What is Handicapping in a Horse Racing context?

Horseracing is a pastime for most, and a career for others. However, no matter if you are an amateur or consider yourself a professional, handicapping is an integral part of how you would analyze a race to try and determine the potential winner.

What is Handicapping in a Horse Racing context? Consider a lengthy staircase with each step labeled with a number and ascending one at a time. The higher the horse on the stairwell, the better the horse is believed to be. 

This difference in ability is expressed in terms of weight, thus each step equals one pound (0.45 kilos). A handicap rating is essentially a numerical depiction of a horse’s form and, as a result, its perceived degree of ability at any particular moment.

If Horse A’s present handicap rating is three levels higher than Horse B’s, we believe the two horses had a theoretically identical chance of winning a handicap race if Horse A carried three pounds more than Horse B, e.g. 9 stone and 7lbs and 9 stone and 4lbs.

Handicapping in Horse Racing – General

A handicap rating not only reflects a horse’s relative worth in comparison to another, but it also gives some historical context in which to compare current horses to those that have raced in the past.

A handicap race in horse racing is one in which horses are assigned different weights by the handicapper. A superior horse will carry more weight, putting it at a disadvantage while competing against horses who are perceived to be slower. 

The expertise in handicap betting is anticipating which horse will overcome its handicap. In this instance, the person placing a bet will take into account various other factors such as the jockeys, the trainer’s strike rate, the state of the going on that day or/and the horse’s barrier positions.

Handicapping in Horse Racing – How does it work

In a horse handicap race (also known as a “handicap race”), each horse must carry a certain weight called the weight of the horse, which is imposed by the official handicapper based on various variables such as historical performances, to equalize the odds of the participants. 

Lead weights are placed on saddle pads with pockets, known as lead pads, to supplement the weight of the jockey to ensure that the horse carries the weight imposed on it by the handicapper for that specific race.

Handicapping of Horses – Factors

  • The Speed of each Horse

All horse racing publications will include times (in seconds) at predetermined positions during the race. It will include timings at each race’s call points, as well as the distances back from the lead at each call point. 

Speed handicappers analyze racing timings to predict which horses have the best probability of winning a race. Handicappers take into consideration the unique class of a race as well as how the racecourse was playing on a specific day.

  • The Pace of the Race

Speed handicappers categorize each horse’s racing style, for example, does the horse prefer to race on the lead, close to the pace, or is the horse a closer from the back of the field and then predict a speed map based on the horses in that specific race. 

The problem is that the jockey can place a horse where they believe is the correct place in the race, which might conflict with the speed map as a race moves through the various stages at a very quick pace in the early stages. This moves the prediction of race pace out of the domain of mathematics and into the realm of pure conjecture. 

Until the 1970s, the time permitted by pace handicappers for a horse to run a length (about 11 feet; 3.3 metres) throughout the course of a race was widely assumed to equal a fifth of a second. Andrew Beyer was the first to challenge this, claiming that the duration of a beaten length (at the finish of the race) varied by race distance, since horses would be going quicker at the end of shorter ranged races than at the end of longer ones. 

Others, notable supporters of the Sartain Methodology in the 1980s, expanded on this notion by including fractional (internal race) timings. The value of a beaten length is now widely recognized to be closer to 0.16 seconds than to 0.20 seconds. 

  • The Form of a Horse

Form is one of the most important factors in handicapping a horse for a particular race. Some horses have the ability to race close to or at their peak for many races in succession, whereas others require intense preparation before they can race at their peak.

A layoff is a period of inactivity that may last anywhere from two months to a year or more. Workouts, the horse’s looks, and trainer habits are the strongest indicators in this scenario of whether the horse is ready to race after a break.

  • The Class of a Horse

Horse race at several Rating levels of competitiveness. In general, high-caliber horses compete in races against other high-caliber horses (high handicap races or Graded races), whereas slower horses compete in races against other slower horses (lower-rated races). 

A horse, on the other hand, may move up or down in class depending on where the trainer decides to enter the horse based on the results of its last race. Younger horses in particular will rise in the ratings quickly depending on how they are rated by their trainers and whether they can bring those high expectations to the racecourse during a race.

Handicapping Final Considerations

Other elements influencing a race’s result include track condition, weather, the weight that the horses must carry, the daily bias of the racing surface, and many more that the handicapper will have to take into account when analyzing a race.

However, very little comes close to doing your analysis, placing a bet on the horse that you have given the highest probability of winning, seeing it take up the running with 200m to the finish and running on strongly to win the race. Cashing your winning ticket comes close as well.


Hi, I'm James, a long time horse racing fan. I was introduced to racing by my granddad. He taught me a little about horses and I was hooked. I have been to most racecourses in the UK .

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