Speaking theoretically, handicap races are the fairest type of race that you can bet on. A handicapper decides what weight each horse in a race should carry, basing it upon each horse’s ability. The better a horse is, the more weight it will have to carry. The idea is that this levels the playing field, meaning every horse has an equal chance of winning.
In a handicapper’s dream, every single horse would cross the finish line at the same moment. It has never happened, of course, nor is it likely to. The reality is that horses often out-perform their handicap and the information that a handicapper has to decide upon the weight that the horses will carry is limited. Even so, it’s a fascinating type of National Hunt race.
Handicap Races At The Cheltenham Festival
|Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase||1m 7f 199y||Grade 3||£122,963|
|Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle||2m 4f 56y||Class 2 Hurdle||£73,778|
|County Handicap Hurdle||2m 179y||Grade 3||£98,370|
|Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup||3m 2f||Class 2 Chase||£72,188|
|Plate Handicap Chase||2m 4f 127y||Grade 3||£118,044|
|Pertemps Final Handicap Hurdle||2m 7f 213y||Grade 3||£98,370|
Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle
Fred Winter Juvenile Novices' Hurdle
|2m 87y||Grade 3||£78,696|
|Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle||2m 5f||Grade 3||£98,370|
Ultima Handicap Chase
Festival Trophy Handicap Chase
|3m 1f||Grade 3||£122,963|
Handicap Races At Other Cheltenham Meetings
|Handicap Hurdle||2m 179y||Class 3 Hurdle||£14,755|
|Weatherite Handicap Chase||3m 2f||Class 2 Chase||£29,511|
|Handicap Hurdle||2m 7f 213y||Class 2 Hurdle||£19,674|
|Nicholson Holman Novices' Chase||3m 1f 56y||Class 3 Chase||£17,215|
|Kingston Stud Handicap Hurdle||2m 4f 56y||Class 2 Hurdle||£24,594|
|Silver Trophy Chase||2m 4f 127y||Grade 2||£68,621|
|Mares' Handicap Chase||2m 62y||Class 2 Chase||£23,473|
|Fillies' Juvenile Handicap Hurdle||2m 179y||Grade 3||£39,348|
|Mares' Handicap Chase||3m 2f||Class 3 Chase||£19,674|
|Mares' Handicap Hurdle||2m 4f 56y||Listed||£29,511|
|EBF Mares' Novices' Handicap Chase||2m 4f 127y||Listed||£43,664|
|Greatwood Handicap Hurdle||2m 87y||Grade 3||£98,370|
|November Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle||2m 5f 26y||Class 3 Hurdle||£15,214|
|Intermediate Handicap Hurdle||2m 5f 26y||Class 3 Hurdle||£25,009|
|Handicap Hurdle||2m 7f 208y||Listed||£29,511|
|Handicap Chase||3m 3f 71y||Grade 3||£57,624|
|Cross Country Handicap Chase||3m 6f 37y||Class 2 Chase||£24,593|
|Handicap Chase||1m 7f 199y||Class 2 Chase||£44,267|
|Novices' Handicap Hurdle||2m 87y||Class 3 Hurdle||£15,214|
|Amateur Riders' Handicap Chase||3m 1f 67y||Class 3 Hurdle||£25,463|
|Handicap Hurdle||2m 7f 213y||Class 2 Hurdle||£21,640|
Cross Country Handicap Chase
|3m 6f 37y||Class 2 Chase||£34,430|
|December Handicap Chase||3m 2f||Grade 3||£59,020|
|Mares' Handicap Chase||2m 4f 127y||Class 3 Chase||£16,156|
|Catesby Handicap Hurdle||2m 179y||Class 3 Hurdle||£16,156|
|December Mares' Handicap Hurdle||2m 4f 56y||Class 2 Hurdle||£29,511|
|Gold Cup Handicap Chase||2m 4f 127y||Grade 3||£127,881|
|Trophy Handicap Chase||2m 4f 127y||Grade 3||£98,370|
|Novices' Handicap Chase||2m 4f 127y||Class 2 Chase||£28,074|
|Handicap Hurdle||2m 7f 213y||Class 2 Hurdle||£24,600|
|Fairlawne Handicap Chase||2m 4f 127y||Grade 3||£98,370|
|Handicap Chase||3m 2f 70y||Class 2 Chase||£24,600|
|Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle||2m 87y||Class 3 Hurdle||£16,150|
|Amateur Riders' Handicap Chase||3m 1f||Class 3 Chase||£17,250|
|Handicap Hurdle||2m 3f 300y||Class 3 Hurdle||£16,150|
|SSS Super Alloys Handicap Hurdle||2m 179y||Class 2 Chase||£28,074|
|Handicap Hurdle (Series Qualifier)||2m 7f 208y||Class 2 Hurdle||£24,600|
|October Handicap Chase||1m 7f 199y||Class 2 Chase||£59,050|
|Handicap Chase||3m 1f||Class 2 Chase||£59,050|
Handicap Races Explained
Handicap races are run both on the flat and over jumps, though it’s obviously only the latter race type that we’re interested in here. The idea behind handicap races is that the amount of weight a horse will carry will then affect its ability to run fast. That’s why the better a horse is the more it will have to carry, with the hope being that it will stop it from running away with a race.
Obviously the converse is also true, with poorer horses carrying less weight and therefore having a better chance of winning the race, or at least catching up with horses that are theoretically much better than them. The real key for those watching a handicap race is in picking out a horse that is better in reality than the handicapper thinks that they are.
This perfect balance of a horse carrying less weight than it should be and its decent ability is what prevents owners and trainers with a chance to win races and bettors with an opportunity to catch the bookmakers cold. The handicap weights horses have to carry are based on the British Horseracing Authority’s Official Ratings.
How Handicaps Are Decided
Obviously the handicappers need to be able to come up with a fair method of applying a handicap, rather than simply guessing about a horse’s ability. In order to be given a handicap a horse must do one of the following two things:
- Race 3 times
- Win a race
Once a horse has achieved one of these two things the handicapper can then assess them and award them their mark. Analyse of a horse is based on where they finish in a race in relation to other horses that already have a handicap. If they finish so far behind the rest of the pack for their 3 races then it might be necessary for them to race more than 3 times.
Applying Handicaps To Horses
Once a handicapper has decided upon the rating of each horse in a race, the horses will then be assigned the amount of weight that it will have to carry. The horse with the highest rating will, as you can imagine, carry the heaviest weight and the horse with the lowest rating will carry the smallest weight size.
A good rule of thumb is that a horse will carry one pound less for every point their rating is worse than the next horse in the list. So if one horse has a rating of 59 and carries 9 stone 7 pounds and the next horse’s rating is 56 then they will carry 9 stone 4 pounds. Ultimately, of course, a rating is simply a handicapper’s ‘best guess’ at the ability of a horse.
Rules For Handicap Races
When it comes to handicap races, there aren’t a huge heap of them that have to be adhered to in every event. The BHA’s mission statement for handicapping says that they will be fair, transparent, accountable and consistent in the handicaps they apply. The very idea behind them is to allow horses of different abilities to take part in the same races.
Whilst the rules that apply to handicap races aren’t exactly uniform, handicap races will have their own rules applied to them to mean that certain horses won’t be able to take part in certain races. A horse that has a rating as high as 85, for example, would be unable to take part in a race that is limited to horses with a rating of 0 to 75.
The handicap ratings are updated by the BHA every Tuesday of the racing season, meaning that horses will always be around where they should be in terms of their rating. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the handicappers always get things right. It’s not exactly unheard of for a horse to be under run in one race to get a lower handicap for a more prestigious one.
Handicap Races Major Examples
As always, the very best way of showing you the manner in which handicap races work and how they can be vastly different from each other is by having a look at some more specific examples. There’s no better place to start than with the Grand National, which is arguably the most famous handicap race in the world.
The Grand National
Inaugurated in 1839, though that date is debated by some, the Grand National is also known as ‘The World’s Greatest Steeplechase’ and takes place at Aintree in April. It is run over 4 miles and 514 yards, featuring 30 fences during that distance as the horses do two laps of the course. Here’s the qualification criteria in place for it:
- Horse must be 7-years-old or over
- They must have a rating of 120 or more from the BHA
- They need to have previous placed in a recognised chase of 3 miles or over
The maximum weight for the Grade 3 race is 11 stone and 10 pounds, whilst the £1 million prize money on offer in 2019 made it the most valuable jump race run in Europe. The Grand National tends to be enjoyed even by people that don’t typically like horse racing, largely because of the sense that anyone taking part can win it.
Part of the National’s appeal is the fact that it is such a demanding race. Many of the jumps that horses need to get over during the race are larger than more typical jumps found in other races. A number of the jumps have become famous thanks to exploits that have occurred over them in the past, such as The Chair and Becher’s Brook.
Whether the feeling that any horse can win the race is based on the handicapping system used for it or the difficulty of the fences isn’t something that can be easily answered, though more than a few horses have beaten their handicaps to win the event over the years, therefore cementing their place into the horse racing history books.
Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle
Open to horses aged 4 and over and run over 2 miles, 4 furlongs and 56 yards, the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle was established in 2009. Named after Martin Pipe, the National Hunt trainer who retired in 2006 after winning 34 races during the Cheltenham Festival, it takes place in March during that very event.
Restricted to conditional jockeys, it is a hurdle race that features nine obstacles for the horses to get over before the end of the race. The race is given the honour of being the final race of the Festival, bringing the meeting to a close. Interestingly, the jockeys have as many rules applied to them as the horses, needing to be under 26 and having won more than 75 times.
Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup
Another handicap race run at the Cheltenham Festival is the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup. It is for horses aged 5 and over and is run left-handed on the New Course. It is a race for amateur riders that takes place over 3 miles and 2 furlongs and features 21 fences.
It was established in 1946 as the Kim Muir Amateur Riders’ Steeplechase. Fulke Walwyn’s name was added to the race in 1991 to honour the trainer who enjoyed 40 wins at the Festival out of a total of 211 at Cheltenham Racecourse.
Welsh Champion Hurdle
Run in Wales at Ffos Las and open to horses aged 4 and up, the Welsh Champion Hurdle takes place in October over 2 miles. It was first run at Chepstow in 1969 and only left the racecourse in 2002. It was a Listed offering when it was run during the 1980s and normally took place on Easter Monday.
The race began to decline in the 1990s, with even moves to run it as a handicap race between 2000 and 2002 doing little to revitalise its popularity. It was dropped by the National Hunt in 2003 and not revived until 2010, at which point it returned as a Limited Handicap race. It has been run over its present length and in October since 2016.
Despite its exotic name, the Lanzarote Hurdle is actually run at Kempton Park and is for horses aged 4 and up. It takes place over 2 miles and 5 furlongs, with 10 hurdles to be negotiated during that distance. Scheduled to take place in January every year, the race is named after Lanzarote, the winner of the 1974 Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
First run in 1978, it was run over 2 miles for a number of years and only had 8 hurdles. It was moved to Carlisle as a one off in 2006 and when it came back to Kempton Park the following year its distance had been extended and two new jumps added. It was thought of by race lovers as being akin to an entirely new event.
You can see from the various races, then, the huge differences that can apply to handicap events. From the 4 plus miles of the Grand National that is only open to horses aged 7 and up through to the 2 miles and 5 furlongs Lanzarote Hurdle with its 10 hurdles to jump, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they only thing that they have in common is that horses take part in them.
The ability of a horse dictates which sort of handicap race it can take part in, as does its age. There are plenty of different handicap races run during the National Hunt season, with the majority of races that more jump horses will take part in being handicap offerings. That’s something to think about when bearing in mind how the rules of the races are so different.