Handicapping In Horse Racing

horse carrying weightsAccording to the British Horseracing Authority, around sixty percent of all horse races that are run in Britain each year have a handicap system in place. With that in mind, it really begs the question of how much we actually know about how the handicap system works and what we’re able to do as punters with that information in mind when we sit down to place our bets.

Whether it be the Grand National or the Challenge Cup at Cheltenham, even the most casual of bettors will almost certainly have had a flutter on a handicap race at some point, perhaps without realising. Having a better knowledge of the system will help you to bet more successfully on races that use it, so this page will take a look at what you need to know about the world of handicapping in horse racing.

One of the first things to point out is that the handicapping system is slightly different for jump racing compared to flat racing. There are many similarities, of course, but the differences are big enough to make it worth while to look at them both separately where possible. Bear that in mind when looking through the information on this page, so that you know which type of racing it is you’re reading about.

Why Knowing The System Matters

collection of weights

Given the BHA’s stats on the number of races that use a handicapping system, you’re at a disadvantage if you don’t know how it works. The world of handicap races sees horses given an amount of weight to carry according to their ability. The idea behind the scheme is that all horses within a race are theoretically just as likely to win as each other, given that the best horses will carry more weight than the worst ones, thereby levelling out their chances.

The official handicapper is given the job of assessing the handicap applied to a horse according to its racing history, looking back over three races to apply an Official Rating. A horse’s Official Rating then helps to determine which races it is allowed to take part in. It’s important to bear this in mind when looking at a horse’s previous races as some less scrupulous owners might enter them into races that they have no chance of winning in order to reduce their handicap rating, then enter them into an another race with their low handicap that they’re far more capable of gaining victory in.

Handicap Races

horses in a raceThere is no limit to what sort of race can be a handicap offering. Both flat races and National Hunt races can be run according to handicap rules, with the notion behind them being that the more weight a horse has to carry, the slower it will be able to run. In a handicapper’s dream, every horse taking part in a race would cross the finish line at the same time, proving that they’ve done their job perfectly. Obviously this has yet to happen anywhere in the world, but that’s not because handicappers aren’t doing a good job.

Exceptionally strong horses will be able to cope with carrying extra weight, regardless of what the handicapper’s hope might be. Likewise, horse that aren’t particularly capable will be hampered by even the slightest additional amount of weight added to them ahead of a race. One horse might carry ten stone eleven pound whilst another carries ten stone flat, but the eleven pound will make no difference because the two horses are worlds away from each other in terms of strength and ability.

How To ‘Beat’ The System

all oddsWhen it comes to winning bets on handicap races, there are a whole host of things that you’ll want to bear in mind. If it’s a National Hunt race, for example, is the horse you’re thinking of betting on good over obstacles? How have they done in races of a similar length in the past? Do they have experience racing on the same course and winning?

Obviously the key thing when it comes to betting on horse races that have a handicap system in place is figuring out which horses are better than the handicapper thinks and which ones are worse. You can give yourself an advantage when it comes to working this out by looking at the list of handicap ratings as published by the British Horseracing Authority on a weekly basis. Comparing the handicappers thoughts with the actual results of races will give you an idea of just how things are likely to pan out in the races that will follow.

Something to bear in mind is that an extra pound is added for each point difference between horses, according to their rating. In other words, if one is rated at 120 and the other 130, the ‘better’ horse will carry ten pound more in weight than the ‘worse’ horse. Have they carried that sort of weight in the past? If so, how did they cope with it? All things to think about if you want to give yourself the best chance of ‘beating’ the system.

Jump Racing Class Divisions

1 This is for Grades 1, 2 and 3 offerings, as well as Listed races
2 For Handicap races between 0 and 140+, as well as Open Handicaps
3 Handicaps for rating bands 0-120 and 0-135, as well as Novice Handicaps within the same bands
4 Handicaps within the ratings bands of 0-100 and 0-115, plus the equivalent bands in Novice Handicaps
5 Bands 0-85 and 0-95 and the same Handicap bands in Novice racing
6 This Class includes both Hunter’s Steeplechases and National Hunt Flat Races, but they’re not handicapped

Because this site is mainly about jump racing, we’ll start by looking at the split in the various classes for that discipline. The various Classes have their own banding when it comes to the handicapping that occurs in the races, as you’ll see above:

Flat Racing Class Divisions

1 This is for Listed Handicaps with a range of 96-110+
2 Class 2 includes Handicaps within ratings bands 86-100, 91-105 and 96-110
3 Rating bands 76-90 and 81-95 are covered by this Class
4 This is for ratings 66-80 and 71-85
5 Handicaps with ratings bands of 56-70 and 61-75 are covered here
6 Class 6 involves ratings bands 46-60 and 51-65
7 Class 7 is for Classified Stakes with ratings of 0-45 and all horses carry the same weight

When it comes to flat racing, the manner in which the Classes are split up are slightly different. The table above shows how they work.

One point of order is that two-year-olds that have handicap ratings in flat races can take part in nursery contests, which are essentially handicap races but for juvenile horses.

Why The Difference In Handicapping?

horse weighing scalesOne of the reasons why the handicap system for jump racing differs from flat racing is that the horses that compete in flat racing are usually significantly younger than their jump racing alternatives. The older a horse is the stronger they usually are, meaning that they are more capable of running whilst carrying a bigger weight.

Another key difference comes in the form of the length of races within each discipline. Typically speaking, flat racing is a much quicker and more exciting version of the sport. On the flip side, however, jump races are usually far longer and more challenging for the horses taking part in them; to say nothing of the added complication of the obstacles that they need to jump over.

The result of both of these differences between the two versions of the sport is that there’s no way that it would be right to apply handicaps to the participants as though they were running the same sort of race.

The official ratings that get given to the horses are revised on a weekly basis, regardless of the discipline. The Official Rating given to a horse dictates which races they’ll run in, with some events catering for horses with specific ratings such as between 0 and 70.

The Reason For Handicapping

horses jumping a fence

The main reason for running a race with a handicap is to try to ensure that the playing field is as level as possible. If a particularly strong horse was constantly allowed to compete in races against weaker horses with no system put in place to make the race a bit more even then it would be boring for the viewing public and frustrating for bettors. The result is that strong horses carry more weight and weaker horses less weight, theoretically leading to a better race all round.

Another reason why handicapping was introduced as a system was to make horse racing more interesting for punters who wished to place a bet or two on the sport of racing. Giving each horse within a given event a theoretically equal change of winning means that those having a wager on the race will find it more intriguing than not.

It’s not just punters that benefit from handicapping, though. The system allows breeders to compare horses not only from different countries but also from different generations. This gives them the chance to measure the value of studding and breeding. If handicappers are doing their jobs properly then they’ll also be able to see a horse’s decline over time, rather than just when they go through a bad patch.

Race Eligibility

Race TypeEligibility Criteria
Flat Race Horse must have run in at least 3 races, or 2 if they’ve won one of them. If they’ve run in three more events they can enter Handicap races with prize fund in excess of £30,000
Nursery Handicap The same criteria applies here for two-year-olds, but horses can also enter if they’ve won a race and the handicapper believes their Official Rating is 80 or less
Jump Race The criteria can differ from race-to-race, but generally speaking a horse will need to have run in three hurdle or steeplechase races in any combination, with races needing to have been in Ireland, France or the UK. Two races with top four finishes will also see them qualify, whilst foreign horses need to give the handicappers ten days’ notice to allow them time to contact the alternative team in the country of the horse’s origin

Jump racing and flat racing have different race eligibility criteria when it comes to handicap offerings. Here’s a quick look at what you need to know:

How Ratings Are Calculated

5 Furlongs 3 Pounds per Length
6 Furlongs 2.5 PpL
7-8 Furlongs 2 PpL
9-10 Furlongs 1.75 PpL
11-13 Furlongs 1.5 PpL
14 Furlongs 1.25 PpL
15+ Furlongs 1 PpL

Knowing that the Official Ratings exist is one thing, but knowing how they’re worked out is something else entirely. They are looked at after every race and then updated once a week, ensuring that they’re as up-to-date as possible.

The handicapper will look for what is known as a ‘marker horse’ within the race, which is a horse that has run to its rating in the opinion of the handicapper. All other horses are then judged in comparison to that one with a ‘pounds per length’ formula used to ensure that their OR is correct.

Typically speaking, jump racing is worked out at a rate of one pound per length. That isn’t necessarily the case if the ground is considered to be worse than usual or if the length of the race was deemed to be quite long.

In the world of jump racing the emendation of the Official Ratings is worked out sightly differently, with the number of lengths being the dictating factor. Here’s how it works:

Calculations Of New Ratings

horses running home in a tight evenly matched pack

The above is relevant for when a horse’s Official Rating needs to be looked at in the wake of a race, but what about when a rating is being given for the first time? Typically they’ll need to have run at least three times to get an OR, with handicappers preferring it when all three races are similar to each other.

The manner in which the three races are completed will tell the handicapper what they need to know. For example, three races that saw the horses run to a rating of 122, 120 and 121 would give an average of 121 and that would then be the horses Official Rating.

As a bettor, it’s always worth having a look at the early races of a young horse to see how the handicapper reached their conclusion. Handicappers are naturally cautious, so an erratic set of results will see them err on the side of giving a horse a better handicap rather than a worse one. If they then run poorly in the next few races they take part in then they’ll see their handicap drop significantly.

The key thing to remember with all of this is that handicapping isn’t a binary decision making process; it’s a skill that will sometimes see those responsible for the decision making get things wrong. The British Horseracing Authority believe that only two to three horses on average will over-perform compared to their handicap in a race with up to thirteen runners, so it’s still the best system available.