Why do we have handicap races and how are the handicap ratings created?
Handicap races are designed around the principle that if you put weight on a horse then it will slow it down. By applying different weights to horses of different abilities, a handicap race tries to make the race as equal as possible. Theoretically, if a handicapper has done a perfect job then all horses would cross the finish line at the same time. Of course that is impossible, but it is the ultimate goal of a handicapper.
The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) has a team of twelve handicappers whose job it is to watch every single race and determine how well the horses have performed. In order to perform their analysis they take into account all the factors that went into the race, such as…
- Weight carried
- Finish Distances
- And more…
Based on all this information a figure is then awarded to each runner in race which shows how well it performed. Using this performance figure as reference, the handicapper will then create a handicap rating for the horse. This handicap rating determines how much weight the horse is going to carry in a particular race.
There are certain rules that different types of handicaps have regarding the entry of runners into races, if you are interested in these then please check them out at the BHA website.
There are effectively two stages in the handicapping process. Creating performance figures and creating handicap ratings. Let’s look at each in some more detail.
Performance figures are what handicap ratings are built on and so we shall look at them first. To get a performance figure for a horse, the handicapper will first of all find a horse in the race that has run the race to the same level it has run recent races, or has performed to a level similar to its current handicap rating. We need this horse in order to work out how much better, or worse, the other runners in the race have been.
Once this horse has been decided on, the others are then judged based on the distance they are from this horse using what is known as a pounds-per-length process. The table they use for flat racing is…
5f: 3lbs per length
6f: 2.5lbs per length
7f-8f: 2lbs per length
9-10f: 1.75lbs per length
11-13f: 1.5lbs per length
14f: 1.25lbs per length
15f+: 1lb per length
What this means, is that, over a 5 furlong race, if a horse was ahead of the established horse by 1 length, then it should have been carrying 3lbs more. If it was 1 length behind then it should have been carrying 3lbs less.
Unfortunately it is not quite as simple as that and the skill of the handicapper is also heavily relied on. Recent form, consistency of performance and many other factors are also taken into account and this adjusts the performance figure that a runner may be given.
Once the performance figure has been given, the horse then needs to have a handicap rating assigned to it. A winning runner will have its handicap rating raised only if it has been determined that in order to win the race their performance needed to improve. This can be determined by the previous and current performance figures. However, it is not only the winners that can have their handicap rating increased, horses that place also often see a rise in their rating. After all, if they have beaten most runners in a big field where all horses are supposed to have an equal chance, then they have performed better than their current handicap rating.
The opposite of this is true for decreasing a horses handicap rating, Indicating that a horses current rating is no longer an accurate assessment of the horses ability, which has declined.
As you can see, a handicap rating, while being made as formulaic as possible, still relies on the human assessment of the handicapper. And that means…that they can get it wrong!
For us as bettors this means that we can make profits. By handicapping races ourselves we can assess where the official handicappers may have got it wrong before a race, and then bet on those horses that have an advantage.
There is also something else that must be pointed out, which is a slight flaw in the official handicapping process. The pounds-per-length scale that is used, in my experience, is not accurate. Other conditions also need to be taken into account to determine how many pounds a horse should be added e.g. Size of horse, ground etc… Not only that but in reality there are also certain barriers that must also be considered, putting 2lbs on some horses is not going to make any difference at all, while on others it might. In fact there was a book written about this a long-time ago called The Solidus, and while the figures are not necessarily 100% true anymore, the principles behind are very much an important part of race analysis.