An Interview with Nigel Gray - Senior Handicapper

by Sue Wingate

The Rise to the Top

Nigel Gray is on the selection committee for the Dubai World Cup... Silver Chanm Winner in '98. Photo: Julie Anderson.
It is always fascinating to discover in people the point when they identify their true purpose in life and the fact that it can so often begin to manifest at a surprisingly early age... nevertheless it must surely be extremely unusual for a schoolboy to have an ambition to become a Senior Handicapper?

Nigel Gray did, and that he has already risen to that elevated and most responsible position is surely testament to his determination and single-mindedness.

So what was it about this, the analytical side of racing, that had so much appeal for him - and at so early an age? Apparently, at first it had none at all! Having a natural enthusiasm for most sports as a teenager, Nigel Gray used to watch ‘Grandstand’ every weekend - and usually avoided the slots devoted to racing until he eventually concluded that since so many obviously ‘intelligent’ people were involved with it, horse racing must have a deeper appeal... having a naturally inquisitive mind he resolved to “look into it in greater depth” and determined to find out “how it worked”!

He began this somewhat daunting task by assiduously compiling records of details of the results of racing and analysed the information that he could access. To his joy, he then discovered ‘The Sporting Chronicle’ Handicap Book, which had far more detailed racing results than the newspapers, and in the process became completely hooked on all the facts and statistics. It was at this point that his ambition to become a handicapper crystalised - at just 14 years of age! This unusual career option was not endorsed by the careers service he approached at a national newspaper, however, instead he was advised that a course in hotel management would be a more suitable course to follow! This was not altogether surprising since the position of ‘Handicapper’ was essentially still a closed shop in the UK at the time, being considered an ideal opportunity for retired Majors and the like...

'Swain'. Consistent older horse and winner of the 'King George' in '97 and '98. Photo: Sue Wingate.
Not lacking in determination, Nigel Gray simply didn’t accept ‘No’ as being a valid answer and he deliberately by-passed an opportunity to go to University in order to achieve earlier ‘hands-on’ experience.

On leaving school at 17 he had a wonderful summer vacation playing tennis and studying his form book. Seeing no virtue in pursuing any alternative career - even temporarily - he took an undemanding job (at the International Stores in Haslemere High Street!) and bided his time. On reflection he feels that this was his self imposed ‘study period’ which consisted of throwing himself into reading as much as he could about racing, researching and making his own calculations and to learn how form worked - the effect of weight, etc. At that time of course there was no S.I.S. or the Racing Channel to assist in this process - only the then, somewhat limited, TV race coverage. Although his first hand experience was limited during this period Nigel did learn to concentrate his calculations on bare facts.

Before leaving school he had written to Raceform and Timeform asking to be considered for future vacancies. For eleven months there was no encouragement and then amazingly he was offered jobs by both companies - within 24 hours of each other!

The position at Raceform was accepted. It was essentially routine work which involved hours of checking facts and form, nevertheless it provided the longed-for ‘foot in the door’ and Nigel was on his way.

Derby winner of 1998 - High Rise. Photo: Sue Wingate.
Almost a year later he spotted an advertisement in Horse and Hound for a position in the Race Planning Department of Portman Square - working for Weatherbys at the Jockey Club and this became the next step on his way to the top. The then senior handicapper, the kindly David Swannell, later advised Nigel (who was still only 21 years old) that he simply wouldn’t be considered for any handicapping position until he was at least 30 - which seemed years away! Thus the most sensible decision seemed to be to keep getting more and more experience... and he did.

A return to Raceform gave him the invaluable opportunity to become one of their handicappers for the Flat - at just 22. Two years later and he was offered a job at the Press Association which provided more journalistic experience... taking on the writing of the ‘Diary of a Private Handicapper’ for The Racehorse for example and doing some reporting work. Recalling the highlight of his journalistic exploits, Nigel says “It was Spartan Missile’s last victory and it was a really great occasion. He and John Thorne had epitomised all that is to be admired in jump racing. John Thorne was a true Corinthian of the sport and was owner, breeder, trainer and rider of Spartan Missile and they came heartbreakingly close to winning the Grand National the year Aldaniti won... what made the occasion even more emotive was the fact that John Thorne had tragically died following a point-to-point fall. By turning out to see Spartan Missile the crowd was also paying its respects to John Thorne. To cap it all, my article appeared in “The Times!” Nigel describes his time working at the Press Association as one of his happiest. “I felt part of a team. Everyone got on so well together. There was a lot of banter and it was most enjoyable. I was really reluctant to leave... In fact I felt almost guilty as the Press Association had been so good to me”.

Nigel Gray's favourite racehorse on the flat - 'Ardross'. From: the original painting by Sue Wingate.
However a new Racing Newspaper had appeared on the scene ‘The Racing Post’ and Nigel joined as the paper’s handicapper for National Hunt. Bumping into the Jockey Club’s Senior Handicapper, Geoffrey Gibbs, at Newbury one day, Nigel enquired about his chances of joining the official team. He was given every encouragement to apply when a vacancy arose and was duly appointed in 1987. Ten years later Nigel Gray was appointed Senior Handicapper to the Jockey Club on the retirement of Geoffrey Gibbs, which made him the youngest person ever to hold that position - and by a considerable margin. His lifetime goal had been achieved before the age of 40 - a quite amazing achievement.

So what exactly does it mean to be a Senior Handicapper?

“Well, summer holidays are out of the question!”

In fact the Senior Handicapper is the head of a team of 8 others, 3 of whom concentrate on National Hunt racing and the remainder, including Nigel, focus on the flat, at home and abroad.

There is definitely no danger of him just sitting back and enjoying the view... Nigel admits that he now has to develop his job and role, especially with regard to the International aspects of racing. He is on the selection committee for the Dubai World Cup, the Hong Kong International Races, the Japan Cup and the Breeders Cup. He explains “racing is continually expanding and nowadays, instead of national stars, there are global stars - just as in other sports”. He admits that his ideas have changed considerably since his early days of aspiration to his present role, when he was perfectly happy to spend his days at Newton Abbot. Now he appreciates how fortunate he is to travel the world and to attend many of the major international meetings “something I would never have dreamt of when I first started out. Having said that, I still enjoy days at the smaller tracks such as Fontwell”.

What else does the Senior Handicapper like about his job?

“Well, trying to get as close as possible to getting a race right! Naturally I am always striving to produce a race that every owner believes they have a chance of winning and to present a challenge to the punters, with good open betting and decent prices.

I believe it is important to give everybody a fair chance and to stimulate the racing fan with a puzzle waiting to be unravelled”.

At a higher level, the Senior Handicapper’s task is to identify the stars of the future. “The challenge is to try and assess the 2 year olds, by performance and in light of the quality of the races they are contesting. We begin with a blank sheet and gradually a picture builds of their relative merits as form evolves and they are given ratings. The jigsaw pieces fall into place as both the best and the worst are identified”.

Nigel explains how difficult this can be now that the accepted pattern of producing potential classic horses has changed in recent years. “It used to be accepted that the better 2 year olds would come out at Royal Ascot, run in the Gimcrack and/or the Dewhurst before being prepared for the Guineas. Derby winner Mill Reef for example was a brilliant 2 year old winning the Coventry and the Gimcrack. Now the fashion has changed - Lammtarra had only run as a two year old before his win in the Derby and Shaamit - he had only 2 races as a 2 year old before the Derby. It gives us scant information and makes our job more difficult”.

Once horses have reached their Classic Year, how are they assessed relative to each other and in respect of other generations?

“Early in their 3 year old careers horses are only racing against their own generation and basically it is a question of weighing up relative performances and using certain races as ‘benchmarks’.

In the Derby for example, horses are often running over the distance (one and a half miles) for the first time. Some will improve for the distance and vice versa so obviously the ratings are likely to change. The next important step is when the 3 year olds run against older horses in the mid season group races.

For example: the 1998 Derby Winner High Rise was rated 125 after the Derby but rose to 127 after the ‘King George’ since finishing second to such a consistent older horse as Swain merited such a rise. After all, Swain had only been narrowly beaten in the Dubai World Cup over 1¼ miles on sand, and had a high level of form on turf in the top group races - and, incidentally, produced his form to the llb with Silver Charm in the Breeders Cup. However, the subsequent performance of other horses who ran in the Derby suggest that High Rise’s performance in the race was worth a rating of 123 and that High Rise improved between the Derby and the ‘King George’.

How did High Rise compare with classic horses of other generations?

“Well, the highest rated horses of recent years have been in the 80s:

Dancing Brave-141
El Gran Senor-138
Teenoso - 135
Slip Anchor - 135
Reference Point - 135

and in the 90s:

Generous - 137
Peintre Celebre - 137
Suave Dancer - 136
St Jovite - 135
*Cigar - 135

Interestingly Helissio and Pilsudski were joint rated on 134 just below Cigar.

* (US horses were only fully integrated into the International Classification in 1995)

These ratings confirm that the very top rated horses of the 1980's were, and still are, consistently superior to the stars of the 1990's and of course that High Rise, whilst being a perfectly reasonable Derby winner, would have to improve considerably this season to aspire to ‘Star’ status.

What factors have to be taken into consideration when assessing horses’ handicap ratings?

“Well, I have to look at all the horses in the race and their form beforehand and then look at the race itself. I can then decide whether any have improved. I have to take into consideration their preferred distances, the ground condition and the tactics of the race itself... before reassessing their handicap mark”.

“For example in a mile handicap with 12 runners the winning margin might be a short head, and then a distance of 5 lengths back to the next horse. Given that the horses have been handicapped to finish together I have to assess whether the first two have improved, in which case their rating will rise, or whether perhaps there were reasons for the others to have performed below form, in which case their ratings may not change. One of the most difficult things to assess is a very easy winner and to know how much he had in hand. It is difficult to be confident - but a good indication is whether it is still going away even when eased. My goal is to judge the degree of the horse’s superiority over its rivals, and not just rely on the official margin. I want to give a fair chance to the horses placed behind him the next time out”.

“There is no ‘right’ answer. It is all a question of personal interpretation. It is important to bear in mind that it isn’t an exact science. However, it is vital to remain objective and to not let the heart rule the head!”

Nevertheless, it is incredible how consistent racehorses are in general, bearing in mind that there are so many variables and factors over which no-one has any control. It is surprising how often things do work out”.

Does he allow himself ‘favourite’ racehorses?

“Sea Pigeon was a great favourite of mine. I recall making a long journey to Newbury specifically to see him - it seemed an even longer journey home after he had fallen at the last.

“Many years ago I was particularly fond of a horse called Mighty Marine, trained by Milton Bradley and owned by Mrs P Lothian. He wasn’t a renowned racehorse, but he won at all the small jumping tracks and he often had races in quick succession (e.g. 7 races in 6 weeks!). His owner brought him for 100 gns out of a field and I felt he was a poor man’s Tingle Creek! I remember travelling all the way to Newton Abbot once to watch him -and it was a thrill to see him even though he didn’t win”.

“At the top of the jumping tree, of course, was Arkle, and on the flat Ardross would probably be my favourite horse. He was wonderfully consistent but made the ‘mistake’ of winning over distances exceeding 1½ miles - which was certainly to his detriment when he went to stud. Sadly, being beaten only a short head in the ‘Arc’ was another misfortune and breeders didn’t give him a fair chance”.

What was Nigel’s best day’s racing?

“When Tingle Creek won his final race at Sandown - it was an outstanding day”.

(Editor’s note: Tingle Creek was an outstanding 2 mile ‘chaser’ whose jumping was quite breathtaking - and yet he never once fell)

Another would be when Sea Pigeon won the Champion Hurdle for the first time after trying for some years”.

Are there important changes in racing likely to develop in the future?

“The international aspect of racing is obviously going to continue to grow and expand and there is a real possibility of a ‘World Series” being established. I am very hopeful and it is a very exciting prospect”.

Does Nigel think there will be horse racing in a hundred years from now?

“Well, I’d like to think so! To ensure the future it is essential to attract youth to the sport and to maintain the faith of the racing pubic - they must believe that they are receiving a fair deal. Above all, it must be fun!”

Lastly, what advice would he give to any young would-be handicappers?

“Don’t let anyone put you off, stay focused. You must work hard and get as much experience as possible through a variety of jobs and possibly by advising trainers. Above all, be persistent - it really does bring its rewards!”

This sounds like excellent advice from someone who did persist and is now, as a result, at the top of his tree.

Tawrrific Winning the Melbourne Cup

Tawrrific was a truly remarkable racehorse, having tremendous speed, stature, stamina, with the toughness to be able to compete at the highest level from 7 furlongs to 2 miles on fast and heavy ground.

A proven product from the WORLD'S BEST BLOODLINES


"I only wish I had a stable full of Tawrrifics"
- Lee Freedman Tawrrific's Trainer

Timothy Carey
Tullaghansleek Stud
Castletown Geoghegan
Co. Westmeath

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