How Does the Handicap System Work in Horse Racing?


Handicapping is an essential part of horse racing. It makes sure that every horse has an equal chance to win. However, as a bettor, you can also do your own handicapping to have an edge on your bets, but that is another topic deserving of its article. This time, however, we will be talking about what handicapping is, how it works, and other related things connected to it. Let’s start.

What Does Handicap Means?

A handicap is a horse racing term that means two things. The most basic meaning of handicap is the physical weight that a horse must carry in a race to bring its chance of winning more in line with the other contenders. The second meaning of the term handicap refers to a type of race of the same concept; a race where horses will carry varying weights so that each contender will have the same chance of winning.

The Handicapper’s Job

A handicapper’s role is to encourage competitiveness, equality, and fairness among all the contenders in a given race. They do this by allocating weights so that each contender will have an equal chance to win the race they’ll be participating in. But how do they do this?

Usually, they employ the Ratings Based Handicap System or Benchmark Programming and Handicapping System along with other considerations to decide. While these systems are critical for a handicapper and are very helpful for their jobs, they still have to rely on their judgment and assessment of the horses to arrive at a favorable conclusion.

Of course, they’re not always accurate, but being wrong is rare. It’s impressive how their decisions are mostly accurate. Let’s discuss the two types of handicapping systems they usually use for their work.

Ratings-Based Handicapping System

The Ratings Based Handicapping System or RBH assigns a numeric value to a horse based on various factors, especially its performance history, emphasizing its most recent races. The system can gauge roughly how much weight a horse should use for the race, thanks to the Ratings Based Template or RBT. This template lists the corresponding weight figure for each rating. However, each rating is based on a fully-matured four-year-old male, so adjustments should be made accordingly.

Benchmark Programming and Handicapping System

This one assigns a numerical value to each horse, albeit it excludes any independent analyst data. Instead, it incorporates the input of merit-based assessments, which results from a computer algorithm. 

Internal analysts will then analyze the computer’s results before a panel decides on a recommendation on the weight a horse should have. It’s essential that these merit-based systems don’t include potential but tend to focus more on the quality of the horse’s previous races.

How the Handicap Influences Betting

While these systems are employed to make the races more exciting and competitive, their processes and structure allow trainers to take advantage of them. For example, a trainer would make a horse participate in a race unsuited to one or two of its winning conditions to produce poor results.

This will result in a sharp drop in its rating. This will prompt the handicappers to put the horse in a lower bracket. The trainer would then find a race ideal for his horse, giving it more advantage and a higher chance of winning.

Another ploy that trainers often use is to make a juvenile horse race over a distance deliberately it’s not usually confident in. This method will secure it a low rating from the system. And then, the trainers would let the horse participate in its elements in its first couple of races as three years old, giving it a higher chance of winning.

Of course, the official handicappers know about these ploys already. As a result, handicappers follow a policy where they favor the majority more than the minority. This means they will tend to assign horses a higher rating instead of a lower one. 

This way, the horse with the higher rating than it deserves will only be the one suffering the consequences. On the other hand, a lower-than-usual rating given to a horse will change the field’s prospects, which is disadvantageous to everyone involved.

Nevertheless, this is only sometimes the case. Trainers can still “game” the handicapping system to secure wins for their horses, which is already very common in horse racing. This is especially true if they’re planning to join big events in the future.

Final Words

The handicapping system is quite complicated, but as a bettor, you should know how they usually work. Understanding how they work will give you a deeper insight into horse races, which you can use for an advantage in betting. With this knowledge, you’ll be able to win more of your bets and build up your bankroll for bigger bets or for your own purposes. As long as you exercise caution while betting, you’ll be fine even if you get some losses on your bets.

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