Handicaps- Yay or Nay?


By Samantha

A handicap is a race where each horse is allocated a weight based on their rating which is decided after studying their ability on the track in an attempt to equalise every horse’s chance of winning. A better horse will run carrying a bigger weight to give it a disadvantage when running against slower horses. In order to make their horse’s weight, jockeys carry lead weights in their saddles so the combined weight is the allocated one. In Britain, the horses are assigned weights according to a centralised rating system maintained by the BHA.

The BHA has a team of eleven ‘Handicappers’ whose job it is to study and interpret the form to decide on ratings. They publish a list of ratings each week established by looking at the horse’s performance on the race course. If one horse is rated 110, and another 100, then it is believed that a difference of ten pounds in the weights would give them an equal chance of winning in a handicap race. Handicappers have many other rolls. They advise stewards on all form matters and help the Racing and Disciplinary Departments when required to. Also, they work with international colleagues in selecting the runners in the top races worldwide and deciding the Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings.

Weights may be increased when running in handicap company if a horse wins a race between the publication of the weights and the horse’s next run. In Group One races, horses normally run off the same weight but age and gender penalties are sometimes used. Most handicaps are restricted to horses with ratings in a particular range so as well as determining which weight the horses run off, the handicapping system also decides which races they can run in. If a horse runs above its rating, then they might be raised in the handicap. If the horse keeps running consistently below its mark, then it will come down. Lots of horses can struggle after winning and getting a higher mark to race off of. The current system gives the horses a route to go up the weights and properly progress. It makes racing more random and the starting prices tend to be better due to the ‘unknown’ factor of it all.

A horse’s rating and allocated weight can really affect their chance of winning. Let’s take Richard Fahy’s sprinting sensation Kimberella as an example. He won a Listed race off 109 in August 2017, without going up in the weights. Six days later, he won, causing him to be put up 2lbs and it took him seven runs to return to a feasible winning mark and weight. That win resulted in another 2lbs rise and, next time out, he was a disappointing second favourite by coming seventh of nine. He was dropped two pounds after that and on his most recent start he was just a nose behind the winner. It is all a cycle for these horses who mainly run in handicaps. They can be running and finishing consistently mid-field and have form figures of 856076 and then as soon as they come 2nd or 3rd they get moved up a few pounds and it can seem like the world is against them.

This cycle then increases the chances of a higher priced winner of the big handicap races like the Ebor, Lincoln or Grand National and as a result it makes it harder for punters to select the winner. The handicapping system can make racing more random and plays into the hands of the bookies. On the other hand, some of the best races in the history of the sport were made better by the weight carrying performance of the winner. Desert Orchid won the Irish Grand National by twelve lengths but he had to carry top weight of twelve stone and that made his run even better and more special as he carried more than the other horses.

permian and mark

Trainer Mark Johnston spoke in an interview with Oli Bell from ITV Racing after his horse Sea Youmzain won at Haydock in early June. He said that he thinks that the whole handicapping system should be scrapped and, “The only beneficiary, in my mind, is the betting industry because it makes racing more random and improves bookmaker’s margins.” When Oli asked about a future plan for the impressive filly, Johnston said that he won’t be able to specify one as the Sea The Stars filly is at the level where she has a handicap mark to dictate where she has to run. Horses need to have run three times or to have won on their first or second run before they can receive a handicap mark. Johnston’s opinion sparked a debate about whether the handicapping system was actually necessary and improves horse racing.

A way of erasing the handicapping system would be to have each horse carry the same amount of weight. This would lead to the best horse winning the race and the form would mostly be unquestionable as there would be no “He/she was carrying too much weight”. It would mean that the only excuse for a bad run would be that either the horse was given a bad ride or not on a going day. There wouldn’t be able to be any ‘plot jobs’. This is when two year olds loose a few races over sprint distances and gets themselves a lowly mark and then return as three year olds and win a one mile two race because that’s the distance they are bred to run at. Then they are left ahead of the handicapper until they get caught up with and put on a more appropriate mark. Equal weights would benefit jockeys and the pressure on them to make small weights would lessen and, in consequence, reduce the amount of jockeys retiring young due to weight issues and make the profession more accessible to younger fans.

A down side to equal weights would be shorter prices of the horses most likely to win the race because of their raw form. In a way, racing would lose its randomness by scrapping the handicapping system. The bookmakers would lose money and possibly close down. If that was to happen, lots of people would lose their jobs, including the Handicappers.

The handicapping system could be replaced by a similar structure as the American one. Horses start off in maidens like in the UK and then progress to claimers where the horses can be bought from the race. The next level up is Allowance races which are like handicaps. Horses carry different weights if they won a certain amount of time ago. Then there are Stakes and Group races which are the highest graded races. Another way could be each horse still rated but they link to the grade they are allowed to run in and move up and down accordingly like team do in the Premiership. This would improve the quality of the Group/Grade races but could reduce the amount of horses running at the top level.

This is a really interesting subject and it is hard to find a solution that will benefit everyone but something needs to be done or, in the least, be looked into to help horses like Sea Youmzain and Kimberella do what they were bred to do.

Big thank you to everyone who has helped me on this by expressing their views on how the handicapping system can be changed on twitter – Samantha

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