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Beginners guide to handicap racing

If you want to improve your chances of taking profits from the bookmakers, then you need to arm yourself with as much information as possible. Before you lump any of your hard-earned cash on a horse, first make sure you know what kind of race you are betting on. Handicap or conditions race?

Just imagine you are spending a day at the races. You’re stood there in the paddock and you’re observing the horses with your mates as they parade around the ring (the horses that is – not your mates).

All around you there are whispers going around – “can’t have that one, it will be off the bridle and the jockey will be rowing away as soon as push comes to shove…. Look at the knee action on that one, I’m surprised the connections are even considering running him today given the conditions underfoot… “ and so on.

What with all the facts, figures, jargon and plain “gossip” that surrounds betting on horse racing, is it any wonder people end up betting a horse simply because they like the name, the jockey’s colours, or because it’s carrying their lucky number on the saddle cloth?

However, if you are a bit more savvy you will want to gain any advantage you can to get an edge on the bookmakers.

So what are the most important factors to consider? There are so many variables in a horse race, it would be easy to write a whole book on reading form. So to start with, let’s kick off with one of the fundamentals of horse racing – and that is handicapping.

One of the biggest errors many punters make is to fail to recognize what kind of race they are betting on. All UK races fall into one of two categories – a handicap (also known as a ‘nursery’ when contested by 2 year olds), or a ‘conditions’ race.

When you consider that bookies pay different amounts on each-way bets struck on the two types of race, it is well worth knowing and understanding the difference. For example, one-quarter the odds on the first three finishers (but the first four in a handicap with 16 or more runners) but only ever one-fifth the odds a place for the first three in a conditions race.

A handicap is a race where each horse is allocated a different weight according to ability, so that – in theory at least – each has an equal chance of winning.

On a weekly basis the British Horseracing Board (BHB) handicappers aim to produce a (official) rating (often referred to as the horse’s ‘mark’) for every UK horse in training that qualifies to run in a handicap. For example, on the Flat a horse must have either won or raced in three races, to give the handicapper a chance to assess the horse’s merits compared to its rivals.

According to the BHB, the mark allocated to a horse will be on a sliding scale between 0 (donkey with three legs) and around 120. Three year old horses rated at the top end of this scale are likely to be contesting races such as the Derby or one of the Guineas races.

When you hear about a horse running in a race from ‘out of the handicap’ it means that the trainer realizes he has bitten off more than he can chew, and the horse will be running at a distinct disadvantage. But he believes the horse has the ability to overcome the deficit.

Although the ratings system may appear confusing, it boils down to this – the higher the rating, the better the horse. However, you should remember that if you pick the horse rated number one in the handicap, it may well be the classiest horse in the race, but it is also carrying the most weight.

Each point on the scale is equal to one pound in weight. So a horse rated 118 would be considered 3lbs ‘better’ than a horse rated 115. If the first horse had to carry 9st 7lbs in a handicap, the second horse would (theoretically) finish in a dead heat if it carried 9st 4lbs.

To take into account the fact that horses continue to grow through the ages of three, four, and even five years, there is a ‘weight-for-age’ adjustment to make things fairer when horses of different ages compete against each other.

The ratings of all horses are kept on computer at Weatherbys (horse racing’s main administrative body). Every time a rated horse runs, the relevant handicapper must decide whether the rating needs to be adjusted to reflect an improved or poor performance.

Because evaluations are made weekly, shrewd trainers will run an improving horse in races in quick succession before its rating is upgraded. This is often known as being ‘ahead of the handicapper’.

So all handicaps finish in a dead-heat, right? If only it was that simple…..

With the knowledge of how a horse comes to receive its handicap rating, you stand a better chance of spotting when a horse is treated favorably, or ‘well in’, and striking that all important value bet.

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Max Redd is a professional punter and the horse racing tipster behind the Redd Racing online service. He offers all new members a free trial and a profit guarantee. Find out more at

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