Handicap Ceilings

On November 10, 2016, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) made a decision which significantly impacted the world of handicap racing. It announced a change to handicap race entry criteria which meant that horses rated 1 or 2 pounds higher than the allocated rating band could enter the majority of races. The amendment only impacts races at Class 3 and below.

Although the recommendation came from the BHA’s jump racing team, the rule applies to handicaps on the Flat as well. One of the goals of the change was to provide additional flexibility for trainers by enabling horses, who were previously unable to enter races because they were slightly outside the range, to compete. In the world of horse racing, two pounds could make a difference, so has the BHA made a mistake? Is it possible for punters to make a profit?

Handicapping – A Delicate Balancing Act

Will the new rule ruin this balance? In National Hunt racing, 1 pound per length is used in most instances except over very long distances. In Flat racing, 1 pound only counts as a length in races of 1m 7f+. For 7f-8f races, one length equates to two pounds. Therefore, a horse that’s 2 pounds over the limit in a 7f race theoretically has a one-length advantage over the rest of the field in a handicap race.

As the rule affects horses at the top end of the limit, it could have a major impact because statistically, top-weighted horses are the most successful. The table below shows the performance of horses in handicap races according to their weight rank. The data is from 2011-2015 (before the new rule) and 1 = top weight, 2 = second top weight and so on. Also, 1 = top or joint top, 2 = second top or joint second top etc.

Weight Rank Bets Wins  Strike Rate ROI (BF)
1 45033 6598 14.65% -4.57%
2 36828 4936 13.4% -4.77%
3 36484 4440 12.17% -8.05%
4 34758 3955 11.38% -5.5%
9 15823 1142 7.22% -2.45%
10 11984 753 6.3% -4.33%

One of the fascinating things about the table is that the reduction in win percentage is linear. Simply put, top-weighted win most often, second top weighted are second in win % and so on. Horses in the top four in the weights win slightly over 51% of races.

Therefore, you would expect top weighted horses with an extra pound or two of an advantage in the weights to win even more often.

At present, it is extremely difficult to analyse the impact of the new rules but I gave it a try. The easiest thing to do was look at the performances of horses with an OR a point or two above the maximum limit in different handicap classes. For example, horses with an OR of 66 or 67 in a Class 6 Handicap which has a limit of 65.

Bear in mind that this data does not take into account factors such as a jockey’s allowance. When checking these statistics, there was obviously a significant increase in horses that met the criteria in 2017 when compared to before the new rule. I took the liberty of checking the performances of horses 1-2 points above the perceived handicap limits and divided things according to date.


Race Code Class Horse OR Bets Wins Strike Rate ROI (BF)
Flat  Class 6 66-67 37 12 32.43% 11.95%
Flat Class 4 86-87 31 8 25.81% -10.6%
AW Class 5 76-77 43 9 20.93% 7.42%

2017 – Present

Race Code Class Horse OR Bets Wins Strike Rate ROI (BF)
Flat Class 6 66-67 213 42 19.72% 8.86%
Flat  Class 4 86-87 213 35 16.43% -2.55%
AW  Class 5 76-77 281 50 17.79% 11.35%

The most obvious thing to note is the increase in entries meeting the criteria but as you can see, there is no additional benefit. You see a reduction in profit in Class 6 Flat races, a decrease in losses in Class 4 Flat races, and an increase in profit in Class 5 All-Weather events. Most pertinently, the strike rate has dropped comprehensively since the introduction of the rule.

None of the changes are significant and it’s likely that if there is any ‘edge’, it will level off over time. When going through an All-Weather card from Newcastle on March 20, I noticed that there were several races containing horses above the official OR limit. It was noticeable that having the additional OR points wasn’t enough for most horses to attain favourite status.

In the 7:45 race, there were two horses with an OR of 71 in a race with a 0-70 band. Neither horse was favourite and Double Reflection was the second outsider. Extra OR points or not, the horses were still handicapped the same; Paparazzi was ranked 15 OR points ahead of Odds on Oli but also carried 15 pounds more. The top OR rated horses ended up finishing last and second last in this race!

Musbaq was the 11/4 favourite here a few hours before the beginning of the race with an OR of 66, a point above the 0-65 band. However, it wasn’t a heavily fancied horse, even with Oisin Murphy as the jockey. Meanwhile, Ventura Gold was the fourth favourite at 11/2. In what was a low standard and open race, it was difficult, and unwise, to give too much credence to an extra OR point.

Oddly enough, the unfancied Ventura Gold held off the challenge of outsider Viking Way. Musbaq became heavily backed in the lead up to the race and was 6/4 favourite at the off. However, the horse finished fifth out of six which proved once again, that having an extra OR point or two isn’t a make or break situation.

Final Thoughts

The move to allow horses slightly above the OR bands in lower standard races was met with widespread approval within the industry. Both the National Trainers Federation (NTF) and the Professional Jockey’s Association (PJA) were happy with the changes and to date, there isn’t much evidence that the BHA has made an error here.

Horses that carry the most weight tended to be more successful before the rule change and there doesn’t seem to be much of a change in that regard since. Horses that are a pound or two above the OR band have to carry an extra pound or two so there is no clear advantage. From a punter’s perspective, there is little evidence that the rule change has the makings of a system capable of bashing the bookmakers.

Patrick Lynch

Patrick graduated from the National University of Ireland, Galway with an MA in Literature and Publishing but decided he would rather have the freedom of a freelance writer than be stuck in a publishing house all day. He has enjoyed this freedom since 2009 and has written thousands of articles on a variety of topics but sports betting is his passion. While his specialty is finding mismatches in obscure football leagues, he also likes to use his research skills to provide punters with detailed winning strategies in horse racing. You can check out his personal blog on or Twitter @pl1982 where he writes content to help small businesses achieve success.
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