A handicap in horse racing is a type of race where the weights carried by those competing is based on official BHA ratings if the event takes place in mainland Britain. The horse given the highest rating by the assessor is allotted topweight with all others being relative to the difference between that one’s and their own mark. We discuss what is a handicap horse race is some depth here, so that you understand how such events work.
The majority of horse races that take place worldwide are handicaps. Understanding what does handicap mean in horse racing circles is thus important if you’re going to take a punt on this sport. Our experts can explain the workings of such events by taking you through an example:
Let’s take an ordinary handicap chase from the National Hunt code of horse racing at random on a standard, run of the mill day in the sport. In a Class 4 event for horses rated 0-105, any entrants at the top of that bracket have topweight of 12st allotted to them. Should any runners have BHA handicap ratings of 105, then that is what they will carry.
If the next best horse with the assessor has a handicap mark of 99, however, then we need to subtract 6lb from 12st to get the allotted weight. That’s because 99 is six less than 105. It equates to 11st 8lb, as there are 14lb to every whole stone in imperial measurements, which remain the unit of weight used for BHA and Irish handicap ratings today. This process applies to every runner down the field based on the difference between their mark and that of the topweight.
The minimum handicap weight is also specified by the terms of the race. With a horse racing handicap over jumps, that is 10st 2lb. Anything rated below 79 in the above race will have to carry that minimum weight regardless of their official rating. This may create a situation where a horse is said to be running from out of the handicap. If you want to see what they should be carrying, then certain media outlets cater for that. They provide what is known as a long handicap.
You can not only see what is a handicap horse race, but how far out of the weights some participants are. Running from out of the handicap puts such horses at a major disadvantage as they compete from a mark that is above their actual official rating. It doesn’t stop some defying the unfavourable terms and winning, though.
The allocation of weight based on their mark to any runner in a handicap in horse racing only applies to that particular race. Based on their subsequent performance on the track, their current rating can go up, down or remain the same. One thing any seasoned punter that has been placing wagers on horse racing betting sites for a while will tell you, is the assessor puts progressive runners up a lot faster than they reduce the marks for those horses beaten.
If a horse wins a handicap race, then chances are their official rating will go up. It’s not always the same for those who lose, however, as it’s possible to run above expectations in defeat. When a horse’s mark starts to drop, the saying that the handicapper has relented may apply. A key takeaway for you here is that the situation is actually quite fluid. You could have a scenario where all competing horses end up with a very different assessment of their ability following a race.
Part of learning how to bet on horses effectively, then, is seeking out improving and/or well-treated horses. It’s not enough simply to know what is a handicap horse race, but which runners are still getting better and those who are on the wane, or who have fallen in the weights to an attractive mark on the pick of their form. That leaves you with plenty to ponder.
As with any wager in betting, there are definitely upsides but also some drawbacks to taking a punt on an handicap in horse racing. We believe in being frank with you about that. Making you aware of the pluses, but also the negatives alongside telling you what is a handicap horse race creates a more rounded appreciation of such events:
What we don’t:
Horse racing events that aren’t handicaps are called conditions races. This is because the weights carried aren’t based on official ratings, but rather certain conditions. Penalties will apply if they have won a certain calibre of race within a set timeframe. Both the National Hunt and Flat codes have Listed races that act as a bridge between the lower of race and graded or Group races respectively. The highest level of competition is a Grade 1 or Group 1 event.
Away from the zenith of the sport, there are also selling and claiming races where horses can be sold or claimed if they win and a certain price is offered by prospective new owners. Some conditions and handicap races are restricted by age and gender of the horses, as well as a ratings ceiling, but also by the type of jockeys that can ride in them. Some are for amateurs only, while other allow conditionals over jumps and apprentices on the Flat.
Now that you know all about what is a handicap horse race in general terms, it’s time to look at list of specific notable ones in the respective codes of the sport in the UK. We start with those over jumps, namely steeplechases and hurdle races. While there a small number of Grade 2 limited handicaps throughout the core National Hunt season such as the Old Roan Chase, Haldon Gold Cup, Desert Orchid Chase, Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle Finale, Cheltenham Silver Trophy and Scottish Champion Hurdle, the majority of valuable handicaps over jumps are called Premier Handicaps.
As of the 2023-24 season, there are around 50 such races held in the UK. These were introduced by the BHA as of 1 October 2022, replacing Grade 3 races. This followed a meeting of the Jump Pattern Committee where this recommendation was implemented. These are the races with Premier Handicap status run in England, Wales and Scotland today:
When it comes to the Flat, if a good class of race of this type (Class 2) is worth a certain amount in total prize money, then it qualifies for Heritage Handicap status. This may seem odd to some punters. Heritage is a word with connotations surrounding storied history, so there are in fact some long-standing and well-established handicaps that, because the prize fund isn’t sufficient, don’t qualify. Knowing what is a handicap horse race is certainly more complex than it first appears.
A notable example of historic race not meeting the requirements for Heritage Handicap status is the Old Newton Cup, which has been run in various guises at Haydock Park since 1807 with its current name coming in almost a century later in 1903. The two lists below deal with Heritage Handicaps and then other prestigious Flat handicap races:
We’ve discussed what is a handicap horse race in some depth here, but not how to bet on them successfully. To be perfectly frank with you, these are trickier to be successful in as a punter than conditions races. There is some sage advice our experts want to pass on, however, so here’s what they have to say about betting on handicaps in horse racing:
Weight allotted for a horse racing handicap depend on the official governing body’s official ratings. The horse with the highest of these carries topweight. You then base the weights for the rest of the field on the difference between their rating and that of the topweight. That is why it said the top-rated horse frames the handicap.
If a horse is out of the handicap, then they are running off a mark that is higher than their official rating. This may be because the topweight is a much superior horse to them and the specified bottom weight isn’t a large enough to cover the difference between them.
They may do, but it depends on the terms of the race. Penalties in the form of additional weight that apply to handicaps are larger in terms of extra weight over jumps than they are on the Flat.
The long handicap shows you the weights that horses should be carrying instead of the minimum allotted. This reveals how far out of the handicap they are running from.
Although the two jurisdictions agree to confer and collate data, Irish and BHA handicap ratings aren’t the same. When horses from the Emerald Isle come over to mainland Britain, the assessor often gives them a higher mark than they would be running off at home.
The key difference between handicaps and non-handicaps are the weights are specified in conditions based on a penalty structure within a set timeframe. While weight for age allowances apply to both handicaps and non-handicaps, the gender allowance (3lb on the Flat and 7lb over jumps) for fillies and mares is unique to conditions races.