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Some Horses Carry Extra Weights in a Race. Do You Know Why?

Last updated: January 10, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

Weights are added to most entries in a horse race. The amount of weight varies based on the weight assigned to each horse and the jockey’s size. But before we delve too far, let’s look at why horses carry added weight in a race.

Racehorses carry extra weights to meet the minimum weight assigned to them for a specific race. If a jockey and his tack weigh less than the weight assigned, weights are added to the horse to meet the required amount designated to carry during its race.

Sometimes races include different amounts of weight for horses running in the same competition. There are various reasons that weights differ between horses in the same race, and all are not obvious.

picture of a jockey sitting on a racehorse and there is a weighted pad under the saddle

All races have a set weight a horse must carry.

Every race has a designated amount of weight each horse must carry. Some entries are burdened with extra weight to even the competition across the field of competitors in a race.

For example, a race may stipulate that all horses must carry 115 lbs., but the jockey weighs 110 lbs. (including tack). In this example, 5 lbs. must be added to comply with the conditions of the race.

The Jockey club is the governing body for thoroughbred racing, and they establish a “scale of weights” for racehorses. The scale of weights ranges from the lightest to the most substantial weight a horse carries in a race. Generally, race weights are between 113 lbs. And 118 pounds.

It is difficult for a jockey to keep his riding weight under 113 lbs. For years riders have been pushing track administrators for higher minimum weights because of the physical toll maintaining such a low body weight takes on their health.

With the “scale of weights” as a starting point, each track secretary writes the races for their racing season in a condition book. The condition book is the upcoming schedule of races at a track, and it usually spans a month of races.

Racehorse trainers scour the condition book for competitions to enter their horses. The condition book presents the specifics for each race, including the weight the horses must carry.

The factors the racing secretary considers when assigning weight are the ages of the horses, race record, and gender. Mares carry less than their male counterparts; horses three years old and younger are assigned a lower burden than horses with fewer wins.

Picture of a dapple gray racehorse.

Novice jockeys are allowed 5 pounds.

New jockeys (bug boys) are given an allowance weight for the horses they ride. Riders with less than thirty-five wins typically get a break of 5 lbs.

In a condition book, a race states the purse amount, the age of the horses eligible, the length of the race, and the number of wins a horse must have to be entered. The following is copied from Churchhill Downs condition book:

FIFTH RACE CLAIMING PURSE $44,000. FOR THREE-YEAR-OLDS AND UPWARD WHICH HAVE NEVER WON TWO RACES. Three-Year-Olds 122 lbs. Older 125 lbs. Non-Winners Of A Race At A Mile Or Over Since September 30 2 lbs. Claiming Price $30,000, If For $25,000, Allowed 2 lbs. ONE MILE AND ONE-SIXTEENTH

In the above race, a horse is allowed to take off two pounds if:

  • Non-winner of a race at a mile or over since September 30, 2019;
  • Running the horse for a 25,000 claiming price

For this race, horses carrying the lightest weight would be three years old without a win since September 30, 2019, and running for a $25,000 claiming price. The horse would start at 122 lbs and is given a four-pound allowance, resulting in a racing weight of 118 lbs.

Horses carrying the most weight in the race have a win since September 30, 2019, and are over three years old; these horses will race to carry a weight of 125 lbs., seven pounds more than the lightest burdened horses.

Picture of racehorses.

Handicap races assign weight based on past performance

In a handicap race, each horse is allocated weight based on its past performance in an attempt to give each horse a fair shot at winning. The premise is that added weight affects a horse’s speed over a certain distance.

Of course, the better the horse, the more weight it will be assigned to carry. If a handicapper is successful, all horses will hit the finish line at the same time. The race secretary setting the weights uses a formula to determine the amount of weight to assign.

The most common factors are:

  • past performances at this distance;
  • previous weights the horse has carried;
  • how well the horse has performed in similar races;
  • how the horses have shown in earlier races against each other.

Handicapped races are much more common in Europe, especially in the United Kingdom, than they are in the United States.

Picture of us tacking up a racehorse.
Adding weight before our race.

What is “top weight” in horse racing?

In handicap races, the horse assigned to run with the most weight is referred to as the “top weight” horse. The track secretary considers the “top weight” horse as the best horse in the field of entries.

If the “top weight horse” is pulled from a race, the remaining horses will likely be assigned a different amount of weight to carry.

What does “weight for age” mean in horse racing?

The race conditions are spelled out in detail in a horse racing program. As we know, one of the items is the weight a horse carries. But why do some horses carry different weights?

“Weight for age” (WFA) is a term used to describe the amount a horse carries in a race based on age. In our example above, the racing secretary established that three-year-olds carry 122 lbs. 122lbs for three years olds are the “weight for age” condition of the race.

In the excerpt above, older horses carried two pounds more than the three-year-olds in the race. Do two pounds matter? Let’s find out.

Picture of a dapple gray horse

Does weight matter in horse racing?

Because Seabiscuit dominated so many races, the racing commissioner continued to add weight, but he kept winning. So does weight affect a horse’s ability to run?

The amount of weight a horse is burdened with matters because it takes more energy to move a higher amount of weight than it does to move less weight over a given distance. Can a horse overcome this differential? Yes

Handicappers use formulas to calculate how much effect weight has on speed. Generally, most consider 1 lb additional weight is equal to 1/5 of a second in time, which translates to 1 horse length in a mile race.

How is weight added to a racehorse?

When you watch horseracing, you likely don’t notice the weights carried by the racehorses. This is because they want the weight added but not hinder the horse’s ability to perform.

Weights are added to horses with lead pads or weighted saddle pads. The saddles jockeys ride during a race have pockets to hold lead weights.

The YouTube video from Delta Downs racetrack near Lake Charles, Louisiana, presents the different methods used today for adding weight to a horse for racing.

jockeyfrom edited

Why do jockeys get weighed?

Between races, jockeys hurry into a room, get weighed, change silks, and walk back to the paddock carrying gear. Popular jockeys do this between every race. But why do they get weighed between each race?

Race track personnel set minimum weight requirements each horse must carry for a race. To ensure compliance with this mandate, jockeys weigh before and after each run.

Jockeys step on the scale with their gear, including the saddle; if they don’t meet the required weight, a lead pad or a weighted saddle pad is added, and they step back on the scales and are weighed again. This process continues until they are at the correct weight.

Once the rider has hit his weight mark, he passes his gear to the trainer or assistant to prepare the horse for the race. When the race is over, all the jockeys that competed repeat the weighing process. Once the weights have been verified, the results of the competition are confirmed.

When not racing an average horse can carry 20 percent of its weight safely, but when running at top speed a racehorse would likely sustain an injury if it was carrying 20 percent of its weight.

Below is a helpful YouTube video about the weights added to race horses.


Is the Kentucky Derby a Handicap Race?

No, the Kentucky Derby is not a handicap race. It is a grade I stakes race comprised of the top three-year-old racehorses in the world. To qualify for the Kentucky Derby, a horse must earn points.

What racehorse is known as “Big Red”?

There are actually two great racehorses known as “Big Red.” Most modern horse racing fans associate the nickname with Secretariat, but before him, the moniker was used for Man o’ War.

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Miles Henry