Handicap races make up the majority of horse races run in the United Kingdom and Ireland on both flat and National Hunt courses.
Horse racing handicapping opens the sport of horse racing to the widest possible pool of horses, owners and trainers whilst also ensuring the result is exciting and engaging racing contests.
The is done by:
- ranking racehorses according to form and ability
- assigning horses to races featuring contestants of broadly similar form and ability
- using additional weights proportional to racehorse rankings to ensure that individual races are as competitive as possible.
What does handicap mean in horse racing?
A handicap in horse racing has two inter-related meanings.
The most basic meaning is a physical weight that a horse is required to carry in a race to bring its prospects of winning the race in line with the other entries in the field.
The term handicap is also used to refer to this type of race.
Races where horses carry varying weights in order to create a more open contest are referred to as handicaps, or handicap horse races.
What is the official rating in horse racing?
While horse racing handicaps are inseparable from the official ratings allocated to horses by horseracing authorities, and the term handicap is sometimes used to refer to a horse’s rating, they are not quite the same thing.
That’s because the official rating is also used to separate horses who run in handicap races from those that run in higher quality pattern races where horses often don’t carry weight penalties.
In this context the official rating can be considered the quality score assigned to a horse based on its recent performances.
This in turn is used to determine the weight penalty, or handicap, that would be assigned to a horse in the event it competes in a handicap race.
How handicaps are used in horse races
Now that we understand what an official rating is, let’s go back to the question ‘what is a handicap horse race?’ and attempt to answer it in more detail.
As mentioned previously, a handicap horse race features horses carrying different weights in a bid to create a more even contest.
But there’s a bit more to handicap horse races than this.
Horse racing classes
Not all handicaps are equal.
There is such a big gulf between the ability of the best racehorses and the most ordinary that it is not possible to use weights to level out the differences between them if they compete in the same race.
As a result, handicaps are sorted into different classes where horses are able to compete against horses of broadly comparable ability.
In the United Kingdom there are 7 classes of racing. The first class of racing features the highest quality racehorses active in the sport. Many of these races do not make use of handicaps.
Classes 2 to 6 are then divided into different handicap bands, with some overlap between these bands allowing horses to compete in more than one class of racing and move between classes.
Horses that perform well in one class can move up to a higher class of handicap races, while poor performers can drop down classes, a similar system to promotion/relegation in team sports.
How weights are set in handicaps
Weights in handicaps are set according to the official ratings of the horses in the field.
Typically, there is a direct translation of rating points into weight.
So, the highest rated horse in the field will carry the heaviest weight in the race, and 1 pound of weight per rating point will be conceded to lower rated horses in the field.
For example, a horse with a rating of 110 who is carrying 10st 12lbs, will conceded 1 pound to a competitor with a rating of 109.
This competitor will therefore carry a weight of 10st 11lbs.
So how is the official rating calculated?
At this point it’s clear that horse ratings are key to how handicap races work.
The way that these ratings is set up has some important implications for the sport of horse rating as well as betting on handicap races.
Initial handicap rating
Before a horse can acquire an official rating, it needs to compete against other horses in a series of qualifying races designed specifically to test the ability of unrated racehorses, such as maiden races.
Typically, a horse will need to run three times in a qualifying race before it receives a rating, although horses who win within their first two races will be assigned a rating.
In some cases, where the horse’s performances leave handicappers unable to assess its ability for some reason, the horse may be required to run additional races before it is assigned a rating.
Once the horse has a rating it will be eligible to begin competing in handicap races.
Once a horse’s rating has been assigned it is reviewed after every race that it competes in, and the official rating is adjusted on a weekly basis.
The handicappers will assess the performance of the horse based on the weight it was carrying and adjust its official rating accordingly.
This generally means that a horse that improves will be allocated higher ratings, which will translate into competing in better quality races and/or carrying heavier weights.
In some cases, a horse will be assigned a handicap for an event, only to run one or more races before that event takes place.
In these cases, a weight penalty is assigned to the horse after each race to ensure that it carries a fair starting weight in the event where it has already been assigned a handicap.
How the handicap influences racing betting
While the handicap system is designed to make racing more open and competitive, it’s structure also enables to trainers to ‘game’ it to improve their entries’ chances of winning.
For example, a trainer might enter a horse into several races which are unsuited to one or more of its ground and distance preferences, with the intention of producing poor performances.
Once the horses’ rating drops sufficiently, the trainer can then enter the horse into a race over an ideal ground, course or distance at a low weight against a relatively poor field.
This can then improve the horse’s chances of winning.
Another popular ploy is to deliberately race a juvenile over a distance it is not comfortable with to secure it an artificially low official rating. Once that is done it is then raced it over its preferred distance at a low OR in its first couple of races as a 3-year-old.
The official handicappers are, of course, aware of this type of ploy.
As a result, they follow a policy of favouring the majority ahead of the minority. What this means is they will always try to err in favour of assigning a horse a higher rather than a lower rating. That’s because a horse that is rated too highly is the only race entry that will suffer the consequences of this, while a horse with an artificially low rating will impact the prospects of the entire field.
Nevertheless, trainers are naturally incentivized to game the handicapping system to secure wins for their horses, and routinely do so by subtly attempting to lower racehorse ratings in order to secure future wins in targeted races.
A free handicap racing betting system
If you’re new to the idea of betting on handicaps, we have a very simple system that you can use to improve the quality of your bets and get good value of the horses you select.
This strategy has some very basic principles.
Firstly, as we have already observed, there are horses that are raced in ways intended to ‘beat’ the handicap system. This means they are raced in such a way as to lower their rating and handicap in the lead up to a race that is highly favourable to their prospects.
Secondly there is no reason for you to trawl the race history of each horse in a field yourself to identify this type of entry. Instead you leverage the experience of other highly experienced handicap racing punters by looking out for two important signals:
- The horse has had a poor run of recent form – for example no places in the last three races.
- The horse has a price that is low relative to its recent form – particularly a price below 8/1.
When combined with the first signal, the second signal indicates that experienced punters have identified a horse that is well positioned to beat the system, and have put their money behind it, thereby dropping its price.
It’s that simple. Look out for horses with poor form who have no business being priced at, or close to, the favourites in the race in question.
If the horse is priced high enough to return a profit on an each-way bet, which should be the case for the majority of horses in every handicap race, go ahead and place a bet.
While this system won’t net you the kind of big returns you’ll get if you can identify a horse that has been set up to win a handicap at much higher odds, it’s a great starting point for handicap betting and a reliable shortcut for finding and betting on horses that offer genuine value in handicaps.
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