This article is written to help you understand a little about the basics of the handicap system. This should enable you to understand comments in the media such as ‘carries a penalty’, ‘up 7lbs for last win’ and ‘up in class’. Let’s start with class. Jumps racing is divided into 6 classes (1 to 6) for both hurdles and fences (note: the class scale for Flat racing is different and not interchangeable with jumping). Horses are given a rating, usually once they have had three runs, which is a measure of their ability – this is their handicap ‘mark’. Subsequent runs will see them go up or down depending on whether they win or lose and who they beat and by how far.

The handicapper has a complicated set of criteria that he uses (including the marks of the other horses in the race) and the idea of a handicap is that each horse is given a different weight according to its ability and mark, which in theory should mean that all horses finish in a dead heat. Of course, that doesn’t happen but that is the theory.

So the 6 classes are as follows: Class 1, this is the best and is for the top races. It is broken down into 3 grades and listed races. All horses run off the same weight irrespective of their mark and most will be rated 150+. Class 2 is close to class 1 but horses must be 140+ to run in class 2 races. Class 3 is for horses rated 115 to 135, class 4 is 100 to 115, class 5 is 85 to 95 and class 6 is for horses lower than that (rarely seen) and also for National Hunt Flat races (bumpers) and Hunter Chases.

How is a handicap race formed and what are the allowances and penalties that give some horses a different weight than they may be carrying otherwise?

How a handicap is formed: different races have different weight scales, i.e. a four year old hurdle race would have a lower top weight than an all-aged chase. The British Horseracing Authority (BHA), who run the sport, issue the weight scales and the horse’s official rating to the press. Lets take an example – in a low grade class 5 handicap (for horses rated 0-90), the top weight decreed for a race is 11 stone and 12 pounds, written in the papers as 11-12. The highest rated horse, or horses, will carry this weight and the remainder of the field will be scaled down according to their rating. So a horse rated 88 by the handicapper is given top weight. The next horse is rated 87, one pound less than the top horse so it carries one pound less, 11st 11lbs (11-11).

The next is rated 86 and carries 11st 10lbs and so on. Further down we see a horse is rated 84 and so should therefore carry 11st 8lbs, two pounds below the 86 horse, but as it is a 5 year old, it gets a 4lbs weight allowance (specified in the rules which are listed at the top of each race card in The Racing Post but not in the daily papers) and therefore only carries 11st 4lbs. We then see a horse which is not a 5-yearold carrying 7lbs less than the rating should be, but a closer look tells us it is a filly/mare which have a 7lbs allowance. Also in the card another is rated 69 and therefore should be carrying 10st 7lbs but as he won his last race he automatically receives a 7lbs penalty for that and in the meantime the handicapper will reassess him (he will have ex7 next to his name). So he carries 11st today.

The lowest weight carried in this race is 10st, which is equivalent to a rating of 62 (11-12 take away 10-0 is 26lbs, 88 take away 26 is 62) but the bottom horse is only rated 61 but still carries the minimum 10st, so he is 1 lb ‘out of the handicap’, i.e. he is carrying 1lb more weight than his actual rating (this is his ‘long handicap weight’ of 9st 13lbs). So a hypothetical card could look something like this:

The reassessment period is often the time trainers will take advantage if the 7lbs is less than the actual amount that the handicapper will raise him by, so if for example, a horse is to be raised 12lbs for a win, it will usually be from a date a week or ten days hence, which is why there is a standard 7lbs rise. If that horse runs again before the 12lbs extra starts, with just a 7lbs penalty, he is said to be 5lbs ‘well-in’ or 5lbs ‘ahead of the handicapper’.

Sometimes horses are 10lbs out of the handicap but this can very occasionally be a good thing in certain races if, for example, they have a chase rating of 130 but a hurdles rating of 105. They can race in a decent hurdle race off a low rating, out the handicap, but having run to 130 over fences they have ability and could be a good thing (but this is not the case in most races). So that is how a handicap is formed with each horse carrying weight according to its rating. There are other criteria which may affect the weight a horse is carrying relative to his mark but the above notes give the general idea on a handicap.

So in summary, horses are rated on their ability and given a ‘mark’. This mark is reassessed after every race and is altered on both the horses performance and that of horses that it races against (and sometimes in previous races). A handicap is formed by listing the best horse at the top of the weights and the others below it each carrying one pound less per one point of its mark. Allowances and penalties can skew the weights.

Practical applications

My thanks must go to Kevin Lane, the man behind Lay Profit Alert for this excellent introduction to handicapping. Thankfully I am not a handicapper as my brain would be raising the white flag when assessing races.

The business behind rating handicaps may seem complicated but it can have practical applications when looking for opportunities to bet.

Backing and laying handicaps

Regular readers of the blog will see me express a likeness for horses that are “ ahead of the handicapper”. (Don’t fear, Spotlight in The Racing Post will alert you to horses deemed “ahead of the handicapper” in his verdict or Spotlight commentary on each horse)

Why do I like these horses? They are obviously in form at the present time and are running without the full penalty they incurred for their previous good runs.

The ideal for me is to see these horses at the head of the betting market, preferably favourites and, all things being equal, these horses should give us a good run for our money.

Multiple handicap winners

Those of you who regularly read the blog will know the conundrums I face when trying to assess how handicappers who have put together a string of 2 wins or more together will run.

On the one hand, as you’ll note in the précis on the workings of handicap races, these horses are running under multiple penalties each time they win. What does this mean? Well, simply put, each consecutive task is made more difficult with each additional rise in the weights.

These multiple handicap winners can be backed or layed based on certain other criteria I look at, the key one being price. Here’s a real life example:

KEMPTON 850: BETTING FORECAST: Evs Rollin ´n Tumblin, 5/1 Alnwick, 6/1 Lorikeet, 10/1 High Point, 12/1 One To Follow, Savannah, 14/1 Mister Completely, 16/1 Featherlight. Rollin ‘n Tumblin has won 2 races on the trot, prior to this contest, both in handicaps. Here’s how the weights progressed with each race. The horse’s weight in the first win was 8-9, in the 2nd race 9-2, and in this race 8-13 – why the drop? Well Spotlight tells us . .

Rollin ´n Tumblin: Progressing well on AW this year, opening account in maiden here before proving he stays this trip when heavily eased in beating Alnwick at Lingfield last week; remains unpenalised for that success and in-form jockey gets on well with him and takes 3lb off; hard to beat. The jockey takes off 3lbs. As we can see here, Rollin ‘n Tumblin has not been penalised as we would normally see for a winner last time out and this is a hint in itself that the winning run may not have ended. The price is also indicative that th expectation is for the hatrick today.

If we were looking to lay Rollin ‘n Tumblin here we would look for the price of the horse, and other horses to reflect the fact that increases in weight may begin to anchor the horse. (The horse won this race) We see handicap specific terms here such as “unpenalised “ and the “jockey taking 3 lb off”. Using our background in handicapping, we can assume that this horse is a good example of one we should have on our side and so it proved. Contrast the above example with a horse called Confidentiality. between the 12th November 2007 and the 13th December 2007. Can you see the progression in weight carried with each subsequent victory (ignoring the apprentice handicap race of 12th November) – 8-4 to 8-13 to 9-3 to 9-5 to 9-12.

Note too the number of days between racing. After the apprentice handicap victory, there was 1 day until the next race, and then from 22nd November to 4th December there was 12 days to the next race, with a concomitant rise in the weights.

Kevin Lane mentions class too and we can see here that Confidentiality ran and won predominantly in Class 6 races before progressing up a class into class 5 races on 8th December and 13th December. Remember I look for prices as an indicator of when the horse’s winning run is likely to end? Look at the prices for all of the victories – 4/1, 6/4 favourite, 5/4 favourite, 6/4 favourite, 4/9 favourite, 4/9 favourite. All prices indicative of a winning run continuing.

Readers of the blog will remember I am sure how I looked to get Confidentiality beaten in the races of 8th December and 13th December as I thought the rise in class would undo the horse. I was nearly right in the 13th December – the “nk” indicating Confidentiality won by a neck, BUT the prices really did not reflect the fact the horse would lose, did they? Look now at the race of the 25th January 2008. Confidentiality is now running in a Class 4 race – 2 classes above the races he has been predominantly winning in. Compare his price this time – no 5/4, 6/4 or 4/9. This time the price is 2/1 although the horse is still favourite.

Using our new found knowledge of the thought processes behind handicap racing we can ascertain that:

Confidentiality is running in a better class of race, having just scraped home in a Class 5 race last time. Confidentiality is carrying 9 stone 5 lbs in this better class of race – nearly a stone more than he has carried in Class 6 races. Priced at 2/1, this is indicative that Confidentiality’s winning sequence may end. And so it did! These scenarios appear regularly and I hope the background on handicapping can help you see these in a new light. What of the handicap specific systems I have mentioned previously?

The Top 6 system

Mentioned recently in WRWM, the TOP 6 system is a simple selection system which I have trialled since 7th January. Looking in handicap-only races of 10 runners or less, we focus on the top 6 horses in the weights (can you see now that those top 6 are the most penalised and can therefore be assumed to be the better horses in the race?).

We look to back horses who have come in the top 3 in their last 2 races and are running within 15 days. Well since the 7th January a healthy 39.5 point profit has accrued, due in no small part to a 22/1 winner on the 18th January.

Interestingly, taking that 22/1 winner out of the equation, a 32.3 point profit has accrued using horses priced between 2/1 and 9/1. The inclusion of odds on to 2/1 horses leaves a 2.7 point loss, with a 12 point loss on horses priced between 9/1 and 20/1. Distinct grounds for encouragement with this particular handicap backing system I think.

As to the TOPWEIGHT system which looks to exploit the potential of the top weights when there is a significant difference in weight between it and the 2nd top weight, well apart from winners in February and March of 12/1, 12/1, 8/1, 20/1 and 8/1 these haven’t really been enough to compensate for the losers.

Could top weights with significant differences in weight between themselves and the field be vulnerable and therefore layable? Of course laying the above winners would bring a tear to the eye and a change to the undergarments, but what of the performance of short priced qualifiers around 3/1 and lower.

Well during Jan to present, there’s been losers (i.e. us layers win!) at 9/4, 5/6, 15/8, 10/11, 11/4, evens, 11/10, 5/2, 11/8 until we hit a winner at 2/1, 8/13, then losers at 7/4, a dead heat at 8/11, losers at 3/1, 6/4, winners at 1 / 2, 4/11, losers at 7/4, 3/1, a winner at 2/1, losers at 6/4, winner at 5/2, losers at 6/4, 3/1, 9/4, and 11/4 to present day. Phew! An impressive layers strike rate at odds which allow liability control and level stakes. It would be extremely interesting to see how this fares during the Flat Season.

Criteria for laying in handicaps

We look for the top weight to be at least 5 lbs or more clear of the 2nd top weight and to be priced below 4.00 or 3/1. Increasing the prices to lay to 5/1 SP and below gave us 46 selections between January and present with winners (i.e. we lose as layers) at SP 9/2, 8/13, dead heat 8/11, 6/1, 1 / 2, 4/11, 2/1, 5/2 – only 8! Could this impressive set of figures be due to the JUMPS season and inclement weather and ground conditions? Trial the above for yourself and see if the top weight factors as a good layable criteria as we edge into the flat season!

Bottom line

I hope you agree, Kevin’s introduction and background to handicaps is a real eye opener and using some of the factors which make up the handicapper’s analysis of these race types, we as but humble punters can look for betting angles as both backers and layers.

The 2 systems mentioned above, coupled with keeping and eye open for multiple handicap winners, can, I hope, allow us to exploit these often tricky races and add a strong to our bow where once we dismissed such races.