According to the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), around 60% of all races in the UK are handicap events. Since some horses are of a much higher quality than others, it’s necessary to make the race more ‘even’. This is done by assessing the ability of each horse and then deciding on a weight penalty. In theory, this should give every entrant in a race an equal chance of victory.
The BHA has a team of professional Handicappers who are responsible for studying and interpreting the form of each horse before determining their Official Rating (OR). Each week, this ratings list is updated based on how horses perform in races. The higher the OR, the better the horse.
Each point in the OR equates to 1 pound of weight; so if horse A has a rating of 105 and horse B has a rating of 95, horse A must carry 10 extra pounds of weight if they compete in the same handicap event.
To try and ensure competitive races as often as possible, the BHA has restricted events which means only horses with a rating within a certain range are allowed to compete. For instance, only horses with a rating of 70 or less can run in a 0-70 handicap event.
When horses are judged to have run ‘above’ their current rating, the OR is increased and when horses are believed to run ‘below’ their rating, the OR gets reduced. Without handicap events, the best horses would win practically every race which would ruin the sport as a spectacle.
The Handicapping Team
At the time of writing, there is a team of 12 handicappers working with the BHA; Phil Smith is the Head of Handicapping while Dominic Gardiner-Hill has the Deputy Head of Handicapping role. There is a separate team for Flat and Jump events although certain team members work in both departments.
The aims of the Handicapping Team include:
- Ensuring races are competitive as a means of helping spectators enjoy racing and making sure trainers and owners believe their horse has a chance of winning for as long as possible.
- Making sure the OR of each horse theoretically gives them an equal chance of winning the race if they run under ‘optimum’ conditions.
- Allowing for competitive betting so the public find races intriguing since they believe each horse has a realistic chance of victory.
- Evaluation of ratings after every single race to make sure the horses is weighted accordingly in the event they meet again.
- Reduce the ratings of horses that show clear signs of decline while ignoring a bad run which appears to be an isolated occurrence.
- Favouring the majority ahead of the minority. For example, if one horse receives too high a rating its chances of winning a race are reduced. However, this is a better solution than rating one horse too low as this would negatively impact the chances of all the other horses in the race.
- Consistency over the course of time as this ensures different generations of horses can be compared internationally and for export & stud purposes.
Horses must meet certain criteria in order to be eligible for handicap events. In the last few years, the BHA has extended the rules as a means of enabling more horses to compete in these races.
Flat Race Eligibility
In order to quality, a horse must have run a minimum of 3 times in UK Flat races or else it must have run 2 races and won at least one of them. Only horses that have run 3 or more times are allowed compete in handicap events where the prize fund is £30,000+.
Nursery Handicap Eligibility
These races are for 2 year old horses; again, eligibility depends on a 2yo running at least 3 races in the UK. However, a 2yo is allowed compete in Nursery Handicaps if it has run at least one Flat race in the UK (and won at least one race) and the Handicapper believes the horse is worthy of an OR of 80 or less.
Additionally, a 2yo can compete if it has run 2 Flat races in the UK, has won at least one of these races and the Handicapper is prepared to give the horse an OR of 85 or less.
Jump Race Eligibility
There are certain eligibility conditions when it comes to juveniles and novices in Jump Handicap events but typically, horses must have run at least 3 times in hurdle or steeplechase events (a combination of both is fine so 2 hurdle races and 1 steeplechase race makes a horse eligible) in Ireland, France or the UK.
Horses can also compete if they have run at least 2 races in the aforementioned countries and finished in the top 4 on both occasions. Horses may also be eligible if they have run less than 3 hurdle or steeplechase races in the above countries but have won at least one of the races as they would not be considered a novice or juvenile.
For horses that are eligible due to races run outside the UK, the trainer needs to give the Handicapper 10 days’ notice; this gives the UK Handicapping team the time to contact their foreign equivalent.
How Are Handicap Ratings Calculated?
Now we get to the crux of the matter; how does the Handicapping Team calculate ratings based on performance in the first place? First and foremost, it’s important to note that the team evaluates horses after every single race to ensure the ratings are as up to date as possible; although the actual OR only gets updated on a weekly basis.
When it comes to calculating the performances of horses in any given race, a handicapper will normally begin by finding one or more ‘marker’ horses. These are horses that the handicapper thinks have run to their rating in the current race. Then the handicapper compares these ‘markers’ to the other horses in the race. Finally, a specific ‘pounds per length’ formula is used:
- 5 Furlongs: 3 pounds per length.
- 6 Furlongs: 2.5 pounds per length.
- 7–8 Furlongs: 2 pounds per length.
- 9–10 Furlongs: 1.75 pounds per length.
- 11–13 Furlongs: 1.5 pounds per length.
- 14 Furlongs: 1.25 pounds per length.
- 15+ Furlongs: 1 pound per length.
So in theory, if horse A beats horse B by 2 lengths in a 5 furlong race, he is considered to be 6 pounds better on the day. Likewise, if Horse A beats Horse B by 4 lengths in a 14 furlong race (1 mile 6f) he is deemed to be 5 pounds better.
In most instances, Handicappers allow 1 pound per length unless the ground is deemed to be testing or the race was over a very long distance.
In most cases, a minimum of 3 runs are necessary in order for a horse to receive an OR. In an ideal world, a horse’s first 3 runs would all be of a similar standard. For instance, a horse might run to a rating of 62, 60 and 61 in its first 3 races which would allow the Handicapper to award an OR of 61.
Issues arise when horses produce inconsistent performances early on; for instance, a horse may run two races at a moderate standard followed by a good performance. When this happens, the Handicapper is always cautious and will pay more attention to the good performance as long as the race itself was of reasonable quality.
If the horse then produces a poor performance in the next race, it’s OR is likely to plummet as long as the race is deemed to have been run in similar conditions and have a comparable level of quality as the race the horse ran well in previously.
If the Handicapper believes a horse needed to improve on its existing rating to win a race (and subsequently wins), the horse’s OR will be increased. Remember, horses in handicap events have the same chance of victory in theory so any horse that wins can be said to have run ‘above’ its rating.
According to the BHA, the average weight rise for Jump horses is 7.5 pounds and for Flat horses it is 6 pounds. However, the weights can be increased by varying amounts depending on a number of factors.
Horses don’t necessarily have to win a race in order to be penalised with a weight rise. If a horse merely ‘places’ in a large race, it means it has defeated most of its rivals which were deemed to have an equal chance at the start. Therefore, the horse can be said to have run ‘above’ its rating which suggests it should have its OR increased.
The Handicapping Team will reduce a horse’s OR if they believe the horse is no longer running its mark. Obviously, this process takes time; the Handicapper can’t slash a rating on the basis of a single poor performance as this may be too premature a reaction. It will take a few poor runs in a row in order for a horse to be dropped in rating.
The level of the drop depends on the horse; Handicappers are reluctant to reduce the rating of a previously successful horse as it may yet return to form. A horse with a moderate to poor track record will have its rating dropped fairly quickly on the other hand.
If a horse hasn’t run for almost a year, its rating will be deleted by the BHA and the trainer must contact the Authority to apply for a new rating when the horse is set to return. A horse deemed to be on the decline will receive a reasonable drop (perhaps up to 8 points) while a young progressive horse may have its rating increased.
Past ratings are also taken into account; a highly rated horse will probably receive a reduction in rating as it will be hard for it to hit its peak once again. In contrast, horses with a rating of 50 or less on the Flat will receive a similar mark; this gives the Handicapper another chance to analyse the horse.
Weight For Age (WFA)
The WFA allowance is given to younger horses since older and more mature horses are deemed to have a physical advantage. Flat horses are said to reach maturity during the beginning of their 4yo season while Jump horses are equal to older competitors towards the end of the 4yo season in hurdles and the end of the 5yo season in steeplechases.
Younger horses are also said to be at a disadvantage over longer distances. For instance, a 3yo would be given equal status over 5 furlongs by November but would get an allowance over 1 mile.
There are different WFA scales in other nations around the world; the British Jump scale has been altered twice in the last decade or so and the BHA is happy with how the current incarnation is working.
Ratings According To Surfaces
It’s possible for a horse to run extremely well on turf and poorly on an All-Weather (AW) surface and vice versa (it’s not uncommon for a horse to have a 20 pound difference in performance depending on the surface). As a consequence, certain horses are given separate turf and AW ratings which can provide a headache for the Handicapper as he needs to decide if one or both ratings must be altered after a race.
Can A Trainer Play The System?
Of course! For example, a horse bred for middle distances could complete in shorter events to begin with. After receiving a moderate rating by the end of the season, the trainer can then enter the horse in a longer distance handicap the following season off a low OR and achieve several wins in succession. However, don’t think Handicappers aren’t aware of this little trick!
As a horse’s OR is assessed on a weekly basis only, a trainer could enter a horse in 3 races in 5 days and get some victories on the board before the rating is significantly increased. Remember, a horse is not likely to be penalised by more than 7 pounds after any given race so while the Handicapper may ultimately increase the rating by 10-15 points the following week, trainers can benefit from quick turnarounds to get wins under relatively lenient marks.
Why Would A Handicapper Not Allocate A Rating?
If a Handicapper believes there isn’t enough evidence to provide a horse with a rating, he is entitled to refuse to provide one. There are a variety of other reasons not to allocate a rating depending on the code:
- Horses that win a race in their first run when there is little or no evidence provided by the beaten horses as to the quality of the winner.
- When a horse’s best run was affected mathematically by the above circumstances.
- When the horse runs over a distance which is clearly inappropriate.
- When a horse hasn’t been competitive at all during 2 of its previous runs.
- When a horse has yet to complete a race after 3 attempts.
- No headgear.
- Very poor jumping.
Flat & Jump
- When the horse is poorly ridden to the point where it couldn’t achieve its best position.
- If the horse has been badly hampered on more than one occasion.
- If the horse has clearly been eased up.
- If, at a running and riding enquiry, a horse’s connections explain why a horse failed to run to its capabilities but are not found to be in breach.
- Lack of evidence on which to base a rating. This may include an event featuring all first timers for example.
- A jockey’s report which suggests the horse is much better than it showed for reasons which can’t be quantified. For instance, the going turned out to be unsuitable or the horse simply froze on the big occasion.
- If a horse’s form can’t be rated after 3 runs.
- The horse started slowly on more than one occasion.
Handicapping is not an exact science but it is about as accurate a way of making races fair as the BHA can come up with. According to the Authority, only 2-3 horses on average will perform above their rating during a handicap event with 11-13 runners.
The recent form of horses is clearly taken into account when creating performance figures but there are a host of other factors too. For example, the Handicapping Team has to decide if a horse’s form is on the upturn or downturn or if a horse is a consistent or inconsistent performer.
Beating the Handicapper consistently is the Holy Grail of horse racing betting; a select few professionals achieve this goal and profit handsomely from their efforts. Hopefully, Race Advisor readers can benefit from the information provided on other pages in the site and give the BHA Handicapping Team a black eye!