Under the Saddle: How do Penalties Work in Horse Racing?

Last updated & tested: 2019-10-06

How do penalties work? Elegant Escape (left) won the 2018 Welsh Grand National under a penalty.

In the latest of our under the saddle articles, OpenOdds horse racing experts explain how penalties work and are applied in the sport. This series of pieces is all about educating people new to the sport about industry and betting related terminology.

If a race that interests you has horses carrying different weights, but it’s not a handicap or conditional and amateur jockeys aren’t riding or able to use their claims, then chances are one or more horses are running under a penalty. These are specified under the race terms which you should find detailed at the top of a racecard.

Penalties imposed on horses depend on the quality or number of races they have won within a certain timeframe. These will always be timebound, so a horse isn’t penalised for a race it won years ago. The class or level of the races they came first in can have an effect on the amount of extra weight allotted.

A Grade or Group 1 winner dropping down into a Listed race, for instance, will carry the maximum penalty it is possible to impose. This is considered only fair because the horse has clearly proven itself at the highest level.

When horses go from novice status into open company, the penalties for victories in top class races are often specified as being halved. Instead of getting in with a full 6lb penalty, just 3lb extra on top of the specified wight would be carried in this scenario.

Study penalties carefully before taking a punt

Penalties are also applied to horses quickly turned out again after winning a race before the official assessor has had their say. With so many animals running under rules, revising a horse’s rating takes time and owners and trainers can take advantage of the delay.

In order to prevent them from running off the same mark as that recent win, race terms will specify penalties for any race victory within the same sphere usually within a couple of weeks. This is a particularly prevalent phenomenon in handicap races.

From a horse racing betting perspective, penalties aren’t anything for punters to worry about if a horse’s rating is superior to those of rivals by an amount relative to the difference in weight. They should always be a factor in your thinking before taking a punt though.

Ask yourself, does a horse look capable of giving 6lb, 4lb, 3lb, 2lb or whatever the weight difference is to the field or particular rivals based on previous form and performances? If you’re confident the animal can, then it’s clearly worth a wager.

In the event a horse is meeting a re-opposing rival on worse terms as a result of a penalty, however, then you need to be careful about backing them to go in again. It can even be a reason to bet against or lay a horse on betting exchanges.

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