Between National Hunt and Flat races there are a variety of classifications and unless you are an experienced horse racing enthusiast, the sheer number of conditions in each race can be off-putting. However, if you’re prepared to put the time and effort into analysing the ratings of each horse, you’re likely to be rewarded over the course of time.
The Ratings System
According to the British Horseracing Authority, approximately 60% of races run in the UK are handicap events. In a handicapped race, each horse is assessed and allotted a certain amount of weight which depends on the official rating it receives from the BHA. The purpose of the extra weight (which is in the form of a lead weight added to the saddle) is to ensure each race is theoretically an even contest.
Each rating point is worth one pound of weight so if horse A has a 10 point rating advantage over horse B in a race, it will be forced to race with 10 extra pounds. Therefore, if every horse ran according to its ability, every race would be extremely close.
Of course, we know this isn’t the case because a variety of factors such as the stable’s form, fitness and track conditions can all make a huge difference. Occasionally, the handicapper can make a mess of the ratings which results in a horse competing in a race against opponents it is far superior to.
We look at this in detail in another article but basically, National Hunt races have 6 classes while Flat races have 7. In both forms of racing, Class 1 involves the best horses and ratings are generally not taken into account. However, in the rest of the classes, a horse’s rating is all-important.
The BHA has to keep on top of things and revises the official ratings of each horse on a weekly basis. If a horse wins a race on the Flat it may be hit with a 6 pound penalty while National Hunt winners could be hit with a 7 pound penalty. The actual size of the penalty depends on the conditions of the race that was won.
As a result, trainers may enter their horse in a race a few days after the win and accept the 6-7 pound penalty rather than wait a week and be hit with an even larger weight rise.
As the classifications are dependent on a horse’s Official Rating (OR), horses cannot compete in a handicap contest when their OR is above the maximum limit for that grade. For example, a horse with a 67 rating in Flat racing cannot compete in Class 6 races as the bands are 46-60 and 51-65. Instead, it must race in Class 5 events where the rating bands are 56-70 and 61-75 or in Class 4 events within the 66-80 ratings band.
The same horse could technically also compete in a Class 3 event where the ratings band is 76-90. However, it would need to carry the minimum weight for that particular race; so in our example, the horse with a rating of 67 would be 9 pounds worse off than the rest of the horses in the Class 3 event and very unlikely to win the race.
Moving On Up
The BHA’s OR is generally given to a horse once it has won a race or has competed in three races and managed a top 6 finish in one of them. If the horse doesn’t achieve a top 6 finish, it competes until it meets this goal.
Only horses with an OR can compete in a handicap race. Its OR dictates the Class of race it can enter so for example, a horse with a Flat rating of 53 can only run in Class 6 races until its rating increases to at least 56 whereupon it can race in Class 5 events; alternatively, its OR could drop to 45 or less in which case it would run in Class 7 events.
In simple terms, the OR increases when a horse wins or is deemed to ‘run above its rating’ and it drops when the horse is deemed to underperform. Savvy trainers such as Sir Mark Prescott know how to exploit the system. We already mentioned that a win leads to an average penalty and the ratings are updated weekly.
So if a horse wins an event, it can quickly be entered in other races in its Class and rack up 3 wins in a week before the handicapper catches up with it. Sure, it will run under a 6-7 pound penalty but is this much of an issue if the horse wins by 22 lengths and is clearly ‘a class above’?
Trainers can exploit the system in another way; by running a horse bred for longer distances in shorter races. For example, the trainer can run a 2-year-old 3 times over 6 furlong races in the knowledge the horse will perform poorly. As a result, the handicapper gives the horse a low rating of say 50.
The trainer then gives the horse a break and returns over 1 mile and 5 furlongs where the horse gets to run off an artificially low mark. The horse can then rattle up a number of wins before the handicapper catches up because it is rated on its poor 6 furlong form.
A horse doesn’t just experience OR and subsequent Class increases due to winning races however. The handicapper also takes into account the ‘quality’ of the performance and the opposition. For instance, if Horse A beats two opponents rated over 90 but finishes second just one length behind a horse rated 93, it is deemed to be a better performance than beating a horse rated 83 by two lengths.
In Flat races, one length is deemed to be ‘worth’ up to 3 pounds in a sprint race, 2 pounds in a 1 mile race and 1 pound in a longer distance race. So if a horse is rated at 104 and wins a 1 mile Flat race by 4 lengths, the second place horse could be said to have run to a 96 rating.
Positive & Negative Class Moves
A rise in class is not always a good thing nor is a drop in class necessarily a bad thing. Positive class moves include:
- A rise in Class after a good performance or a win.
- A small drop after a mediocre or poor performance.
- No change in class after an average or decent performance.
Negative class moves include:
- Staying at the same class after a facile win.
- A drop in class after a win or good performance.
If Form Is Temporary, Is Class Permanent?
Form is almost always deemed to be the most important factor in horse racing. Out of form horses are typically ignored when picking winners but is this a big mistake?
If a horse performs badly in Class 4 events, it should be analysed when it drops to Class 5 events because it could perform much better even in a relative sense. Some horses just don’t fare well when up against horses of similar ability but they may be experts at bullying weaker opposition.
For example, a horse with an OR of 72 should do okay in Class 4 events and be competitive in Class 5 events. Yet there are countless examples of horses that simply fail to rise to the occasion. The same horse could drop to Class 6 and excel.
Instead of looking at a horse’s form as your be-all and end-all, do your research and see how it fares in different Classes. The results could surprise you.