Handicapping is a procedure in horse racing whereby the horses are given a “mark” on how well they’ve run in their recent races. The theory behind handicapping is to give every horse an equal chance of winning a race. In order to receive a handicap mark, a horse must run three times so that the handicapper can get a grip on what level of form a horse can run to.
If the horse records a win in his first three races, connections may ask to be given a mark before the three races are completed in order to start competing in handicaps immediately. Likewise, if the handicapper cannot get a reasonable understanding of where a horse’s ability lies, he may ask for the horse to run again before issuing a rating.
Once a horse receives a rating, he/she will usually go on to contest handicaps. Once entered into a race, the horse will then compete against other horses of different weights correlating to their handicap mark; the better the horse the more weight they’re required to carry. When a horse performs well, the handicapper will usually raise their mark in an attempt to make their next race more competitive. Equally, if a horse regularly underperforms or simply isn’t as good as the mark given, the handicapper will take dropping the horse’s rating into consideration.
The handicapper’s dream (theoretically) is that all the horses in the race finish in a straight line (dead-heat), vindicating the handicapper in all his previous decisions. Obviously that’s unrealistic with regards to several factors such as running styles, going differences and various abilities of jockeys but they still want all handicaps to be as competitive as possible.
On the flip-side, well-handicapped horses that win by habitually short margins are their nightmare. These types can become difficult for the handicapper to get a grip of as they can’t justify raising their rating enough due to the small distance of their victories.
Handicaps have been in horse racing since the late 18th century with the first reportedly held at Ascot in 1790. The races became so popular with the racing fans, it eventually became the staple of British racing. Over 60% of races in the UK are handicap races and that percentage rises abroad, with the majority of races in Hong Kong and Australia competed as handicaps.