Guide to Horse Racing Handicapping

When you first start getting into horse racing and betting, you will likely find that there are plenty of factors which might affect your chance of winning a race.

To make sure you have access to a fair and even playing field, there are such events as handicap races, and a full handicap system, to ensure that all jockeys get a fair crack at the whip – quite literally. In British horseracing, handicap races are fairly common.

Guide to Horse Racing Handicapping

While you may not choose to look too deeply into a handicap rating on a horse at first, it makes sense to try and understand why a horse handicapping system is in place, and how that stands to affect the way you bet.

Want to make sure you have the best chance of picking the first horse past that fabled racing post? Time to clue yourself in on handicap rating systems, and how they are likely to impact your horses for bets to come. In this guide, we’ll take a close look at handicapping in horse racing, and why it’s one of many things you are likely to want to balance out before you place any serious money down.

Why Does Horse Handicapping Exist?

It’s important to know a bit about why handicapping exists at all in your average horse race. Ultimately, the BHA sets horses handicaps to help keep things fair and even. This means that, in the event that there are horses who are likely to have a huge advantage over the rest of the starting grid, concessions and changes will be brought in to help balance things out.

This is perfectly fair – and if you talk to any seasoned betters, they will likely tell you that a handicap mark is par for the course – quite literally.

BHA advises that they offer a transparent and consistent handicapping system. In a sport where worries over fixing and fake races continue to emerge, it’s important to understand that handicap races in British races receive full regulation. Therefore, there should never be an unfair advantage for any horse in any given race.

This means that, in a handicap racing system, you can expect your pick to start at the same level as any other. BHA provides the official rating as far as a horse handicap is concerned, meaning that they are a body and name you can trust. They also endeavour to stamp out race fixing, too, meaning they are all for making sure the sport doesn’t fall into disrepute.

Of course, differences in form and ability help to make up the odds, and certainly help to make any given race that little bit more interesting. But how does handicapping differ from horse to horse? Are there some horses less likely to win races than others? How on Earth does a handicap racing system actually work in practice? Time to dig a little deeper.

What is a Handicap Race?

A handicap race, crucially, pits horses of similar statures and weights against each other. Weight class is inarguably the defining factor in any kind of handicap meeting. Therefore, when you bet on horse races with a handicapping system attached, you can be sure that your chosen horse is racing against other horses of similar builds and weights.

In some cases, horses carrying extra weight than the average might not be as streamlined or as likely to win races. Therefore, it is crucial that they are given their own level playing fields to start from.

If you are familiar with boxing, the weight divisions in that sport operate on a similar basis. That is, of course, that they exist to give different entrants in a match an equal chance of winning. That is, of course, until form comes into play.

For example, in boxing, you would never expect to put a lightweight up against a super heavyweight. That’s why you have never seen Barry McGuigan face off against Frank Bruno – it simply wouldn’t work!

What Else Do They Look At?

However, there’s a little more to the handicapping of a horse than just weight class. Handicappers will actually look at recent form, regularly, to determine the weight that they carry going into a new week of races. We’ll look at exactly how horse handicapping works in practice a little bit further down.

This makes for some pretty interesting horse races, on the whole. It means that some punters will drift towards heavier classes and races, while others may prefer going a little bit lighter. Of course, the race you choose to bet on is entirely down to you.

However, it’s worth knowing that any horse in a given race has a right to be there. Handicapping races doesn’t make things boring – in fact, the more level the playing field actually is, the more exciting the betting becomes.

It adds an extra layer of mystery onto which horse is likely to come away the winner in a race. Therefore, when you start to look at horse racing handicapping, remember that one horse in a given handicap is unlikely to race in another – otherwise, the bookies would clean up time and time again.

How is The Horse’s Handicap Decided?

While you don’t have to know the full in and outs of a horse handicap to bet on one, it’s just as well to keep in mind what’s likely to grade your chosen horse alongside others of similar bulks and racing styles. When it comes to handicapping a horse, there are a few criteria which must always be considered.

  • Weight only really comes into things a portion of the time. Of course, bigger, bulkier horses are less likely to perform well against slimmer runners, meaning it’s an important basis to start from.
  • However, handicappers will actually base their official rating for a horse on how they are performing in regular race meetings. Therefore, similar to how odds are based around form and history, so is the British handicap system.
  • So – how exactly is this decided? Crucially, to get a handicap mark and to qualify for a specific race or class, they must win at least one race, or run at least three races, for the formula to start building. This is the default and absolute basic criteria that a horse must meet before they enter a specific handicap racing class.
  • The lower the handicap rating, the lower their poundage for a given race. That’s because horse weighting goes up depending on how well horses perform from race to race. Therefore, as well as taking into account predetermined weight scores for a horse, handicappers will add or subtract pounds to ensure that they meet minimum requirements for a given racing grid or meeting.
  • Bad races can lead to horses dropping ratings, while good races – wins, for example – will see increases. It’s a simple formula on the face of it, but when you look at the deeper horse racing algebra involved, it can get a little bit dizzying.
  • That said, many betters get used to handicap racing systems fairly quickly. It is seen as a fair way to make sure that no one is betting on horses at a disadvantage.
  • Crucially, the handicap rating system also exists to ensure that there is some variety in the way that races finish! There is always that risk that – without any kind of horse handicapping in place – everyone would finish at exactly the same time.

So – this is just a quick overview of how to calculate a horse handicap. Things can get a little more complex – it is maths formulae, after all – but ultimately, you simply need to remember that it’s all about pitching horses of similar weights and standards against each other.

What is a Handicap Penalty?

A handicap penalty sounds like something that’s akin to punishment! In fact, it is something which is decided in horse racing when a runner wins after their handicap is set for the week. Any horse racing and winning after they have their handicap mark decided will receive extra pounds added to their weight total for future racing and meetings.

Therefore, for example, a winning horse might receive an official rating of a three-pound penalty if they win at any given moment. This helps to keep the balances in check. However, there are additional weight penalties which may apply, meaning it’s entirely possible for a handicap to go up by more than three pounds in a given period.

British horseracing handicapping ensures that horses likely to continue winning races are given the chance to perform against others who are just as talented or fit. It also means that you won’t find slender horses winning races too often against heftier mares.

Crucially, it adds weight onto streamlined horses, meaning that you are levelling things out. Horse racing handicapping might sound tricky to get your head around at first, but it’s all in place to make sure horse racing is kept fair across the board.

Handicap Race Betting

Handicap racing betting is a lot of fun. Many punters enjoy these races because they know they are likely to be betting on horses of a particular standard. It is another good way to gauge and account for form. Form, of course, can be tricky enough to plan for, which is why looking at both the odds and the handicap for your horse will likely give you a bit more confidence in what to expect.

A horse’s form can vary depending on all manner of things. Handicaps simply take into account starting weights, as well as recent running history. This is, in part, what helps to make bookies calculate their far-reaching odds, too.

Does a Horse’s Handicap Tell Me Everything I Need to Know?

Not always. While the horse handicapping system in the UK does a great job of keeping things fair and equal, there is more to their racing prowess and potential than just their recent record. All horses can go through slumps, and do remember that there are more factors to consider when judging form.

For example, as well as handicap, you may wish to look at horses through the following parameters:

  • Does a horse perform well at races of certain lengths? Some horses are fantastic long runners, while others will likely run out of steam. Before heading to bet on a long race, always check that your horse has plenty of good experience at the final length of the course.
  • Do also think about hurdles. Handicap ratings don’t take into account jumps, tight chicanes and water traps. Therefore, you should make sure, again, to check that your choice of horse is likely to cope with any obstacles and traps that pop up in their next race.
  • It’s also a good idea to look at the jockey or rider before you bet. Yes – a horse handicapping system accounts for how well the horse performs, but what about the rider? In many cases, a horse will have a designated rider for some time. However, if there are jockey changes for specific races, the handicapping might not come into full play. Always look at the form of a jockey, not just the horse.
  • Look at odds histories, too. As mentioned, bookies will base their odds on handicaps and plenty of historical data. If you don’t have the time or the ability to probe too deeply into form, you could use a handicap score and historic odds to paint a clear picture of what to expect.

Handicapping can be a good betting asset, as it will help you to understand how well a horse has run in recent history. That said, as you can see, there are many more things to take into account.

Should I Worry About Horse Handicaps?

There’s no reason why you should. Handicap penalties are handed out to those horses who perform well regularly. This means that they will have the extra chance to race against fair opponents, which of course leads to more exciting races.

Without handicapping in place, races would either all be photo finishes, or there would be extreme difference in the abilities of runners in any given race. Yes – there are always going to be a few exceptions and anomalies along the way. Crucially, however, the UK handicapping system tends to provide for some pretty exciting racing action.

When starting to bet on horses, you must make sure you understand the importance of the handicap. It’s in place to ensure that there are no chances for foul play to unfold at any given meeting. Hand in hand with race fix measures and penalties, the BHA works hard to keep horse racing friendly, fair and a lot of fun.

If you’ve never bet on handicap races before, now might be the time to give them a closer look. They provide for some of the most nail-biting racing action around – and while it’s sometimes good to have the inside edge, you could stand to win more from longer odds if handicaps are tighter. Take a look at a bookie or two and find yourself some races!