The Ultimate Guide to Horse Racing Handicapping

If Usain Bolt had a 100m race with your Great Aunt Norma, the chances are that the Jamaican world record holder would trounce your beloved relative - unless of course she has been hiding a secret from you and the rest of the family that she is in fact the fastest human beings on the planet.

But what would happen if we tied Bolt's shoelaces together, and made him haul a sack full of coal down the track. Old Norma would certainly stand a better chance of winning the race now...

While not as extreme as that, this is the basic premise behind horse racing handicapping. It is applying some kind of handicap to the stronger horses in the field so that, in theory at least, the playing field is levelled with the weaker runners.

The result is a 'fair' race, and the perfect identifier of an outstanding horse if they can overcome 'top weight' to triumph.

Some of the most prestigious races in the world are handicaps, including the Grand National and the Melbourne Cup, so hopefully this article will present plenty of insight that will help you to raise your betting game for any race listed as a handicap.

How Does Handicapping Actually Work?

Each runner in a race is designated a handicap by the steward, based on past performances, suitability for the ground etc. This extra weight, made of lead, is known as the 'impost', and the job of the steward is to ensure that the most superior horses have the heaviest handicap.

Handicapping is overseen by the British Horse Racing Authority (BHA), whose team interprets form and gives each horse a rating based on their performances, which are recorded in the 'Longines World's Best Racehorse Rankings'. So if a horse has a rating of 110 and another 100, then a handicap of 10 pounds would be given to even up proceedings.

The idea is that the heavier weight will slow down the best horses, making it harder for them to sprint clear of the field and hurdle with ease (both flat and jump races can be handicapped). So, lesser horses stand a better chance of winning - interesting information for owners, trainers and, of course, punters.

The object for punters is to decide which horses they think can outperform their handicap - whether that's the top-rated runner in the field or otherwise.

Which Handicap Races are the Best to Bet On?

You'll find handicap races run throughout the year and across the world on the flat and over fences, so while it might be the quality races that really catch the eye often it is the less prestigious events where the best opportunities for punters lie. That's because the handicapping system is often less accurate for horses with fewer runs under their belt, or those who haven't made a step up in quality.

As you may know, horse races are categorised in groups and grades, and handicaps are no different. These are split into classes from 1-7, with Class 1 being the best and Class 7 the worst.

As a result, Class 7 races feature weaker fields, generally speaking, with inexperienced (but potentially very good) horses rubbing shoulder (should that be fetlocks?) with those who have been there, done it but not got the winner's t-shirt.

The BHA re-evaluates handicaps every Tuesday, and so keep an eye on the form from Wednesday onwards!

Getting to Know the Racecard

It depends on whom you are betting with as to how your racecard will appear, but they all follow similar lines to this example taken from the Racing Post below:

Example Racecard

This card features much of the information you will need when making informed betting decisions on a handicap race. But the two key pieces we have outlined in red: first, the Class of the race and the Official Ratings spread (in this instance 0-95). Second is the column entitled 'WGT OR', which tells us the ratings of the horses according to the handicapper and how much weight they will thus carry.

So in this example, Janszoon is the highest rated at 89 but must carry additional weight as a result; some four pounds more than the bookmakers' favourite Joshua Reynolds.

Your initial research task here would be to study the form of Janszoon and Joshua Reynolds, and to see why the former is so highly rated and yet the latter is favourite with the sportsbooks.

Incidentally, if you do use the Racing Post to study the racecards then the extra column labelled 'RPR' is merely that organisation's own ratings system. It doesn't mean anything in terms of official handicapping, but can be used as an extra layer of insight prior to placing your bets.

Horse Racing Handicap Betting Tips

If you think about it, the bookmakers' favourites should win fewer handicaps than they do standard races, given that they will be up against a field of similar quality horses (whether in terms of speed or handicapping). The good news is that this is confirmed by the stats, so any notion of simply backing the favourite goes out of the window.

Ordinarily, punters look at a horse's form before parting with their hard-earned money. A win here and there or a few second places and clearly that's the kind of filly that appeals. But think about that from a handicaps perspective: if a horse has a few triumphs to their name, they are likely to be 'penalised' by the handicapper. Suddenly, they aren't necessarily so attractive to back. Conversely, a horse that hasn't won a handicap for a while might just have been badly handicapped. If their mark is re-evaluated, then they may just become value.

As you can see, there's more to think about when betting on handicaps than traditional races. But if you like to keep things simple with your wagering, all you need to really do is research the winning (or losing) marks of all the horses in a field. You may find a horse rated 75 that has never won above 70 - not attractive. On the flipside, you may find a 75-rated horse that has previously won at 80 or above. These little insights can make all the difference.

Other factors to consider include:

A Class Apart

Finding those rare gems of value when a horse is dropping down in class - or perhaps a favourite is stepping up - is the key to fruitful handicap betting. Remember, it is harder to beat quality opposition, even at a lower handicap, than it is to best a poor field with a bigger weight.

Perfect Form

The formbook is still relevant in handicap betting, even if there are more variables to consider. Remember that Official Ratings (OR) are only updated once in a week, so it is possible for horses to rack up a pair of wins in any six-day period.

A win is a win is a win, so the old saying goes, and even accounting for variances created by the handicapper it is still easy to identify horses in good form if they are consistently turning out in similar class fields and with an OR that does not vary too wildly.

When the Going Gets Tough

Some horses simply run better on softer ground than they do firm, and vice versa. That does not change even with the handicap taken into consideration, although theoretically the top weight in a short-distance sprint on fast ground is severely disadvantaged.

Steamers and Drifters

While the betting public is prone to the rumour mill and Chinese whispers, studying market movements on the day of a race can be rather illuminating. Those whose odds tumble (steamers) are fancied to take advantage of changing going if it is raining heavily or the sun is out, or perhaps looked strong in the paddock.

Drifters, meanwhile, are those horses whose price will lengthen as a consequence of changing conditions, looking a bit mad in the parade ring...that sort of thing.

Training Day

The team behind the scenes of a horse's success (or otherwise) is absolutely key. We know simply from studying the form at Cheltenham Festival over the years that Willie Mullins trains his charges with one eye on the meeting, likewise Aidan O'Brien and the British Classics on the flat. It might be the horse doing the legwork and the jockey steering the ship, but the trainer lays the foundations for all the glory that follows.

Just like the horses themselves, trainers can fluctuate in form; enjoying win and place streaks as well as periods of drought. This information is readily available on the world wide web, and well worth looking into prior to placing your bets.

As for handicap racing, trainers can play their hand in a number of devious ways, but the most common is to artificially alter their horses' ratings by initially pointing them at races that don't suit.

So imagine a yard has bred a young powerhouse, built for soft ground and competing over longer distances. There's an eye on turning this young steed into a contender for honours at Cheltenham.

But the unscrupulous trainer enters the horse into 5f sprints, knowing full well that it won't be able to keep up with the opposition. A poor series of results follows, and the handicapper dishes out a lowly OR as a consequence.

Now the trainer can point this horse at his preferred distance of one mile or more, entering him into low-grade handicaps. Lo and behold three straight wins follow - earning the trainer lots of prize money in the process.

It is difficult to surmise when a trainer is doing this, but studying patterns of form can identify when a horse is about to blossom; either in a natural upswing of form or in an act of underhand skulduggery.

Inside or Out

If you watch a 200m or 400m sprint race on TV, you notice that the athletes are drawn in lanes. Theoretically, being somewhere in the middle is best - you get a slight head start over those inside you based on the staggered starting positions, but have less distance to run, essentially, compared to those in the outer lanes due to the severity of the bend.

There is a similar theory in horse racing, with those positioned by the rails having to run a shorter distance than those on the outside. Of course, those on the outside of the pack tend to get a clearer run than those on the inside who might get trapped behind other horses, so make sure you know who runs well on doglegging tracks and who prefers courses that are a bit straighter.