Ultimate Guide to Handicapping in Horse Racing

Lee Jackson by Lee Jackson | Published: July 26, 2019

In this Horse Racing guide, we will be taking a look at handicapping. It is a massive part of the racing world, designed to offer more competitive races. Handicapping in the UK is a weights system designed to create a leveller playing field in having in-form horses carry more weight.

But there is another definition of handicapping in racing. Predominantly in the USA, handicapping means breaking down the form of horses in a racecard to make a selection. With all that in mind, let’s get into all of this.

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Horse Handicapping Explained

Handicapping in Horse Racing

What is handicapping exactly? It is a system where different horses in the same race will be carrying different weights. How much weight exactly that is, depends on form. When a horse wins, his handicapping rating will go up. An official handicapper sets the amount of weight the horses will carry.

A horse with a high rating means that they are carrying more weight. If you see a horse rating at 144 then that means the weight of the horse, saddle, irons and jockey all add up to 144 lbs. If that horse goes out and wins by a few lengths, even with that handicap, that weight will go up again.

So a horse with less successful form would be carrying less weight in the race, to try and create a competitive run. Carrying less weight should mean that it has a better chance of not just being left behind at the back of the pack against better horses.

A horse carrying extra weight will mean that they have to work harder to either get up to full speed or to maintain a full gallop. The system isn’t totally perfect, but it tries to give a good, even playing field. The knock-on effect for the punter is that it becomes a major factor to learn how to assess handicapping weights.

Without handicaps, the quickest horse should win a race. Almost every time. But because the best horse in the field is running under a weight disadvantage, while the worst has a big advantage, then the difference in competitiveness narrows. It’s down to the punter to try and then determine not necessarily which is the best horse, but which will handle the handicap weights for that race the best.

Thoroughbred Handicapping

Let’s just jump straight into this. This is a term that you may come across and it’s one that is predominantly used in the USA. Think about Official Handicappers and how they spend a long time assessing and assigning weights for horses based on form. Thoroughbred handicapping, is basically punters doing the same thing as those official handicappers.

Thoroughbred handicapping (just referred to as handicapping) is the skill involved in trying to pick out a winning selection through the study of form. Thoroughbred handicapping is just predicting the outcome of races. You build up a bank of form pointers, take a look at the horse if possible (on tv or at the track) and then strike at the right time when the odds are in your favour.

Although it can get highly complex, the basics of thoroughbred handicapping are nothing different from what the average UK punter will be doing sat in front of the day’s newspaper with the racing pages open.

Just as a note, there are some slightly different form-factors from USA racing to that of the UK, one of them being top speed. That is because most North American courses are the same oval layout and a one mile trip at one is pretty much exactly the same as it is at another. That allows speed stats to come more into play.

It’s not the same in the UK, where there is a wide variety of track styles and conditions, so top speed as a form factor, can’t really be used too much. There are other subtle differences, but we’ll focus on handicapping UK racing.

Handicapping 101

You are doing handicapping when you are studying form. In the UK it’s just not going to be called that. Instead, you are just well, ‘studying form.’ Either way, you are engaging in the process of taking certain pieces of information and forming an overall picture of the potential outcome.

For a race, you may break down stats by looking at Form, Ability, Class and Race Conditions. That is how you, as a punter, handicap. Handicapping a horse race is picking out the factors which could determine the outcome of the race. Of course, there are never any certainties when it comes to horse racing, all you can do is line yourself up with the best overview of a particular racecard.

There are many different ways that you can handicap a horse race. Looking at the different factors and different ways to do this, sort of in a handicapping 101 kind of way, can help you to create and build your own handicapping skills. This will, in turn, allow you to apply the knowledge to look for the best value.

Best Way to Handicap Horse Races

While we are talking about handicapping as being the art form of picking out a horse, let’s scan over a few of the best ways to handicap horse races. This is just an overview of some of the key factors to consider. You can always take a look at our Top 10 Factors To Consider for Picking a Winning Horse for fuller details of what form involves.

Form

No two ways about it, form is everything. A horse in positive current form, winning races is doing his best work. He’s probably at a seasonal peak. The most basic overview of handicapping a horse is to simply see which of the runners in a field has a bit of winning form behind them.

Form, how a horse has finished in recent races, can tell a story, albeit a broad one. If there is a horse who has won twice and placed once in his last three races, just from that you know he’s in form. As great as a horse has run in the past, if the current form isn’t showing for them, it’s the current running ability that counts.

Weight/Official Rating

The official rating. It cannot be ignored in horse racing, which ties us nicely back to what handicapping in British racing means. It’s such a massive factor, it is what horses are rated by. A horse in winning form is just going to get slapped with more weight for their next race.

You should be able to look back and see how a horse has performed under certain weights in their career. Trying to predict how well a horse is going to be able to adapt not only to the weight but the weight under the current race conditions (distance, course, class and track conditions) is a huge aspect of handicapping.

Conditions

Are the track conditions and race distance suitable for a horse? These two do go hand in hand. If a horse has won at 1 mile in his last race with firm conditions underfoot, but now has extra handicapping weight and is doing another 1-mile trip in heavy conditions, how will that factor into his performance?

Similarly, if conditions are the same but the horse is going over a longer trip, again with more weight to carry because of good recent performances, how does that play into his ability? You know that old saying, horses for courses, without a doubt, there are just certain horses who turn up and perform better on one particular course than another because of conditions.

Trainer/Jockey

This is quite a favourite among punters and there are three different options. You will find that first up, some punters will start with looking at a jockey and seeing what horse they are on.

Top jockeys win more races because they get better rides, so that can be a useful guidepost. The same with trainers, it’s not difficult to see which trainers are in form and which has performed well in certain big races, or at a certain racecourse, before. There is also a trainer and jockey combination, those pairings that just always seem to work together in harmony.

Horse Racing Handicapping System and Strategies

Horse racing handicapping systems can be a bit of fun to look at. You can even get down to creating your own. There is no foolproof handicapping betting system out there, so get that idea out of your head. First though, what is a handicapping system? After all, all that form we mentioned above has all been studied anyway, right?

What can a system do? A handicapping system can be thought of as some betting guidelines that you place on yourself. It’s a little less to do with form, but more about value for your betting. Let’s absorb a few of these handicapping systems.

Avoid Short Prices

Bookmakers win because favourites lose. Never let that phrase go far from your mind. Fewer favourites win national hunt races than favourites in flat races do. Short prices do the punter no favours at all, certainly not backing odds-on favourites all the time. In 2018, 61% of odds-on favourites in the UK flat season won. That’s almost 40% that didn’t

Let’s get some math on. In 2018 there were nineteen 8/13 odds-on favourites in UK racing. Of that only 36% won. A £10 stake on 8/13 would return £6.15 profit. If you had staked £10 on all 19 of those odds-on favourites and only 36% won, your return on investment would have been -40%. Well out of pocket.

The caveat to this, is that it’s not uncommon to find far more decently priced favourites (3/1 for example) in a horse racing than having to ever bother with odds-on prices. There were 299 flat runners in 2018 in the UK who went off at 3/1. Of them 63 won (21%) and the return on investment would have been -15.7% still not great, but with a better chance of getting to profit than the aforementioned odds-on favourites.

In national hunt racing, the numbers tally to about a third of favourites winning, regardless of price. That means that if you back the favourite in every race you are only going to win once in every three races on average. At odds-on prices, that’s going to empty your bankroll quickly.

Each Way? No way!

Handicapping, studying form, whatever you want to call it, can be a lot of work. But rewarding work nonetheless. At the end of the day, each way betting can be a yield drag. If you have done your due diligence with handicapping, found a horse you fancy to win, why suddenly cast doubt in that, well, they may only place?

The yield on betting win-only instead of each-way is likely going to be higher (depending on your handicapping skill). The strike rate of getting something back from a race is likely to drop when betting win only, but the stronger yield of profits from doing this is probably going to be there. Of course, this is just a matter of betting preference, we’re not trying to say Each Way betting has no place. It does. This is just an example of a simple handicapping system.

Frankie Dettori at Kempton on Good Going

That’s probably a bit of an exaggerated rule. But if you look at the stats, which you are going to be doing for horse racing handicapping anyway, and you see Frankie Dettori has won 75% of his races at Kempton while the going is good, then that’s a massive trend to jump on.

Similarly, if Dettori had won just 10% of Kempton visits in heavy conditions, that tells an equally big story. Namely that you should probably think twice about his mount winning the race if that’s the same conditions.

That is just an example of the kind of betting system rules that you can make up yourself. How do you ever get to such a conclusion? Gorge yourself on a big old feast of horse racing stats.

Basic pointers for handicapping

Your handicapping opinion counts

Never just assume that the favourite in a race is the real favourite. Don’t take what the bookmaker says at face value, do your own research and take a statistical approach. The value in a horse race may very well not on the outright favourite when it comes to handicaps. Especially if only a third of favourites win (see above). Of course, there are going to be occasions where backing the favourite is the best thing to do. Just don’t do it blindly.

Common Sense

Common sense plays into handicapping. Basically what we mean by this is don’t make-up excuses as to why you think a horse can win. That is not a good road to go down. If you are looking at form for example and see that a horse hasn’t placed in his last couple of runs in similar races, then don’t dismiss that info. Don’t push it aside just because you want that particular horse to fit into what you want it to be. Use the cold hard facts.

Handicapping Last Winning Mark

You can’t just look at winning form of a horse alone. It has to be put into context. By that, we mean at what mark (official rating/weight) that it won. If you find yourself contemplating a horse which has a rating at 82 for example but you look back as see that it has never won a race above a mark of 75, well that could be an issue.

If you look the other way around, a horse which has previously won at a rating of 75 and is now lining up at 67, then that could pique some interest. But always, of course, check to see why the rating had dropped.

Reverse Handicapping

This is a pretty straight forward process where you just reverse the order in which you look at horses. Generally when you are handicapping a race then you are looking at the main contenders to see which makes the best fit for a win.

If you reverse then you start with the worst horses and cross them off the list. You can take the same form factors like class and current form and basically see which horses just aren’t coming up to scratch and kick them out as options. So you are instead of looking for which horse is going to win, reverse handicapping means you are looking for those most likely to lose.

Handicapping Distance

This is something of a staple in horse racing handicapping. The basic premise is that some horses enjoy certain distances more than others. The obvious thing here is that a stayer, a horse with grand endurance in long races, isn’t going to make a great sprinter over 6 furlongs. However, there’s a little more to distance handicapping than that.

Let’s say that you are looking at a horse who didn’t win their last race at one mile (8 furlongs). His next race is over 6 furlongs. You look back at his one-mile effort and see that he was well in contention at the 6-furlong mark, but he just had nothing left in the tank to go the extra distance in the longer race. So in this instance, a shorter trip is very likely going to suit this particular horse.

Best Horse Handicapping Sites

After all that work of sifting through statistical info, you need to get the bet down. Whichever bookmaker that you use, maybe one of the top ones like Bet365 or an exchange like Betfair, you will want to familiarise yourself with it.

Learn where to quickly click to get to form and what other betting options that they have available on there. Whether you access everything from just the racing lobby on the site or browse deeper into markets, know where to go. From there, make your selections and strike your bet. Don’t forget to always have a plan. Always have a bankroll in place so that you stay in control and bet with your handicapping head, not your heart.

Horse Handicapping FAQ:

What is the racehorse theory?

It has to do with breeding. Racehorse theory is trying to match up the best stallion with the best mare to try and create the best progeny. Things like bloodstock and pedigree are big things in horse racing.

What is handicapping value?

You are making your assessment of runners in a horse race. If you create your analysis and price up each horse on a card, then you will be able to stack those odds up against what a bookmaker has priced the race up as.

If the bookie has accessed a particular horse at 5/2 but you think they are more of a 2/1 shot, you have value because the bookie is offering a bigger price than what you think the horse should be after all of your handicapping assessment. Crack out the betting calculator to calculate odds quickly.

What is a one minute handicapper?

A quick, condensed version of handicapping. The name comes from a famous book by Frank DiTondo. It is not so much of a complicated system of how to handicap but how to sift through all of the information that you can find in horse racing stats.

What is running style in handicapping?

This is how a horse plans out a race. You may find a horse that likes to sit just off the front or one that likes to sit on the outside of the pack further back. Why is this important? Track conditions can affect say a “closer” who runs the race from the back of the back and relies on a burst of speed to finish. Heavier ground makes that strategy tougher.

What is a maiden handicap?

If a horse is a maiden then it means that it hasn’t won a race before. You could, for example, create a handicap rule where you eliminate any maidens immediately from a race card, especially if they are into their third or fourth season.

Are both flat and jump racing handicapped?

Yes, there are well-established systems of handicapping by the British HorseRacing Authority for both flat and jump racing. For both forms of racing, handicaps are broken down into different classes (1,2,3,4,5,6,7) with Class 1 the best and Class 7 the lowest.

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Ultimate Guide to Handicapping in Horse Racing
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Ultimate Guide to Handicapping in Horse Racing
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Horse Racing Handicapping in the UK is a weights system designed to create a leveller playing field in having in-form horses carry more weight. Learn more!
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Article by Lee Jackson

Lee has built a vast working knowledge of different bet types, betting systems, probability and all-important experience. His experience within the betting industry extends to over a decade of researching and writing betting guides. Understanding the statistical and mathematical side of betting is something that fascinates Lee. The study of statistics and implied probability in odds are factors that he finds engaging and important to understanding the inner workings of the practice of betting.