Horse Race Handicapping

What is horse racing handicapping?

For many newcomers or recreational horse racing bettors, the answer is not totally obvious to the question, ”what is a handicap race?” There is often some confusion or misunderstanding with regards to the type of contest known as a ‘Handicap’. Handicap races make up almost 60% of all races run throughout the UK each year, and therefore a solid understanding would be hugely beneficial in improving your Horse racing betting and ultimately your success and profits. Our horse tipster Tony R will often put up horse racing betting that run in handicap races.

In simple terms, a handicap race can be defined as the following:-

“A handicap race in horse racing is a race in which horses carry different weights, allocated by the handicapper. A better horse will carry a heavier weight, to give it a disadvantage when racing against slower horses”

The easiest way to describe this is relate it to humans. For example, Usain Bolt was asked to race Mo Farah over 300 metres and the governing body employed a  handicapper who felt that Usain Bolt was the equivalent of 5 seconds faster than Farah. They would allocate him a weight to carry during the run that was heavy enough so it was equal to slowing him down by 5 seconds. This would hopefully make the fantasy race a level playing field.

Every time a horse runs in a race the performance is analysed by the ‘Handicapper’ and the horse is allocated a rating. Every case is judged on its individual merits with the Handicapper taking into account all the pertinent variables such as the weight the horse carried in relation to other runners, the race distance, the ground, the draw (if a Flat race), the finishing margins between runners, the pace at which the race was run, the strength of the current form of the runners, and whether any incidents occurred that could have impeded one or more of the runners or exaggerated a horse’s performance.

Now clearly this is not an exact science. There are numerous methods that Trainers have at their disposal to make them think they have a ”well handicapped horse” on their hands – as in, better than the handicap mark and weight they will be due to carry. This combination therefor more likely to win a certain contest.

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Handicap Race Betting

Handicap race betting is intended to produce a competitive race structure that provides an exciting spectacle for followers of the sport. Designed to result in closely matched horses in tight finishes and should create competitive betting markets. Betting data confirms that handicaps are popular with punters, with less competitive races (in terms of the number of runners and the relative levels of ability) tending to generate lower betting activity. Handicaps are good for the sport all round and will often be advised here on site, whether that be as part of Today’s Racing Tips or an Ante-post Racing Tip.

Handicap Penalties Explained

The handicap penalties system explanation is not rocket science. The race conditions for most handicaps includes applying a standard penalty of 6lbs in Flat races and 7lb in Jump races. They are awarded for any horse that wins after the Handicapper has had the opportunity to take account of the win in setting the weight to be carried by each horse. This standard penalty is based on the median weight rise applied to winners under both codes of racing.

How does handicapping horses work?

Handicapping horses works using performance figures. They can be considered as the building blocks of handicap ratings. They are calculated for each performance and are ultimately used to produce handicap ratings.

In producing performance figures for the horses that have participated in any particular race, the Handicapper will tend to identify one or more ‘yardstick’ or ‘marker’ horses through which the level of the race is established.  If you have a solid horse that time after time runs to a mark of around 80-85, and in a particular race ran to 83, you can be confident that this was the horses true running. They will then look to build the other ratings around that horse.

After finding the most plausible fit with the yardstick horse(s), the relativity between them and the other runners is interpreted by the Handicapper according to an approximate pounds-per-length conversion (illustrated below) and adjusted for the weights carried:

Flat Racing

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

Jumps Racing

1lb per length is used in most instances except over very long distances or on very testing ground.

Depending on which yardstick horse is selected, a wide range of interpretations of the merits of a particular race is possible. Experience shows that in handicaps of between 11 and 13 runners, for example, on average only two or three horses will have performed to a level that exceeds their handicap rating. This may not be the case in non-handicap races, which in many instances will have a much wider range of possible interpretations.

What is Weight for Age (WFA)?

Weight for Age (WFA) is a weight allowance to compensate a horse for lack of physical maturity.

In practice, the WFA table describes a sliding scale of weight allowances that younger horses receive from older ones. These allowances are based on the principle that, on average, Flat horses become fully mature at around the beginning of the turf season as 4 year olds.  In Jump racing the theory is that young Jumpers are the equal of their older counterparts as hurdlers towards the end of their 4 year old year. As steeplechasers, it’s approximately one year later.

Younger animals are considered to be more disadvantaged in races over longer distances and the sliding scale reflects this. For example, a 3 year old is presumed to be the equal of his elders over 5 furlongs by November. However, a 3 year old running over a mile on the same day would receive an allowance. Similar distance-based factors are included in the Jump scale. At you can expect to receive horse racing betting tips for horses of all different ages.

The WFA scale is designed to reflect the physical development of the average horse. When a Flat horse is described as having ‘failed to train on’ from two to three, it may be the case that the horse was precocious and had less than average scope for physical development at the end of its 2yo season. It will therefore have regressed relative to its peers. Conversely other horses may improve by more than the scale suggests. In handicap races with different age groups, the Handicapper deducts the WFA allowance from the weight carried by any horse that receives it.

The role of the handicapper is to try and make it as much of a level playing field as possible – they would be most delighted if there was a real bunch finish and all the runners finished in a straight line. This would mean they have ‘handicapped’ the race well and done their job to the best of their ability. That being said, the idea of training horses and owning horses is to win races. That is why certain methods and strategies are used in order to get your horse a nice handicap mark. This naturally enhances your chances of gaining that much needed victory.

What is a ”well handicapped” horse?

Some particular trainers are experts at getting those they stable to be well handicapped horses and duly rack up a number of winners in handicap and Nursery company.

Venetia Williams Horse Trainer

A good example of this would be Grand National winning Trainer Venetia Williams. A very shrewd operator who learnt her trade with another master of the form book, Martin Pipe. She clearly didn’t walk around with her eyes closed. She is well known for bringing her horses on slowly, running them when not fully mature and still learning to jump correctly.

There is bit of a stereotype but a number of the yard’s horses seem to relish heavy winter ground. This is likely because she sources a lot of her horses from France, where they are bred to run on testing ground. Therefore, you will often see Williams running these youngsters on better ground, over a trip not likely to be the horses optimum conditions whilst learning their trade and getting used to the race course experience.

She is breaking no rules in doing so and as a result the French Import is allocated a very low chase handicap mark. You can bet your bottom dollar once this horse starts showing a lot more on the schooling ground at home, she will be scanning the programme book for a suitable opportunity. This is where we have often seen a Venetia Williams 6 year old, having a 2nd or 3rd start over fences – stepped up in trip and on favoured heavy ground for the first time.

We then see a different horse to the one we saw over shorter distances on good ground and it’s no surprise to see these backed off the boards. Again, she is breaking no rules. She simply understands her horses well and takes advantage of optimum conditions when they appear and the lowly handicap mark her youngster has been allocated.

One of Williams’ best stories comes in the form of rags to riches filly, Lady Rebecca. She cost a mere £400 but was able to climb the ranks and compete at the highest levels. That story somewhat echos Williams’ own career in the training ranks.

Sir Mark Prescott Horse Trainer

A good Flat racing example would be the horse training genius that is Sir Mark Prescott. Year after year, the Master of Heath House Stables racks up endless handicap winners. Numerous runners improve out of sight and rack up long sequences of victories in doing so. It’s not uncommon for to offer a horse racing betting tip on a Prescott horse. So how does he manage such great success?

Again, Prescott first and foremost both understands his horses very well and understands the handicapping system down to a tee. He breaks no rules but uses the information he has about his own horses to get them well handicapped and take advantage of the system. His main area of expertise is with staying handicappers, normally three or four year olds that are bred to improve with age and for stepping up in trip.

He often has much better horses over staying distances than they will show over sprint distances for example. He almost treats the two year old campaigns as a learning curve, gaining valuable race course experience with three or four gentle runs around 6 or 7 furlongs. Following that he begins focusing on the three year old campaign next season. Then, the trainer will pinpoint numerous races and will slowly step the horse up in trip.

First to a mile, 1 mile 2 furlongs etc until he feels they are reaching their peak and take advantage of the low mark allocated by the handicapper whilst running over unsuitable trips. Its no surprise to see a Prescott runner rated as low as 55 at the start of the summer and by the time of the St Leger in September being 2 stone higher in the handicap.

Again he is breaking no rules but taking advantage of the system and only showing your hand when required and making the most of the lowly opening handicap marks.

Made up of all race types, Prescott has acheived fantastic consistent results over the last 6 years. His percentage of winners to runners has not dropped below 16.53%. The results are as follows;

2012 – Win 19.48%, Total Prize Money £440,188.67
2013 – Win 17.5%, Total Prize Money £225,555.91
2014 – Win 16.53%, Total Prize Money £332,489.96
2015 – Win 16.53%, Total Prize Money £666,291.62
2016 – Win 20 %, Total Prize Money £854,198.03
2017 – Win 17%, Total Prize Money £852,164.78

Another thing that needs to be considered when finding value bets in Handicap races is not the young, improving types but those more experienced horses that are ‘dropping down’ the weights. Horses that were once rated much higher and due to a string of bad runs are now running from a mark much lower than its last winning mark.

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Middleham Park Racing Owners

Middleham Park Racing (a big syndicate of racing owners) take advantage of horses dropping down the weights with great success. They have a team of industry leading form judges who analyse certain horses optimum conditions. Once a older horse starts falling down the weights and becomes available to buy at the ‘horses in training sales’ you will often see Middleham Park step in and buy the horse with a plan in mind.

They then look to send the horse to a specialist trainer, take advantage of the horses lower handicap mark and bring the horse back to full health. Once optimum racing conditions are found they look to pounce and make it count. They may have spotted something others haven’t, it could be the horse maybe has to go right handed or the horse has been crying out for a drop back to sprinting distances. Whatever the angle, they are looking to capitalise and take advantage of the new lowly mark.

Handicap races are often tricky and complicated puzzles for bettors. However, it’s well worth putting the time and effort in as understanding certain traits and form lines in handicap contests often help throw up big priced winners. Many professionals including Hugh Taylor and Andy Holding look to concentrate on Handicap races, such is the value they can throw up once able to identify the likely winner.

Barney Curley Betting Coup

Famous handicap bets being landed come no bigger than former Newmarket trainer Barney Curley betting coups. Also a professional gambler largely backing his own horses. It was Curley who was the master mind behind the Yellow Sam betting coup that took place at the small Irish track of Bellewstown in June 1975. Curley had managed to get the horse really well weighted after a string of average performances and was duly priced up at 20/1 for the handicap hurdle on the card.

Curley, through a number of techniques managed to win over £300,000 when Yellow Sam came home unchallenged by over 2 lengths, over £1.7 million in today’s money and that’s gone down in Racing folklore as one of the most memorable coups.
Source: The Sure Thing (Published Feb 2014)

Sir Mark Prescott Cesarewitch Gamble

Pasternak, for trainer Sir Mark Prescott is also one of the most famous handicap betting gambles from the 1997 Cesarewitch. It is reported to have taken £5million out of the bookmakers pockets. Priced up at 11/1 in the morning, Prescott made no secret of how highly he rated the horse and told whoever would listen to ‘have what you like on Pasternak’ and he wasn’t wrong. The horse duly won well at a starting price of just 4/1.

Harry Fry Horse Trainer

A good recent example of improvement/well handicapped horses is the staying hurdler, Unowhatimeanharry trained by Harry Fry. The horse joined the young trainer from Helen Nelmes on a mark of just 123 and within 18months was rated as high as 167. That’s an improvement of nearly 4 stone which is simply incredible.

This duly explains the gamble at Cheltenham on debut for the yard from the 123 mark. Eventually sent off 7/2 favourite to win a grade 3 handicap hurdle after being well backed. Looking back it was as close to a racing certainty you are likely to get.

Harry Fry has made giant strides since he gained his trainer’s licence in October 2012.

He has increased his total of winners and prize money each year and broke through the £1 million barrier for the first time in 2016-2017 with an impressive score of 69 wins including two in Ireland. To have ended his fifth campaign in thirteenth place in the trainers’ table was an outstanding achievement for one so young.

Stuart Williams Horse Trainer

Another recent example would be the Stuart Williams trained Sendintank. Who managed to win 10 handicaps in an 8 month period. Moving from a mark of just 50 at the start of the year to being sent off favourite for a class 3 race from 96 towards the end of the year. Again a rise of nearly 4 stone, incredible for a flat horse in such a short time.

During one lucrative period the trainer took advantage of the handicap system, winning 4 times in just 11 days. That’s a record we are not likely to see again for a good while. The horse was scoring each time by just over a length and therefore unable to be punished too harshly.

There is a particular quote from Timeform about Stuart Williams that hits the nail on the head when it comes to Williams’ ability as a trainer.
“One who can transform an apparently moderate animal into a frequent winner.”

Royal Ascot Handicap Bets

At Royal Ascot, big handicap bets are particuarly popular with gamblers. However, they are obviously the most prestigious and therefore the trickiest to win. This makes the performance of Ed Walker’s Agrotera in the Sandringham Stakes stand out. A horse really well backed into 11/2 favourite. From a mark of just 88, they clearly knew what they had on their hands. Winning in excellent style, Agrotera is now rated a stone higher on 102 and likely to progress further when returning next season.

Cesarewitch Handicap Betting

Another fine example of big handicap betting coups would be Tony Bloom’s Withhold, clearly some what of a plot when backed as if defeat was out of the question when stepped up in trip for the Cesarewitch and duly scoring by over 3 lengths to land some tidy bets for connections. A horse that has improved almost 2 stone since stepping up to 2 miles and beyond. They clearly had one well ahead of the handicapper.

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