Betting on handicap races is about as old as the sport itself and remains, on its own, one of British sport-lovers’ favourite pastimes.
While some of the biggest races in the country are conditions or ‘weight-for-age’ races, often the most popular among backers are handicaps because of their perceived value for money within the betting markets.
So What Exactly Are Handicaps?
In effect handicap fields are leveled as every horse in them has an official rating which then determines what weight they carry. So, if a horse rated 90 carries 9st10lbs then a horse in the same race rated 88 would carry a total of 9st8lbs. In theory then, the horses are handicapped to finish dead level.
The handicap system provides not only fairer racing, especially for those not among the multi-million pound high end of owners seeking to win Derby’s and King George’s, but also great entertainment for the betting and watching public as 15, 20 or even 30-runner races with closely matched horses make for tight and enjoyable races.
Why Are They Popular?
Handicap races being so close and competitive means that, rather than a short-priced favourite dominating, odds look big across the board and that’s a massive temptation for punters as whatever you back, if you are successful, will lead to a juicy profit.
Punters then see these races as a personal challenge against the bookmaker. Some of the biggest and most competitive handicap races are known as ‘bookies benefits’ as the turnover will be huge and the chances of a majority of punters picking out the same horse and being successful are so remote. Nabbing the winner of the Grand National or the Stewards’ Cup for example is seen as great one-upmanship as well as profit making.
These races come in various levels of quality with a horse’s handicap mark setting it apart from others and from there it can be placed in whatever grade is appropriate.
No major races on the Flat in Britain are handicaps and so the very best quality horses need to backed in weight-for-age races, however there are 0-90, 0-110 or even open-ended handicap races providing an opportunity for some pretty high quality and dependable horses to race in this sphere and that brings with it betting opportunities.
What to Look Out For In Handicaps
Naturally you want to find a horse with a lower handicap mark than it should have. Sounds too easy, doesn’t it? But the official handicapper can’t make judgements based on potential and can only give an official rating based on performance and so this provides us with punting chance.
Connections of horses – trainers and owners – aren’t cheating the sport when they attempt deliberately to get a low handicap mark, rather it’s simply good game play. Racing Post, Timeform and more pertinently the official handicapper will often underestimate the performance of a horse which has won a low grade maiden or novice race by a small margin.
This sort of performance may give the horse a rating of say 80 when the trainer knows fine well their horse has the potential in the short term to be an 85 to 88 horse and may go through the grades to around 100 in time, meaning a few fruitful months in handicaps could be ahead with their horses always carrying a few pounds less in weight than they should be, making them what we call ‘well handicapped’ or ‘well treated’.
To achieve this, trainers may not have their horses fully fit for their debut or even their second outing meaning they are bound to improve. Imagine running on a treadmill when you’re tired, ill or hungover! Your performance will not be 100%. With that run under your belt however and when you are leaner and fitter, you can naturally run longer and/or faster and horses are no different.
Some trainers though need to get their horses a higher handicap mark, which sounds mad at first. This happens because some races are so prestigious and so valuable that they want to take part, though as it stands their horse may be balloted out of the race as there is not enough room.
By winning shortly before the big event, their horse’s rating may increase sufficiently or they may get a 7lb penalty meaning entry into the race is now guaranteed.
Look Out For Improvers
We can never explain this enough times; we are betting on a future event not on past exploits and so what we always want to see is an improving horse who can outrun his handicap mark and therefore his weight.
A lot of handicappers tend to have been around the block and, while their day may come again, they are often handicapped right up to their best and so you should always be on the lookout for horses going the right way who can take advantage of this.
Improvement is usually as a result of age; from two to three years old they almost always improve naturally but plenty improve further from 3-4 and even 4-5 over some distances so look out for their performances getting slightly better and factor this in when judging a handicap race.
Handicaps then are fun races to bet on and if you have your head screwed on they can be lucrative, but remember that you may need to take a leap of faith and get rid of older horses and/or rank outsiders to make your task easier in a process known as ‘narrowing the field’.