How horse racing handicaps work

For those who are interested in horse racing but not necessarily very experienced in following the sport, there are various terms and phenomena that they will inevitably come across, and that can be liable to cause confusion at first.

One example of such phenomena is that of the horse racing “handicap”. So, what exactly is a handicap in horse racing, and how does it impact on the horse racing you might watch at a course like Newbury?

Introducing the concept of the horse racing handicap

If you look in the Cambridge Dictionary for a definition of the word “handicap” in a sporting sense, you will find it set out as thus: “a disadvantage given to a person taking part in a game or competition in order to reduce their chances of winning, or a sports event in which such disadvantages are given”.

And essentially, that’s what a handicap is in horse racing – except that it is applied to horses, of course, rather than human competitors. More specifically, it involves each horse in a race being allocated a certain amount of weight, carried in their saddle, to help make the race closer and more competitive.

After all, think of what could happen in a horse race in which there isn’t any kind of handicap system. Like competitors in any other sport, horses differ in their ability, so if you held a horse race without any of the competitors being handicapped, the most capable horses would likely gallop off into the distance, with the fastest winning the race.

Why is a handicap system necessary in horse racing?

Now, you might think, what’s wrong with operating without any kind of handicaps in place? Don’t the most capable racehorses deserve to win, anyway? That’s a perfectly valid view to have, and the idea of allowing horses to race against each other on largely level terms, to see which is best, is the principle underpinning the elite Pattern class of racing.

But on the other hand, if you have ever watched a Formula 1 season where the same driver and car pairing keeps on winning every race, you can probably understand how boring this can become for the spectator.

Yes, there might be the occasional instance of an unpredictable factor causing the “favourite” not to win a given race (the equivalent of, to refer back to the Formula 1 analogy, the fastest driver’s engine blowing, or their car slipping on oil and crashing out of the race). But more often than not, the most capable competitor will keep on winning, and that’s not very entertaining for many observers.

Plus, don’t horses of slightly lower ability levels deserve the chance to shine at the front sometimes? Indeed, this is very much how the regulatory body for horseracing in Great Britain – the British Horseracing Authority, or BHA – puts it.

The organisation says that “a handicap is the best way to provide this winning opportunity for most horses – and therefore a wider cross section of owners and trainers – because it enables those of varied ability to race competitively against each other with a realistic chance of success.”

And with most horse races in the UK and Ireland being handicap races, it’s a good idea as a follower of the sport to learn exactly how this system works.

So, how exactly does the handicap system in horse racing work?

As you have probably guessed by now, the idea with handicapping in horse racing is that the heaviest weights – or “handicaps” – are reserved for the horses that are assessed as being the most capable. Receding weight amounts are then applied as one works through the less capable horses.

The decisions on the amount of weight that each horse should carry are made according to the system of the relevant professional horseracing regulatory board. In the case of the BHA, the organisation employs handicappers who assess the form of its races, with handicap ratings being allocated to competing horses accordingly.

Each handicap rating is a numeric representation of the form of the given horse – and therefore, the level of ability that the horse is perceived to have at any given time. The BHA revises and publishes the handicap ratings for all currently active and qualified horses every week, and it’s possible to look up the rating for any given horse on the BHA website.

In order for a horse to receive an initial handicap rating from the BHA, it is normally necessary for it to achieve at least three performance figures (or to put it in plain English, the horse needs to have raced at least three times). But once a horse does have a handicap rating, it will be eligible to compete in handicap races.

The broad aim, of course, is to effectively “equalise” all the horses in a race through the handicapping process, so that at least in theory, all the competitors will have an approximately equal chance of winning a given race.

Now, we all know that in practice, horse races don’t constantly end in a dead heat – unpredictability still reigns, and some horses will still cross the line ahead of others. Hopefully, though – as we touched on above – any given handicap race will be more closely contested than would have been the case if there had been no handicap system in place.

You can learn more about the specific details of how handicapping works in horse racing on the BHA website. It’s all interesting information to bear in mind when you next attend horse racing at Newbury or any other racecourse in the UK or Ireland where handicap races take place. If you do elect to join us here at Newbury, we would be delighted to see you!