How Does A Handicap Race With Horses Work?
Last updated & tested: 2019-11-29
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Learn all about a horse race handicap
A handicap race is where horses compete under an allotted weight based upon their official rating given by a governing body of the sport. In the UK, that is the BHA (British Horseracing Authority). We’re going to tell you all about handicap horse race weights and how the system works in this detailed article.
Whatever the sphere of horse racing in question – All Weather, Flat or National Hunt on turf, dirt or an artificial surface – a handicap race is held. If you think in terms of thoroughbred Flat racing, then it many ways it is the opposite of a weight-for-age race which, although may see horses carry extra weight in the form of penalties based upon the class of previous races they have performed in.
As mentioned above, handicap horse race weights are based upon how a governing body of the sport rates the competing animals. Provided they have had a minimum of three career starts prior to the handicap race running, then the BHA generally as a rule – but not in all cases – gives an official rating to a horse. This at the end of the day is someone’s opinion – that of the official handicapper.
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Sometimes that individual will underestimate a horse’s ability and on other occasions they may overestimate what it is capable of. A horse that is said to have been ‘got hold of’ by the handicapper is one that no longer wins off its current rating. A horse is said to be ‘ahead of the assessor’ if it continues to win despite having its rating increase for victories. Progressive types fall into this category.
When many people think of horse racing history, they think of famous races like the Classics on the Flat or the Cheltenham Gold Cup over jumps. It turns out, however, that some of the most historic contests are handicaps. The Ebor at York, for example, is a horse race handicap that has been held since 1843, while the Grand National over fences at Aintree has been run as a handicap for about the same length of time.
The horse with the highest rating in a handicap race will be allotted top-weight – provided there is nothing in the field running under a penalty that can be used to increase the weight of a horse for winning within a certain timeframe. Not all races will have terms such as this.
One common set of race conditions is if a horse won a handicap race running last year, then it can be allotted top weight regardless of the ratings of other horses. Handicap horse race weights can also be compressed or limited if a race is only open to novices or to a strict banding of horses rated between two figures. The Old Roan Chase at Aintree is an example of a limited handicap race.
In Flat races, 10 stone is the maximum allotted weight – without a penalty – that can be carried by a horse in a handicap. Over jumps, meanwhile, it depends upon the contest. Some hunter chases go to 12 stone and beyond, while hurdles and regular chases tend to be 11 stone 12 pounds. Conditions of these National Hunt races vary depending on the terms. The Grand National, for example, now allotts a top-weight of 11 stone 10 pounds.
Bottom weight in National Hunt races is 10 stone. Horses can race in handicaps carrying less if there is a conditional or amateur jockey on board and they are allowed to use their claim. If they aren’t allowed to do that and are rated lower than the difference between the horse on top-weight, then they are said to be out of the handicap.
The theory behind a horse race handicap is it gives slower or inferior horses (based upon their rating) a chance of catching the superior ones that are higher in the weights. Conditional jockeys, who take first 10 pounds, then seven, five and three before losing their claim, are often used to get horses carrying high weights down.
This involves risks because you cannot be an experienced rider and still have a claim. Once you have partnered so many winners, you are said to have ridden out the allowance you claim, and can no longer take weight off.
Let’s take a horse race handicap at random like the 2016 Welsh Grand National. This was won by Native River, who went on to land the 2018 Cheltenham Gold Cup, off top-weight. His official rating at the time of 155 meant he was the best horse in that race on paper and so it proved as he won.
The runner-up Raz De Maree, who would win the following renewal of the Welsh National, ran off a BHA mark of 139. That meant he was rated 16lb inferior to Native River, who was running with 11st 12lb on board. Raz De Maree would have carried 10st 10lb were it not for the 3lb claim of conditional jockey Ger Fox could use in the race. This put him 3lb well-in to the race, because it was additional weight taken off his back.
When Raz De Maree contested the 2017 Welsh National at Chepstow (delayed by bad weather until January 2018), he was racing off an official rating of just 1lb higher than the 2016 mark of 139. As the top-weight was 4lb inferior to Native River’s mark, however, it meant Raz De Maree was higher in the weights, but this time had James Bowen – a 5lb claimer aboard that offset the difference.
Handicap horse race weights for famous contests like the Grand National are published well in advance of the event, yet if a horse allotted top weight pulls out and doesn’t take up an entry, then everything else that remains in the race goes up in weight. They are fascinating puzzles for punters to solve and if you do find the winner there’s no finer feeling.