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Why Are Some Horse Races Called A Handicap?

Last updated: January 1, 2024

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

Recently, some friends joined us to watch live horse racing, and they were curious why some races were called handicaps. So, I decided to explain handicap horse racing to those who might not be familiar with this event.

Handicap horse racing requires horses to carry a predetermined weight based on the horse’s past performances. The added weight levels the playing field by assigning horses with better records to carry more weight. In theory, handicaps give all the horses an equal chance of winning.

Watching and gambling on horse races is exciting and challenging. Understanding the nuances of racing increases the spectators’ overall experience, and handicap racing comprehension is vital for successful horse racing wagering.

How Handicapping Works?

Let’s start with the basics. First, equestrian sports are ones that involve a horse. Some examples are show-jumping, dressage, polo, and, of course, horse racing.

Picture of horses racing in a handicap,race,
Handicap race.

In a horse race, the animals are lined up and raced to see which is the fastest. It’s an exciting sport that’s been around since the domestication of equines and has followers worldwide.

Most horse races are handicapped. The handicap is the weight a horse carries. The goal is to make the event competitive by assigning a burden for each animal per their talent level. Theoretically, less talented horses have lighter weights during the race.

The race secretary at each track is typically the person who determines what weight is added to the horse based on the horse’s ability. Each horse is given an official rating, and the official rating of the horse is evaluated and adjusted during the animal’s racing life.

How are horse racing handicaps calculated?

Handicapping can also be, at times, vulnerable to exploitation, which happens quite frequently. Let’s discuss the system in detail. As discussed above, horses have a rating on them, which they acquire in two ways:

1. Winning a race
2. By completing three races

After satisfying both of the above conditions, the handicapper may apply the handicapping mark on the horse. However, in exceptional circumstances, the horse may need to finish more than three races before being assigned a mark.

Failure to get a rating based on three races happens when the horse finishes very late, making it difficult to analyze its level correctly.

Handicapped Racing

YouTube video
Ta Wee carrying 142 lbs.

To further explain how weights are assigned, consider this imaginary scenario.

Horse 1 – Rated 40 – 14lb
Horse 2 – Rated 39 – 13lb
Horse 3 – Rated 35 – 9lb
Horse 4 – Rated 31 – 5lb
Horse 5 – Rated 30 – 4lb

After taking a good look at the scenario, you should notice that the 1st horse is the one with the highest rating, I.e., 40, which carries the highest weight, i.e., 13lb, as set by the handicapper.

Picture of a group of racehorse approaching the finish line,
Horse in a handicap race closing in on the finish line.

Each horse carries one pound less for every point their rating drops. For example, Horse 2 is rated one point lower than Horse 1; therefore, he carries a 1lb lower weight than horse 1.

As discussed above, handicapping is practiced while keeping in mind the theoretical level playing field, so ideally, all horses should complete the race simultaneously. However, it pretty much never happens in races.

The handicapping mark is the best estimation of the horse’s capability, which might not necessarily be true. Furthermore, ratings are not set in stone; horses get injured, age with time, compromise their speed, and sometimes get better at racing.

What are handicap penalties?

A handicap penalty is the horse’s added weight when the horse wins a race to penalize them. The penalty weights are usually set 4-5 days before a race.

The increased weight is dependent on whether or not the horse wins the race after that date. The added weight may differ depending on the rules and the ability of the horse.

How Do The Handicap Ratings Change?

The ratings are rechecked for horses when they finish their runs to ensure that the ratings are according to the horse’s abilities. In the above section, the change in ratings was talked about. Let’s discuss the method for doing so.

  1. As discussed above, when a horse finishes a race, the racing secretary increases the weight the horse carries, thus giving the horse a penalty.
  2. When a horse’s performance coincides with its rating, the handicapper doesn’t add any weight.
  3. When a horse’s performance is deficient compared to the rating assigned to it, then the racing secretary reconsiders the weight given to it and then lowers it.

What Is Meant By the Term “Ahead of the Handicapper?”

Ratings are assigned to each horse shortly before the scheduled race. The handicapper assigns weights to horses depending on the horse’s abilities, provided if the horse doesn’t carry a penalty, the weight he’s carrying will remain the same.

Picture of racehorse running on a muddy track,
Racehorses competing a handicap race.

Suppose the racing secretary raises the horse’s rating more than the penalty weight the horse is carrying. In that case, the horse is said to be “Ahead of the handicapper” because, in principle, he should have heavier weights for the future race.

What Is Meant By the Term “Long Handicap?”

Sometimes, a horse carries a meager amount of weight compared to the highest-rated horse in the race, which is even lower than the minimum weight.

It means that the handicap mark is very low compared to the highest-rated mark, which, if it happens to fall below the minimum handicap mark, is termed a “long handicap” or “Out of handicap.”

When this happens, the handicapper then increases the weight on the horse. For example, If the minimum weight for a race is 9lb and a specific horse is found to be carrying 7lb or 8lb, then the racing secretary raises the weight of the horse to meet the race standards.

Predicting the Outcome of Races

In the USA, the art of predicting handicap races is known as Thoroughbred Handicapping. Prediction of handicap race outcomes is a popular sport where people predict which horse has the highest chance of winning the race to profit from those predictions.

The statistical information related to horses is generally available in a newspaper that people buy to evaluate their predictions. A newspaper-styled publication called The Daily Racing Form provides the readers with all the racing horses’ information.

The publication includes details of past race performances, the money earned by each horse, lifetime records, odds of winning a past race for each horse, and various other information for those interested in details.

Predicting the outcome of races can also be done by carefully studying the racing track, the speed of a particular horse, the shape and condition of a specific horse during the race, the ability of the jockey riding the horse, and various other factors such as weather conditions or the amount of weight a horse carries.

How does weight affect performance?

Because gambling involves money and earnings, there has been a lot of interest in how extra weight affects racehorses’ performance. Gamblers and racing officials believe that one pound added to a horse slows a competitor by one horse length per mile.

However, some horses don’t follow the general rules, such as the great horse Seabiscuit. Seabiscuit continued to win at record pace regardless of the weight he carried.

There are plenty of other examples of horses that weren’t hampered by the weight they carried; Ta Wee won the 1970 Interborough Handicap while carrying 142 pounds, 29 more than the second-place finisher.

Racehorses overcoming their handicap weight show heart, determination, and oftentimes potential greatness. It’s one of the great aspects of horse racing; outstanding racehorses succeed regardless of their obstacles.

How does a racehorse carry the weight?

Before a race, a jockey and his tote are weighed. The tote is the equipment that accompanies the jockey on the horse during the race, which includes his saddle and saddle pad.

There are two standard types of saddle pads, ones with slots to insert lead weights and weighted saddle pads. Suppose a horse is assigned 130 lbs. and the jockey plus his saddle weighs 120 lbs. then the saddle pad with the lead weight makes up the difference, in this case, 10 lbs.

Most trainers want a jockey to weigh as close as possible to their horses’ assigned weight. They believe that carried weight slows a horse more than body weight. There is an excellent study comparing the effect of carried weight versus jockey body weight. You can read it by clicking this link.


Is it cruel to race horses?

Some people over-train, push horses too far, and abuse animals, but the act of racing horses isn’t cruel. Many racehorse owners and trainers love their animals and treat them with kindness and care.
To read more about the treatment of racehorses, check out this article: Are Racehorses Abused? The Cruel Facts of Horseracing.

What is a claiming horse race?

Claiming races are special horse races in which all the horses entered are for sale. Their sales price is listed in the racing form. The purpose of claiming races is to even the field by forcing owners to value their horses based on the claiming price.
Claiming races are the most common horse races. Here is a helpful article that goes into the details of claiming races: What Is a Claiming Race? The Rules and Its Definition.

What’s a stakes race?

Unlike a claiming race, horses must qualify to run in a stakes race, and these are the highest class of races. Horses eligible to run in a stake race must be nominated by their owner, and entry fees are typically required. Stakes races have the largest purses. You can learn more about stakes races in this article: What’s a Stakes Race In Horse Racing? How Horses’ Qualify.

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We hope the article was informative, looking forward to reading your comments.