How Does Handicapping Work?

How Does Handicapping Work?

With over 16,000 horses in training in the UK, clearly all them do not possess the same attributes or capability.

Some horses are lucky enough to contest the biggest prizes in global racing - where off levels weights, the desire is to find the best around.

For example, they could be in the appropriately-named Champion Hurdle or Champion Chase in National Hunt or perhaps the Champion Stakes on the flat, which we will both come to.

The majority of horses however race in what is called 'handicaps', where each horse is allocated a weight according to its racing ability, in an attempt to equalise every horse’s chance of winning.

We have two categories of racing – the flats and the jumps, and in order to create fair and competitive racing, the sport's governing body - the British Horseracing Authority, installed the handicap ratings system.

They assess the ability of every single horse based on their performances at a racetrack.

After three races on the track, the handicap rating system knows enough about a horse to give them an official rating, which in turn determines how much weight they carry in future contests.

For example, if one horse is rated 100, and the other is rated 95, the horse rated five points more than the other will essentially carry an additional 5lbs in weight.

Should the horse carrying 5lbs extra continue to beat horses rated inferior to them or amongst those with similar figures, that horse would rise up the class system to tackle harder races against better individuals.

Likewise for those who are not in contention of winning anything, the weight applied from the ranking will steadily shred off.

The aim of a handicap race is to give every horse an equal chance of winning, and the plan is to have every horse crossing the finish line at the same time - which is surprisingly yet to happen!

To provide opportunities for a range of horses, a racing classifications system is in place in both the flat and jump's racing seasons.


Starting with the Flat's, the top banded contests are known as Group Ones, Twos and Threes.

Group One races are a test of class and brilliance, with all the horses running off level weights. Allowances are given for three-year-old horses against older horses and for fillies and mares against colts and geldings.

Group Two and Three races are still of notable and high importance, but are a step down from the top tier in terms of quality, and naturally - there are more of these contests around. Group Ones can essentially be referred to as World Cup finals for different distances.

In Group Twos and Threes, the weights are calculated in a similar manner to Group One contests, but there is also the addition of penalties to make the races more competitive.

Penalties, in the form of extra weight carried by the horse, are given to horses who have won at an equal or higher grade within a certain timeframe.

Listed races are a further step down from Group level where the same weight penalties apply. Listed contests may however come in the shape of trials for future grouped affairs.

The rest are left to fight out the handicaps.

Every horse is assessed after each race by a team of handicappers and given an official rating, which as mentioned, usually increases if they run well and decreases if they don’t.

In a handicap race, each horse is allotted a weight based on its rating – each point represents 1lb.

The highest rating a horse can have in a Flat handicap is 110, meaning beyond that, they must compete at Group level.

Some of the top-end handicaps are highly valuable and historic, such as the Wokingham at Royal Ascot, the Cesarewitch at Newmarket and the Ebor at York, which regularly attract large fields.

Below are the official ratings required for the flat racing classes:

Class 1 - Listed Handicaps for horses rated 96-110+.

Class 2 - The ratings bands for this class are 86-100, 91-105 and 96-110.

Class 3 - The ratings bands for this class are 76-90 and 81-95

Class 4 - For horses rated 66-80 and 71-85

Class 5 - For horses rated 56-70 and 61-75

Class 6 - For horses rated 46-60 and 51-65.

Class 7 - Classified stakes races for horses rated 0-45.


Jump races are slightly more complicated, as they are races that include obstacles for the horse and jockey to jump.

These can be small ones known as hurdles or large ones known as fences.

Jump racing proves the test of stamina and jumping ability and so the horses that take part tend to be older than Flat horses. They look bigger and more developed than the finer, more elegant Flat horses.

Races are held over a variety of distances from 2 to 4½ miles and under certain conditions with eligibility based on the sex, age or ability of the horse.

Some horses may begin their careers at flat horses, get gelded, before entering the National hunt sphere for the next few years.

As with flat racing, National Hunt racing is also divided into quality bands which are referred to as classes.

The grading system for jump racing follows the same rules as the Flat races, but races are called Graded races instead of Group races.

The highest level is Grade One, where horses compete off the same weight - but again have allowances for age or gender.

These top-end affairs include illustrious contests such as the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Champion Hurdle and the King George VI Chase.

There are also uniquely Grade Three handicaps over jumps, which does sound rather confusing, but just like the high-end flat Handicaps, these are often highly prestigious prizes, and prove just how high the class is.

Examples of this is the Ladbrokes Trophy, the Betfair Hurdle and of course, the world's most famous steeplechase - the Grand National.

In Jumps racing, the handicap ratings are much higher than they are on the Flat, meaning the rating in the classes is much much more.

Class 1 - Grade One, Two and Three and Listed races

Class 2 - Handicaps 0-140+

Class 3 - Handicaps 0-135

Class 4 - Handicaps 0-115

Class 5- Handicaps 0-95

Class 6 - National Hunt Flat Races and Hunter’s Steeplechases