Handicapping is the process used in the horse racing industry to level the field, enabling horses of different abilities to compete in the same race and have a broadly equal chance of winning. This is achieved by controlling the weight carried by each of the horses.
In Britain, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) has a team of handicappers that work to make sure that ratings are set appropriately. There are 2 elements to the handicap ratings; the horse’s rating and the range of ratings that are allowed to enter a specific race.
Handicapping is not an exact science. The team that set the ratings take the latest form (or performance) of the relevant horses into account, but there are so many factors to consider, the ratings may not be spot on. As will be described below, to combat this, the ratings are updated weekly, however, it will not have escaped your notice, that an error or miscalculation in the rating could give the punter a chance to beat the odds (if they think they know better than a team of experts that do it all day, every day, that is!!).
Race handicap levels
Most handicap races will have a range of ratings that the horses that enter should be within. “Should be within”, because horses that are below the minimum rating can be entered, but they will be treated for weight purposes as if they are rated at the lowest rating in the range. For example, if the race is set for horses rated 80-100, a horse rated at 60 can enter, but will be made to carry weights as if it were rated 80 (the minimum for the race).
Horse’s handicap ratings
These are specified as a number; the higher the number given to a particular horse, the better that horse is expected to perform. The handicapping ratings are the same for both flat and jump racing, but there are different values associated with each – jump races tend to have a higher weight requirement.
According to the BHA, jump racing horses currently average a rating of about 95, with the best horses having ratings in the 180’s. This is significantly higher than for flat racing, where the average is approximately 60 and the top horses ranking in the 130’s.
So how do the ratings work in practice? They are a relative measure of the total weight to be carried by the horses within a race, with the differences in ratings being the relative difference in weight that must be achieved. For example, say there are two horses rated 95 and 110 respectively, the 110 horse must carry 15 pounds (the difference) more weight than the horse rated 95.
The BHA publishes an updated list of handicap ratings each Tuesday on their website. This is prepared by their team of handicappers based on the form of the horse up to the end of the preceding Saturday. This is the latest that they are allowed to take into account when they are setting their ratings.
Once set, the ratings are fixed until the next publication. However, if the horse wins in the interim period, it is an indicator that it is should have a higher rating, but this cannot be changed until the next list is released. Instead, the horse is given a penalty roughly equal to the change in rating that the horse would have been given.
There are other adjustments that are made, such as those that adjust for age or those that take into account the experience of the jockey. The actual adjustments needed are made through the addition of lead weights that are carried. Before and after each race, the jockeys, saddles and other paraphernalia are weighed to ensure that the race has been run in line with the specified weights.