How Handicapping Works in Horse Racing

For many newcomers or recreational punters there is often some confusion or misunderstanding with regards to the type of contest known as a ‘Handicap’. Handicap races make up almost 60% of all races run throughout the UK each year, and therefore a solid understanding would be hugely beneficial in improving your Horse racing betting and ultimately your success and profits.

In simple terms, a handicap race can be defined as the following:-

“A handicap race in horse racing is a race in which horses carry different weights, allocated by the handicapper. A better horse will carry a heavier weight, to give it a disadvantage when racing against slower horses”

The easiest way to describe this is relate it to humans. For example, If Usain Bolt was to race Mo Farah over 300 metres, and the governing bodies handicapper felt that Usain Bolt was the equivalent of 5 seconds faster than Farah, they would allocate him weight that was heavy enough so it was equal to 5 seconds, therefore making it a level playing field. 

Every time a horse runs in a race the performance is analysed by the ‘Handicapper’ and the horse is allocated a rating. Every case is judged on its individual merits with the Handicapper taking into account all the pertinent variables such as the weight the horse carried in relation to other runners, the race distance, the ground, the draw (if a Flat race), the finishing margins between runners, the pace at which the race was run, the strength of the current form of the runners, and whether any incidents occurred that could have impeded one or more of the runners or exaggerated a horse’s performance.

Now clearly this is not an exact science, and there are numerous ways and methods that Trainers have at their disposal to make them think they have a ‘well handicapped horse’ on their hands –  as in, better than the handicap mark and weight they will be due to carry, and therefore more likely to win a certain contest.

Role of Handicap Races

Handicaps are intended to produce a competitive race structure that provides an exciting spectacle for followers of the sport, both for those who enjoy watching closely matched horses in tight finishes and also from a betting perspective. Betting data confirms that handicaps are popular with punters, with less competitive races (in terms of the number of runners and the relative levels of ability) tending to generate lower betting activity. Good for the sport all round.

The Penalty Structure in Handicap Races

The race conditions for most handicaps includes applying a standard penalty of 6lbs in Flat races and 7lb in Jump races for any horse that wins after the Handicapper has had the opportunity to take account of the win in setting the weight to be carried by each horse. This standard penalty is based on the median weight rise applied to winners under both codes of racing.

Calculating Performance Figures

Performance figures can be considered as the building blocks of handicap ratings. They are calculated for each performance and are ultimately used to produce handicap ratings. 

In producing performance figures for the horses that have participated in any particular race, the Handicapper will tend to identify one or more ‘yardstick’ or ‘marker’ horses through which the level of the race is established.  If you have a solid horse that time after time runs to a mark of around 80-85, and in a particular race ran to 83, you can be confident that this was the horses true running, and therefore build figures around this runner.

After finding the most plausible fit with the yardstick horse(s), the relativity between them and the other runners is interpreted by the Handicapper according to an approximate pounds-per-length conversion (illustrated below) and adjusted for the weights carried: 

Flat Racing

5f: 3lbs per length 

6f: 2.5lbs per length 

7f-8f: 2lbs per length 

9-10f: 1.75lbs per length  

11-13f: 1.5lbs per length 

14f: 1.25lbs per length 

15f+: 1lb per length 

Jump Racing

1lb per length is used in most instances except over very long distances or on very testing ground.

Depending on which yardstick horse is selected, a wide range of interpretations of the merits of a particular race is possible. Experience shows that in handicaps of between 11 and 13 runners, for example, on average only two or three horses will have performed to a level that exceeds their handicap rating. This may not be the case in non-handicap races, which in many instances will have a much wider range of possible interpretations.

Weight-For-Age

Weight-for-Age (WFA) is a weight allowance to compensate a horse for lack of physical maturity. 

In practice, the WFA table describes a sliding scale of weight allowances that younger horses receive from older ones, based on the principle that, on average, Flat horses become fully mature at around the beginning of the turf season as 4 year olds, and that young Jumpers are the equal of their older counterparts as hurdlers towards the end of their 4 year old year and, as steeplechasers, approximately one year later. 

Younger animals are considered to be more disadvantaged in races over longer distances and the sliding scale reflects this. For example, a 3 year old is presumed to be the equal of his elders over 5 furlongs by November. 

However, a 3 year old running over a mile on the same day would receive an allowance. Similar distance-based factors are included in the Jump scale. 

The WFA scale is designed to reflect the physical development of the average horse. When a Flat horse is described as having ‘failed to train on’ from two to three, it may be the case that the horse was precocious and had less than average scope for physical development at the end of its 2yo season. It will therefore have regressed relative to its peers. Conversely other horses may improve by more than the scale suggests. In handicap races with different age groups, the Handicapper deducts the WFA allowance from the weight carried by any horse that receives it. 

The role of the handicapper is to try and make it as much of a level playing field as possible – they would be most delighted if there was a real bunch finish and all the runners finished in a straight line, this would mean they have ‘handicapped’ the race well and done their job to the best of their ability. That being said, the idea of training horses, and owning horses is to win races, and that is why certain methods and strategies are used in order to get your horse a nice handicap mark, and therefore enhancing your chances of gaining that much needed victory.

How do you get a Horse ‘well handicapped’?

Some particular trainers are experts at getting those they stable to be well handicapped, and duly rack up a number of winners in handicap and Nursery company.

A good example of this would be Grand National winning Trainer Venetia Williams, a very shrewd operator who learnt her trade with another master of the form book Martin Pipe – and clearly didn’t walk around with her eyes closed. She is well known for bringing her horses on slowly – running them when not fully mature, maybe still learning to jump correctly – and is bit of a stereotype but a number of the yards horses seem to relish on heavy winter ground, probably as she sources a lot of her horses from France, where they are bred to run on the testing ground. Therefore, you will often see Williams running these youngsters on better ground, maybe over 2miles – a trip not likely to be the horses optimum conditions whilst learning there trade and getting used to the race course experience. This is all well and good – and she is breaking no rules in doing so, but as a result the French Import is allocated a very low chase handicap mark, and you can bet your bottom dollar once this horse starts showing a lot more on the schooling ground at home, she will be scanning the programme book for a suitable opportunity. This is where we see a Venetia Williams 6 year old, having a 2nd or 3rd start over fences – stepped up in trip and on favoured heavy ground for the first time, and looking a different horse to the one we saw over 2miles on good ground, and is no surprise to see these backed off the boards.

Again, she is breaking no rules- simply understanding her horses well, and taking advantage of optimum conditions when they appear and the lowly handicapped mark her youngster has been allocated.

A good flat racing example would be the genius that is Sir Mark Prescott. Year after year, the Master of Heath House Stables racks up endless handicap winners, and numerous runners improve out of sight – racking up long sequences of victories in doing so.

How does he manage this? – Again, Prescott first and foremost both understands his horses very well, and understands the handicapping system down to a tee. He breaks no rules, but uses the information he has about his own horses to get them well handicapped and take advantage of the system.

His main area of expertise is with staying handicappers – normally three or four year olds, horses that are bred to improve with age and for stepping up in trip – a much better horse over staying distances than they will show over sprint distances for example. He almost treats the two year old campaigns as a learning curve – gaining valuable race course experience with three or four gentle runs around 6furlongs or 7 furlongs, before really focusing on the three year old campaign next season. Then, the trainer will pinpoint numerous races, and will slowly step the horse up in trip – 1mile, 1mile 2 furlong – until he feels they are reaching their peak and take advantage of the low mark allocated by the handicapper whilst running over unsuitable trips. Its no surprise to see a Prescott runner rated as low as 55 at the start of the summer, and by the time of the St Leger in September being 2 stone higher in the handicap.

Again breaking no rules, but taking advantage of the system and only showing your hand when required and  making the most of the lowly opening handicap marks.

Another thing that needs to be considered when looking at a Handicap races is not the young, improving types, but those more experienced horses that are ‘dropping down’ the weights – horses that were once rated much higher and due to a string of bad runs are now running from a mark much lower than its last winning mark.

Numerous leading owners – Middleham Park Racing for example, take advantage of this with great success. They have a team of industry leading form judges who analyse certain horses optimum conditions,  and once a older horse starts falling down the weights and becomes available to buy at the ‘horses in training sales’ you will often see Middleham Park step in and buy the horse with a plan in mind.

They then look to send the horse to a specialist trainer, and take advantage of the horses lower handicap mark and bring the horse back to full health – and once optimum racing conditions are found they look to pounce and take advantage. They may have spotted something others haven’t – the horse maybe has to go right handed, or maybe the horse has been crying out for a drop back to sprinting distances or a switch to hurdles, whatever the angle they are looking to capitalise and take advantage of the new lowly mark.

Often tricky and complicated puzzles, but well worth putting the time and effort in as understanding certain traits and form lines in handicap contests often help throw up big priced winners and many professionals look to concentrate on Handicaps and handicaps only, such is the value they can throw up once able to locate the likely winner.

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