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How Horse Racing Handicaps Work

Written by Darren Wilson
Last updated 3 years ago

The racing industry provides a lot of entertainment and enjoyment to the public and lots of pleasure and employment for those who take care of racehorses. Horse racing isn’t just for the most elite racehorses to enjoy or take part in.

Most races in the UK and Ireland are handicap races. If you are new to horse racing you may wonder what handicap races are what the term ‘handicap’ means. The UK racing industry operates handicap races to enable horses of varying abilities to be raced together.

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However, to even the playing field horses are allocated extra weight to carry during the race. The higher the handicap rating of the horse, the more weight it is required to carry while racing, so the highest-rated horse in the field will carry the highest weight, as set by the rules of the race.

What does handicap mean in horse racing?

Lots of exciting race meetings are regularly held across the country and people love to try to predict the most likely winner no matter what the class of racehorses taking part.

It is obvious that a better class of horse would repeatedly race and win against lesser opponents within the same weight class, so the principle behind the handicapping system is to allow horses to compete on more level terms to determine a winner.

The handicapping system allows horses with a lesser ability to have a chance of winning in races against better horses in their own weight category. This also means that predicting a winner is more difficult for a punter, and therefore offers a more exciting edge to the race as no once can accurately pick an obvious winner.

Adding a handicap to a higher class horse is the best way to provide a more equal and realistic winning opportunity for the other horses taking part, and therefore offers more winning opportunities to a wider cross-section of racehorse owners and trainers.

Increasing the competitive edge

Handicap races have proven to be an attractive betting draw for punters because of their competitiveness. There is no fun to be had from betting on a race where there will always be a predictable winner.

For people to succeed in making money from horse racing, including the racehorse owners, the bookies and the punters, it needs to be exciting and competitive. This is why horses are weighted in line with their ability in an attempt to give each runner an equal chance of winning, therefore making the task of betting on a winner more unpredictable and exciting.

Who sets the handicap mark on a horse?

The handicappers who set the handicap marks on racehorses are officials employed by the British Horse Racing Authority (BHA). It is their job to assess the form of its races and allocate and adjust handicap ratings for each horse that has a rating.

A handicapper is in charge of a core group of horses that allow them to grow their specialist knowledge about the horses in their care within the BHA divisions. The BHA also underpins their handicapping system with scientific analysis performed by a data analyst.

It is the handicapper’s job to assess a racehorse based on its race history. After three runs a horse is awarded a rating. Following this initial rating, their rating may be adjusted in line with its ongoing performance, so their rating is never set in stone.

The rating that a horse is given determines which races it may enter, so for example, a Class 6 race marked as a 0-55 contest means no horse rated above 55 will be allowed to enter.

Each week a handicapper will re-assess the horse’s ability, so this can explain why some horses will very quickly accumulate a winning streak over the space of a week while under its current rating.

The handicapper will then give the winning horse a weight penalty (handicap) of 3, 5 or 7 pounds to carry. By doing this their next races will give the horses opponents a more equal opportunity of winning.

Manipulating the handicapping system

Savvy punters looking to win on handicap races look for clues to help them spot a potential winner, although the system is never guaranteed, they will look for a horse that has been run over an incorrect trip, track, going etc. that enables the horse to get its handicap rating down.

The horse is then entered into a race where it will have an unfair advantage over its opponents and therefore a better chance of winning. The racehorse owner may well attempt to get several wins before the handicapper eventually catches up with the horse and adjusts its rating accordingly.

We hope that this look at race handicapping has helped you to understand how the system works. For expert racing tips, info & analysis, don’t forget to sign up for a free trial with our service.

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