession.
· 4yos need a touch more relief against the old, proven warriors
In this study, mares did better than entires and geldings strike rate-wise, but were under represented. Less than 20% of runners were female. Were I in charge, I would increase the female allowance slightly, but take away a pound or half kilo with every group 1 weight-for-age win, avoiding the domination of Black Caviar and Winx. Therefore, top mares were not being patronised by being allowed to run on their merits against the boys.