In this article we will take you through all the ins and outs of horse racing handicap betting to help you make profitable choices with your betting. We explain both the theory and the practice of horse racing handicapping to give you an edge in the market.
What is a handicap in horse racing?
A handicap is a race which is designed to make every single horse finish as close as possible to each other in order to produce competitive horse racing. Horses that run in handicaps run off differing weights, these different weights are designed to give every horse an equal chance. Let’s take a look at an example:
Horse A is rated 70. He is the best racehorse in the race, with the best form and the most ability.
Horse B is rated 60. He’s an average horse with some ability, but he’s not as good as Horse B.
We know that Horse A is always likely to beat Horse B off the same weight because Horse A is rated much better. Therefore, in a handicap, Horse A must make a concession to Horse B in order to make the racing competitive.
In this case, Horse A will have to carry more weight in the race than Horse B. This, in theory, should make their respective chances of winning much closer. Of course, it doesn’t always turn out like this and this is where betting opportunities become available.
Who determines a horse’s handicap?
A horse is given a rating by an official team of handicappers at the BHA – British Horseracing Authority. Their job is to watch every horse and assess the level of ability it has shown. If Horse A beats Horse B in three races, the handicapper can safely deduct that Horse A is better than Horse B. He therefore gives Horse B a lower rating than Horse A, thus when they meet in a handicap, the gulf in ability is more even.
How does a horse get a handicap mark?
There are important rules for when and how a horse receives a handicap mark. The critical two to remember are:
If a horse wins a race, it receives an official rating.
If a horse races three times regardless of finishing position, it receives an official rating.
It is important to note that the handicapper has the right to refuse to give a horse handicap mark. If a horse has finished tailed off in its first three starts, it’s impossible for the handicapper to come to a fair assessment of the horses ability. In all cases, the handicapper gives a horse a rating based on the best form it’s shown to date.
Horses that don’t have an official rating, cannot race in handicap company. You will never receive horses that have raced twice without winning or first time out horses in handicaps.
How are horse handicaps structured?
There’s a very well-established programme for handicap horses, both over jumps and on the flat. Handicaps are contested by some of the best and some of the worst horses in the country. As a result, handicaps are split into different classes (1,2,3,4,5,6,7) with Class 1 the best and Class 7 the worst.
Handicaps are split this way so horses of a similar ability contest the same races. For example, a class 7 handicap may only be open to horses rated 0-50 which excludes every horse rated 51 or higher. This ensures it’s a competitive handicap and sees horses of a similar ability race against each other. There are variations in the class system as to the grade of horse that can compete. For example, in class 5 company, some handicaps may be 0-65 whilst others may be 0-70.
If a horse finds lots of improvement and begins to win a series of races, the handicapper raises the horses rating to make sure it faces tougher opposition. If a horse wins twice in class 6 company, the handicapper will want to ensure he has to face class 5 or better company on his next start.
The handicappers at the BHA re-evaluate horse’s handicap marks every Tuesday and this creates the need for a winning penalty. If a horse wins on the Wednesday, it doesn’t get reassessed for another 6 days which could allow it to keep racing and winning off the same mark. As a result, there are standardised penalties for winning a race – 6lbs on the flat and 7lbs over jumps. These apply to nearly all races and ensure a horse can’t abuse the handicap system. A horse may have so much improvement that it can win twice in the same week with a two penalties totalling 12lbs before the handicapper has a chance to reassess it.
Issues with Horse Racing Handicaps
There are many problems with the handicap system. Let’s make an example to illustrate problems with the system.
We own Horse A. He’s a big, scopey sort who will do really well over 1m 4f. He’s not going to be any better than a handicapper, but he has the potential to win lots of races. He’s only a 2yo, but we know he’ll excel at the age of 3.
We run Horse A over 6 and 7 furlong trips as a 2yo. He runs okay, but he can never get involved in the finish. He runs a total of 4 times as a 2yo and the handicapper gives him a rating of 63.
We get Horse A fit and ready as a 3yo and run him in a handicap over 1m 4f. He only has to race off a mark of 63 because he’s handicapped on sprint form. We know he’s much better than that and he proves it, winning easily off 63. We enter him again later in week and notch up another victory off a 6lb penalty. He should really be rated in the high 70’s based on what we know about the horse over 1m 4f.
This is one of the first issues in horse racing handicaps. Because trainers don’t want to show their hand, they run their horses over inadequate trips or in conditions that won’t be favourable in the hope of getting their horse well handicapped.
As a legendary gambler once said, why do I need to give them drugs when they have stones in hand?
How to Bet Horse Racing Handicaps
Handicap betting can be tricky for horse racing punters. The % of winning favourites is much lower in handicaps than it is on other grade races. This is for the simple reason that it’s harder to find the winner of a handicap. The head of the BHA handicapping service once said it takes him about 45 minutes to solve just one handicap – punters should be doing the same! However, with time a precious resource, we run through some handy tips to make life easier when choosing your runner.
#1 - Look for Alternatives to the Favourite
As mentioned above, favourites don’t perform all that well in handicap company. Backing them blindly will quickly see you part with your hard earned cash. Instead, you should look elsewhere in handicaps for better value. And that’s a key word really, value. If a horse has won on its last start, it’s usually far shorter than it should be in handicap company. Punters often overlook penalties in favour of a win next to a horse’s name. This can be misleading. If a horse hasn’t won for a while, it could be that it’s becoming well-handicapped. This, as opposed to a horse that’s becoming badly-handicapped.
#2 - Last Winning Mark
A good starting point when looking at a handicap is to find out which mark each horse last won off. If there’s an exposed horse who’s never won above 70 but is currently rated 73, that’s a negative and probably one to overlook. If a horse is rated 67 but its last winning mark was 76, it could be a horse of significant interest. Of course, it’s important not to assume that every horse below its winning mark can win, and every horse above its last winning mark can’t. Clearly, there are always going to be exceptions. But as a general rule, this is something to take into account.
#3 - How has it been running?
Considering a horse’s run style in its previous races is key. If it’s been held up on its last few starts but normally wins when prominent, this is something to consider. Horses that employ different tactics to usual are of interest. Are connections trying something different? Or is this horse being weighted to win? Similarly, if a horse likes to be buried in mid-division and delivered late, but it’s been front-running, this is something that you might want to look deeper into.
#4 - Class of Handicap
What class of handicap has each horse been contesting? A great angle into handicappers is to find horses that have dropped in class into weaker company. It’s harder to beat better horses off a smaller weight than to beat weaker horses off a larger weight. If a horse is 0-15 in class four company but 7-23 in class five company, this is a strong statistic to factor into your betting. Some horses struggle in one class but excel in one lower. These horses are often hard to catch right, but it’s sometimes better to side with the class droppers than oppose them.
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