What Are Handicaps In Racing?

There are many different types of horse races that take place in the UK, but the most common of those is a handicap race. This is considered to be a standard race, where runners take each other on and carry weight based on their ability.

If you want to make a success of your horse racing betting, and you are going to place bets on handicap races, then understanding the system and how it works is vital.

How Does a Handicap Race Work?

horse raceEssentially, a handicap system is designed to give each horse an equal chance of winning the race. Based on what the handicapper knows about each horse, they are allotted a rating, and weights are given dependant on that. The ratings equate to 1lb per rating difference, so a horse rated 80 running against a horse rated 90, the higher rated horse would carry 10lb more in weight.

The first thing you need to understand is that the handicapper never gets things right. If he were, every single handicap race would finish with all runners in a dead heat because his system and ratings were right. Have you ever seen anything like this happen before? Thought not, the closest you will see is three, maybe four, runners crossing the line very close together, anything involving more than that is a very rare occurrence.

Handicap races are set with different classes, which gives a rating that the highest-rated horse can be in that contest. For example, a handicap that is a 0-90 race means that horses rated up to 90 are able to run in it. This is to ensure there isn’t a huge disparity in weight, if a horse rated 50 ran against a horse rated 90, the difference in weight would have to be a huge 40lbs.

When the final field is set, top weight goes to the highest-rated runner, with those below getting to carry less weight based on the difference between their rating.

Who Decides the Race Weights?

various scale weights heavy to light

A group of handicappers work for the BHA (British Horse Racing Authority) and assess every single horse to give them a handicap rating. To see what a horse has done, they need to run three times or win once in order to be given a handicap mark. From here, they are allowed to race in handicap races and will see their mark change based on their performances.

For example, if a horse starts on a mark of 70 and wins a race, their mark will increase, to make it harder for them to win next time. If a horse is given a mark of 80 and is struggling, finishing towards the back of the field, then their mark will come down to give them more chance of winning.

With so many horses in training and so many races taking place each day, it is clear that this is an incredibly tough job, which is why we never see bunch finishes between all runners.

How Do Handicap Marks Given to Horses Change?

horse racing results showing handicap weightsWhen allotted a starting handicap mark, horses begin their handicapping career and are judged based on what they do off their current mark. There won’t always be change, but if they want to make a change, handicappers can do so after every run.

Traditionally though, it is either very bad runs or very good runs that see handicap marks change. You don’t have to win a race to go up in the handicap. For example, if a horse finishes second behind a good winner and is clear of the others in the field, they may be raised a little to try and make things tougher next time out.

These are the horses that many trainers fear having. They run well and get raised in the handicap for doing so, but don’t have the reward of winning a race when they go up in the weights, so winning becomes harder.

If Handicaps Make Things Equal, Why Do We Have Favourites and Outsiders?

newpaper headline against all oddsThe simple answer is that handicapping is such a tough job that it is impossible to get right.

However, you also need to understand that many other variables determine a horse’s performance in a race. For example, a bad run could be down to the ground, the draw, conditions, bad travelling to the course, unsuitable racing distance and more, rather than a handicap mark that is too high.

When a horse wins a race, they will go up in the handicap but may not always deserve that. If there are a couple of very severely handicapped horses in the race, some who don’t like the ground and some with a bad draw, that horse doesn’t win because he is well handicapped, he wins because others in the race aren’t good enough on the day.

Handicappers will determine the official ratings for all horses, and their word is final. The key for punters is to look at their decisions and work out which are wrong, by doing this, you will find well-handicapped horses who are destined to win soon because their mark is too low.

Horses that have been dropped in the weights but have legitimate excuses for their performances, or those that have been underestimated after a strong run and not put up in the weights, are what people should look for when betting on handicap races.