What Is Handicapping In Horse Racing

A handicap horse race is a race where the weight carried by each horse is determined by the horse's past performances and overall ability.

A handicap horse race is a type of horse race where the weight carried by each horse is determined by the horse's past performances and overall ability. The purpose of assigning weights is to level the playing field and give each horse an equal chance of winning the race.

Horses that have performed well in previous races are assigned higher weights, while horses that have performed poorly or are less experienced are assigned lower weights. The idea is to create a more competitive race and increase the chances of an exciting finish. The weights are assigned by a handicapper, who analyzes each horse's past performances and determines the appropriate weight based on a specific formula or system.

Can making the horses perform equally make a difference from other types of races? How would you make the most of your wagers for these events? Let's dive deeper into handicap horse race betting.

Understanding Handicap Racing

History of Handicap Racing

Weight-for-age (WFA) is the earliest form of handicapping where a horse will carry weights based on age, sex, total race distance, and weight. Handicap horse racing can be traced back to the 18th century in England when Admiral Henry John Rous introduced the WFA concept. While handicapping has changed, handicappers still use Rous' WFA concept for modern horse races. 

WFA is its handicap race where runners carry more weight when they are older than other participants. One example is the Cox Plate track, where three-year-old males will race with 49.5kg of weight while four-year-old males carry 57.5kg.

Modern Handicap Racing Rules

In modern races, handicappers assign weight to faster or high-performance horses according to a rating system. One example of this system comes from the British Horseracing Authority (BHA). A horse is rated when it wins a race or at least finishes within the top six spots in the past three races. Based on the BHA rating, handicappers will decide the weights to attach to the horse. Note that handicappers still use their best judgment on the weight of specific runners. If one believes a horse performs better than the BHA believes, a handicapper is free to add more weight for that participant. 

What is the point of handicapping runners for a race? The idea behind handicapping is to create a balanced competition where the slowest horse has a chance against the fastest. This principle is suitable for pari-mutuel wagering systems where the punters are betting against each other. When you apply this principle to betting, you can see virtually no favorites in a handicapped horse race. 

Those familiar with sports betting and who have yet to try betting on horse races are likely unaware of pari-mutuel wagering. Sports betting and certain horse races have fixed odds where you are betting against the bookmakers. If you win your wagers, the bookies are the ones who will pay your winnings. 

Advantage of Handicap Racing for Punters

In a pari-mutuel wagering system, the prize money for that specific race is pooled from the total wagers of every punter while deducting the cut for the operators. A horse's odds are set by the bets placed on them. Win, place or show bets on horses with the highest number of bets will payout less if it wins since you will split the winnings with numerous punters who made the same wager. 

Advantage bettors or punters can benefit from the balanced odds when they use their experience and knowledge to find a likely winner in one race. Because every horse is perceived as equal in a handicap race, punters are likely to spread out their wagers on various horses. The payouts will be nearly equal for each participant unless there is a horse that most perceive as the likely winner. 

Betting on Handicap Racing

Placing a wager on a handicap horse race is not as complicated as it looks, but some new punters tend to misunderstand the various bets available. Fortunately, horse races are easy to understand if you grasp how odds work. 

Handicap Racing Odds Explained

In sports betting, odds represent the chances for a specific wager to win. A top-tier basketball team will have the best possible odds in a match since they are favored to win. Odds are also applied to the runners in a race to show their likelihood of winning. Bookmakers are responsible for assigning the prices on each horse in a fixed odds race. 

How would odds represent the best or favored horse in a pari-mutuel betting format on a handicap horse race if every participant is set as equal? Punters are the ones who indirectly set the odds for each horse according to the number of wagers placed on them. The horse with the most wagers is perceived to be the likely winner of the race since it carries the most wagers. 

Let us illustrate that with a sample below: 

Horse A$1002/5
Horse B$503/2
Horse C$102/1

Because horse A is backed by more punters than horse B or C, they are believed to win the next race. They have the least payout of the three by being the most favored. 

Handicap Racing Odds Payout

In sports betting or horse races, odds also represent the possible payout of your wager. You can see this with a simple formula or a sports odds payout calculator. Let us take the odds of the three horses as our example. For horse A, you stand to win $2 for every $5 you wager. If you bet on Horse C, you win $2 for every $1 you bet on them. A $20 bet on Horse A will give you $28 in the total payout or a profit of $8 if it wins. Should Horse C win with a $20 wager, you get $60 in total payout and a profit of $40. 

Types of Handicap Racing Bets

Another aspect of handicap horse races is the types of wagers you can make. These wagers are categorized into two groups: straight and exotic

Straight bets are regular wagers on the winning horse. Odds for these wagers are straightforward, or the risks are balanced between the three straight bets. Straight wagers consist of the following: 

  • Win - As the name indicates, this is a wager on which horses will finish in 1st place. Due to the risks associated with a winning bet, the odds for this wager are lower than others. 
  • Place - You are betting on a horse that will finish in either 1st or 2nd place. The risk is reasonable with a place bet if you believe a participant can finish in the top two spots. 
  • Show - This bet wins if a horse finishes in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place. Odds for a show bet are incredibly high since there are three outcomes where you will win this wager. 

Exotic wagers are bets on the performance of multiple horses. Risks for exotics are incredibly high due to the situations required to win these bets. The most common exotic wagers are the following: 

  • Trifecta - The wagers predict which of the three horses will win in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place accordingly. Since the requirement is to have three horses win in the exact order, the odds are extremely low for a trifecta to win. 
  • Pick 3 - This bet is to guess three winning horses for three consecutive races. Please consider this a risky win bet since you need to have all three of your chosen runners take first place in their respective races. 
  • Daily Double - Daily double predicts the winners of two races. This wager has a slightly lower risk than pick three but has low odds of winning since you must have two horses take the 1st place. 

Strategies for Handicap Racing Betting

There are two ways you can get ahead of other punters in a handicapped horse race. Here are two strategies to utilize. 

Finding Expert Picks

One of the simple strategies you can do for handicap horse racing betting is to listen to the sharps or professionals closely following various races. 

A great example is the expert picks for the 2023 Kentucky Derby, which are educated predictions by experienced punters on who is likely to win that race. You can find picks from a wide range of sources and media. 

Even pro punters offer their picks through a subscription service where their predictions are available to paid members. 

Look for Value Bets

Another method is to look for value bets among the participants, which involves reading and using the data on a race card. Note that the odds set by a bookie or the punters are not the "actual odds" of any horse. You are looking for a horse priced incredibly low despite having better chances of winning. 

You must invest significant time and effort researching a horse to find a value bet. You can start by looking up a participant's form on a race card or the numbers and letters adjacent to the horse's name. A form is a condensed collection of the horse's performance, such as where they finished in the last three races. Letters on the form can also tell you if the horse has had problems in the past. One example is "pulled up" (PU), where the horse did not complete the race. You can also find the BHA ratings, age, and weight on the race card that affects the horse's handicap. 

You can get a good grasp on the likelihood of a horse winning in the next race based on the data on the race card. For example, a favored horse by the punters and bookies carries a slightly heavier saddle than the BHA intends.

Meanwhile, a horse that consistently placed second and third has a BF on its form to indicate it has "beaten the favorite." The value bet for that race is the second horse, which will likely win you a win or place wager. 

Common Mistakes in Handicap Racing Betting

Anyone can walk away with a small fortune in any handicapped horse race. However, there are several mistakes confident punters may make. 

Underestimating the Weights

One of these mistakes is not considering the weights added to a horse. Punters will likely lose a wager on a horse that has yet to perform with weights bogging them down. Handicapping a horse can drastically alter its performance in the next race, even if it could get a high ranking from the BHA. 

Ignoring the Race Card Data

Another mistake is ignoring the information and abbreviations on the race card. The form will always tell you what kind of horse you will back based on the numbers and letters. If you see a C, CD, or D on its form, that horse was a previous winner of the same course or distance. You may also have a problem horse if they have an R or L on their form to indicate that they did not participate in the race. 

You can avoid these mistakes by considering the handicap placed on the horse and its form. Understanding the data on a race card is a valuable skill when looking for the best possible bet on the next race. Some software tools like Proform Racing help visually analyze horse racing data.

Handicapping horse races balance the performance of every runner with the addition of weights. These weights allow young or slow horses to compete equally against track winners. By making all participants equal, pari-mutuel punters are encouraged to spread their bets among the selections. 

You can make money from handicapped horse races by learning about race card data and researching the participant's previous performance. Your effort in researching the runners will help you find a value bet to make you a profit. Otherwise, there are always picks made by experienced and knowledgeable punters who can save you the effort of finding these valuable bets.