The idea of a handicap is that the official handicapper assesses the form of all the runners in a race and then allots them weights, with the aim of equalising the chances of every runner. This isn’t an exact science by any means but generally speaking handicap races are ultra-competitive and the official handicapper of the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) does a fairly good job.
Handicap races are loved by bookmakers as they help to ensure large field sizes. This is because owners and trainers will want their horses to compete in handicap races because even if their horse isn’t a world beater, it will be given a weight, which in theory at least, should give it a squeak in every handicap that it contests. Lots of competition and lots of runners are a winning combination for bookies’ turnover and guarantees lots of losing punters, which in turn means big profits. It is therefore not surprising that bookmakers spend a lot of money sponsoring handicap races. However, these kinds of races do give the astute punter a chance because a handicap is only as competitive as the official handicapper’s judgement. If the official handicapper gets it wrong, then they can end up underestimating a horse’s chance and allocating it a low weight. This can happen for a variety of different reasons.
Some trainers are very adept as helping to disguise the true ability of their animals so that when they run in a handicap for the first time the poor official handicapper really hasn’t got a clue as to how good the horse may be. This can mean that a horse’s chance is seriously underestimated and the horse can end up with a BHA handicap mark that is well below what it should have received had its true ability been known. I know of at least one trainer who is expert at discovering the true ability of his horses in gallops at home. He then runs them over an inadequate distance or over unsuitable going in non-handicap races until they have had at least three races to be qualified for a handicap race. Once qualified for a handicap they are then ready to run over the right distance and going. The official handicapper though knows nothing of this. He or she only has the form book to rely upon and they simply see a horse that has been well-beaten in three previous races. They therefore get a lowly handicap rating that is well below what it should have been. No rules of racing have been broken here. It is simply a shrewd trainer doing his best for his owners and helping those in the know win a few quid.
However, you don’t need to be one of those in the know to profit from these runners, provided that one is patient and prepared to follow a simple system over a large number of races. My simple system is to back three year olds when they are making their handicap début in an all- age handicaps. Following this simple system from 2005 onwards would have netted you a 20% return on all stakes invested. This was based on betting the selection at the Betfair SP, and taking off a 5% commission rate on all winning bets. This was over a sample of nearly 2,000 selections over the last few years. Unfortunately the strike rate was low at below 10%. Therefore one needs to be patient because when the system gets it right, the odds of reward on winning selections are high. The average winning Betfair Starting Price in my sample was nearly 18-1!
The rationale for focusing on three year olds in all-age handicaps is that three-year-old handicap débutantes are particularly unexposed in comparison to their older rivals. The handicapper is particularly unsighted on these types of animals because they obviously don’t have as much form in the book as a four or five-year-old that has been contesting handicaps for some time. The handicapper has a good grip on these animals and will know them inside out. They are likely to be weighted right up to their ability. In contrast the three year old is normally still maturing across the season and may still be improving. In some rare cases the three-year old may be making a début in a handicap because they haven’t quite matured in time to compete in the top class conditions races. For instance, some of the big trainers, Sir Michael Stoute for example, have horses that are bred to win classics but don’t reach their potential in time. They are then given opportunities later in the season to contest valuable handicaps. These animals can sometimes progress from handicaps to group races towards the back end of the season.