PUNCHESTOWN UPDATE: Sandy Shaw destined to be in the racing game

Newbridge man, Sandy Shaw, Chief National Hunt Handicapper

Tommy Callaghan

Reporter:

Tommy Callaghan

Email:

tommy.callaghan@leinsterleader.ie

PUNCHESTOWN UPDATE: Sandy Shaw destined to be in the racing game

Sandy Shaw

Andrew, or more affectionately known as 'Sandy' Shaw was probably always destined to be involved in the racing game, in some capacity. 

The Newbridge native's family was heavily involved in racing, his dad, Tommy, was a jockey and very successful trainer, while his mam, was also involved in racing in various guises.

Only a few months ago Sandy was appointed as Chief National Hunt Handicapper in Ireland, that following the untimely death of Caragh man Noel O'Brien.

Sandy said following his appointment that “while I am delighted to accept the job, I would have preferred greatly if is was under different circumstances. Noel O'Brien was not just the top man in this job, but a friend and his passing was very, very sad.”

In his younger days Sandy was more than a decent GAA (and soccer player) from U14 to minor level, playing with Newbridge, on  a very strong side and successful team but when six of them were selected for the Kildare minor side, a game clashed with a Leinster Youths Cup soccer final and with the ban in operation at that time, it was more or less the end of his GAA days.

However Sandy, whose brother Tommy, played with Kildare for many a year, did come back to win an U21 medal (completing the set of underage titles) but drifted away again before joining Eadestown (where his dad was from) and the last game he played was in the Kildare SFC semi final against Leixlip, a game that the great Jack O'Shea played in. 

“I decided that was enough for me and I felt I had made my mark ending my football career on the same pitch as Jack O'Shea.”

Sandy's dad, Tommy, was a very successful jockey, riding over 100 winners before turning his hand to training, becoming Paddy 'Darkie' Prendergast Travelling Head Man, a place where his mother (where they met) worked as secretary.

The infamous Mrs Biddle (Palmerstown) had a few horses with 'Darkie' at the time but as she was building up her estate at Palmerstown, she asked Tommy if he would be interested in training for her privately. It was move that upset Prendergast and they did not speak for nearly ten years.

“My father did not of course have a licence at the time and while training on the Curragh, one of his horses won the Derby, he did not get the credit, a bit like the Aidan and Joseph O'Brien scenario” said Shaw.

Sandy's two brothers are also involved in the racing game. Richard has worked all his life with the Turf Club and is presently head of entries in HRI, while Tommy joined the army, now retired, but has a few horses in training up the Curragh, has yet to get a winner mind you, but had a placed runner in Down Royal a few weeks ago.

Having failed initially to get a placement in the National Stud, Sandy, went to agricultural college, did a year in Multyfarnham, coming back to the National Stud working with yearlings; going on to Kentucky to work as a stallion man in Spectrum Stud Farm.

With his visa running out Sandy came back home and worked for some with the McGrath's in Brownstown.

In around 1994 and 95,  as the McGrath's were winding down, Sandy decided to look around to see what was available “and the very first job I came across was an advert in the Leinster Leader where the Turf Club was looking for a handicapper.

“I applied, thinking it would be the safe, pensionable job my parents always wanted me to be in; duly got it and began working with Noel O'Brien and I am there ever since.”

These days Sandy mostly works from home where he does his ratings after each meeting.

Like a lot of jobs we have deadlines also, explains Sandy, “officially we have until 12 o'clock the following day to have ratings updated but we have a policy to have it completed by 11, to give  trainers a chance to see how their horses have gone up or  down in the weights, before making an entry.

The Newbridge man admits that some of the trainers are experts at placing their horses, there are none better than Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins, experts at that.

And what of horses that you, as a handicapper, do not rate, but come out and win and win easily, and at long odds?

Of courses there are horses that crop up from time to time that absolutely defy all the form and there is very little you can do about that.

And would you be upset when that happens?

“You would be upset the most if a horse wins a handicap by say 20 lengths and it's his first run in a handicap, yes, you would be saying to yourself, how did I miss that or why wasn't I higher with that one but of course you must remember that every horse is entitled to win a handicap, that is the whole idea of a handicap, but you like to see tight finishes ”adds Sandy with a big smile.

“But you will always hear people say, such and such a fella stopped that horse three, four or five times and then he came out and landed a handicap; we have all heard stories like that but years ago those things did go on and while I can't say it still doesn't go on, it is certainly not to the extent it use to.

“Remember in the 'old days' there were no cameras; unless you were at the races you never saw it; where as these days with At The Races nothing is missed and people are tweeting and on social media almost immediately so it is very difficult to get away with a stroke.”

So overall you are a very busy men, especially at this time of year and the advent of summer racing on the horizon?

“I'd be often getting slagged at meetings when I am leaving before the bumper as bumpers don't come under my umbrella but I'd say back to them “your day is finished when the bumper is over but my day is really only starting now.

“The evening meetings you are mostly glad when they come to an end because they make for long days but the winter early meetings, mean you start earlier but you are always home before tea and can get you work completed in the evening comfortably.

Remember years ago you relied on just your notes; there was no going home and re-running races from an At The Races tape, you simply relied on what you had seen, take notes and act accordingly; so in many respects that is why there is not so much skullduggery these days as there was before all the modern technology came to the fore.

“I remember talking to a jockey one day who had won comfortably slowing his mount right down and instead of winning by say ten lengths he wins by just one, his remark though was 'but I know the handicapper was watching and I didn't want the horse to be crucified'.”

However when that happens, added Sandy “I then have to decide what I thought that horse would have been capable of winning by.  Could he have won by ten or by 20, you don't know but you say that was a bit embarrassing and I don't want that to happen again so you rate the horse on a margin of  a 20 length win rather than the two lengths, or whatever, he actually won by.

Interesting the Chief Handicapper says that 95 per cent of horses are average enough horses; there is a 5 per cent elite group.

For instance a horse rated 102 over hurdles would be a very ordinary horse; 52 per cent of all hurdlers in training are rated 102 or less; 75 per cent of all hurdle horses in training are rated 116 or less.

Remember unless you are rated at least 140 there is no point in going to Cheltenham; so from that you can see that 116 is a long way from 140 so the majority of our horses are low grade horses. The same can be said of the chasters but they are of a better quality these days.

“However” he adds, “we mustn't lose sight of the grassroots, the foundation of it all, those very ordinary horses; they might be bad horses but they run in races and keep race tracks going and they should never be forgotten. 

“Nowadays our best horses are staying at home  but they make only a small percentage of the actual horses in training; we can never lose sight of the fact that the jumping sport came from the farm and that can never be forgotten.

“If we can get a horse (rated) to within 4 or 5 lbs to its level, I always say within two runs, that's his level, he's ok, so he should win his race.

“Really that's what's it's all about, to give every single horse a chance, that is  what handicapping is all about.”

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