What Does a Handicap Mean in Horse Racing?

In horse racing, the term “handicap” is fundamental to understanding how many races are run and bet on.

This guide explains the concept of handicapping in horse racing.

Definition of Handicap in Horse Racing

A handicap in horse racing is a system used to level the playing field between horses of varying abilities. It involves assigning different weights to horses in a race based on their past performances. The goal is to give every horse an equal chance of winning.

How Handicapping Works

Handicapping in horse racing works through a systematic process to level the playing field among horses of varying abilities:

  • Assessment of Horses: An official called a handicapper evaluates each horse based on its past performances, including race wins and overall performance history.
  • Assigning Weights: Based on this assessment, the handicapper assigns weights to each horse. Better-performing horses are given more weight to carry, while those with lesser performance records carry less weight.
  • Balancing Competitiveness: The purpose of these weight assignments is to equalise the chances of winning for all horses. Heavier weights are intended to slow down faster horses, making the race more competitive and unpredictable.

This process ensures that races are not dominated by the strongest horses but offer a fair and level competition, making the outcomes less predictable and more exciting for bettors and spectators.

Types of Handicap Races

There are two primary types of handicap races in horse racing:

  • Flat Handicap Races: These races are conducted on flat, level tracks without any obstacles. They are common in flat racing circuits and involve horses carrying varying weights according to their handicap ratings.
  • Jump Handicap Races: Also known as National Hunt races, these involve horses navigating hurdles or fences. Similar to flat handicap races, horses carry different weights determined by their handicap. These races test not only the speed but also the jumping ability and endurance of the horses.

Both types aim to level the playing field by assigning weights based on each horse’s ability, ensuring more competitive and unpredictable racing outcomes.

Importance of Handicapping in Betting

The importance of handicapping in horse racing betting is substantial:

Influences Odds and Outcomes: Handicapping affects a horse’s likelihood of winning. Understanding how different weights impact a horse’s performance can guide bettors in making more informed decisions.

Strategic Betting: Bettors often analyse how horses perform under varying weights. This analysis helps in predicting how a horse might handle its handicap in upcoming races, forming the basis of strategic betting.

Identifying Value Bets: Skilled bettors use handicapping to identify ‘value bets’. A horse carrying more weight due to past success might still have the potential to overcome this challenge and win, potentially offering higher returns.

In essence, handicapping is a critical aspect of betting strategies in horse racing, as it plays a key role in balancing the competition and influencing race outcomes.

Handicap Ratings

Handicap ratings in horse racing are numerical values assigned to horses by an official handicapper.

These ratings reflect the horse’s overall performance and ability based on past races.

The key aspects of handicap ratings include:

  • Determining Weights: The handicap rating directly influences the weight a horse will carry in a handicap race. A higher rating means the horse will carry more weight, while a lower rating assigns less weight.
  • Dynamic and Adjustable: Ratings are not static; they are adjusted over time based on the horse’s performance. If a horse wins or performs well consistently, its rating will likely increase, leading to heavier weights in future races.
  • Leveling the Field: The purpose of these ratings is to level the playing field, giving every horse a fair chance to win. By adjusting weights according to ability, handicappers aim to make races more competitive and unpredictable.
  • Critical for Bettors: Bettors closely examine these ratings as part of their strategy. Understanding a horse’s rating and how it might cope with the assigned weight is crucial for making informed betting decisions.

Handicap ratings are therefore a central aspect of horse racing, significantly impacting how races are run and bet on.

Handicap Race Example

A classic example of a handicap race in horse racing could be described as follows:

Title: The Emerald Downs Handicap Challenge

Race Type: Flat Handicap Race


  • Venue: Emerald Downs Racetrack
  • Distance: 1 mile (1609 meters)
  • Surface: Turf

Participants: A field of 12 horses, ranging in ability and past performance.

Handicap System:

  • Based on past race wins and times, the top-performing horse in the field is assigned a handicap weight of 60 kg.
  • A horse with moderate past success, showing potential but not consistent wins, is given a weight of 57 kg.
  • A lesser-known horse, with few notable past performances, carries a lighter weight of 53 kg.

Race Dynamics:

  • The race begins with all horses having varying weights based on their handicap ratings.
  • The top-weighted horse, despite being the fastest in previous races, faces the challenge of carrying the heaviest weight.
  • The horses with lighter weights have a theoretically improved chance of winning, leveling the playing field.


  • The race is closely contested, with the lighter-weighted horses having a competitive edge, but the skill of the jockeys and the horses’ stamina also play a crucial role in the race’s outcome.
  • The finishing positions are less predictable due to the handicapping system, making the race exciting for both spectators and bettors.

This example illustrates how a handicap race is structured, highlighting the impact of weight variations on the race’s competitiveness and outcome.

Where Does the Handicap Weight Horses Carry Go?

In horse racing, the handicap weight that horses are required to carry is distributed in a few ways:

Saddle Weights: Most of the weight is added through lead weights placed in the horse’s saddle pads. These weights ensure that the horse carries the exact handicap weight assigned by the handicapper.

Jockey’s Gear and Tack: The weight of the jockey and their gear (including the saddle) is also considered part of the total weight the horse carries. If the jockey and gear do not meet the required handicap weight, additional weights are added to the saddle.

Weighing In: Jockeys are weighed both before and after the race with their gear to ensure the horse carried the correct weight throughout the race.

This system ensures that the handicapping is fairly implemented, with each horse carrying the designated weight to provide an even playing field in the race.

How Does a Horse Get a Handicap Mark?

A horse receives a handicap mark through a systematic process conducted by an official handicapper. In Britain, it’s done by the British Horse Racing Association (BHA):

  1. Initial Assessment: A horse typically needs to run in a few races (usually three) to give the handicapper a basis for assessment. These initial races provide performance data on the horse’s speed, stamina, and overall ability.
  2. Performance Analysis: The official handicapper analyses the horse’s performances, considering factors like the quality of the opposition, the race conditions, and the margins of victory or defeat.
  3. Assigning the Handicap Mark: Based on this analysis, the handicapper assigns a handicap mark to the horse1. This mark is a numerical value representing the horse’s ability. The higher the mark, the more weight the horse will carry in handicap races.
  4. Regular Reviews: The handicap mark is not static. It is reviewed and adjusted by the handicapper based on the horse’s subsequent race performances. Wins and strong showings may increase the mark, while poor performances may lead to a decrease.

How and Why Does a Horse’s Handicap Mark Change?

A horse’s handicap mark is subject to change based on its performance in races, and this adjustment is carried out by an official handicapper.

The primary reason for changing a horse’s handicap mark is to reflect its current form and ability accurately.

If a horse performs exceptionally well in races, consistently finishing near the top or winning, the handicapper may increase its handicap mark.

This increase means the horse will carry more weight in future races, ensuring a more balanced and competitive field.

Conversely, if a horse’s performance declines over several races, showing it struggles against similarly rated horses, its handicap mark may be lowered. This weight reduction can help the horse to be more competitive.

Adjustments to handicap marks are a crucial part of maintaining fairness and competitiveness in horse racing, ensuring that no horse has an undue advantage or disadvantage in handicap races.

What Does Long Handicap Mean in Horse Racing?

In horse racing, the term “long handicap” refers to a situation where a horse is carrying less weight than the minimum weight stipulated for a handicap race.

This occurs when a horse’s official handicap rating is lower than the lowest rating for which weights are allocated in the race.

Essentially, the horse is not sufficiently rated to carry the minimum weight but is still allowed to compete.

In such cases, the horse races with a weight below the set minimum, which is indicated by the term “long handicap” in the race card.

This system allows for the inclusion of lower-rated horses in a race, providing them an opportunity to compete, albeit at a weight disadvantage compared to horses meeting the minimum handicap criteria.

The long handicap is part of the broader effort to maintain competitive balance and inclusivity in horse racing.

What Is a Penalty in a Handicap Race?

In horse racing, a penalty in a handicap race refers to the additional weight added to a horse’s assigned handicap weight as a result of recent successes.

When a horse wins or performs exceptionally well in a race, it may be subject to a penalty in its subsequent races.

This penalty, typically in the form of extra pounds, is added to the weight the horse was originally set to carry.

The rationale behind imposing a penalty is maintaining a competitive balance in handicap racing.

By increasing the weight of a recently successful horse, handicappers aim to level the playing field, giving other horses a fairer chance of winning.

The specific amount of the penalty is determined by the racing authorities and can vary depending on the race’s conditions and the margin and nature of the horse’s recent victories.

Penalties are a critical aspect of the handicapping system, ensuring that races remain competitive and no single horse consistently dominates due to its current form.

What Is the Difference Between a Handicap and a Non-Handicap Race?

The difference between handicap and non-handicap races in horse racing primarily lies in the way horses are weighted:

  1. Handicap Races:
    • Weight Allocation: In handicap races, horses are assigned different weights based on their past performances. The goal is to level the playing field, giving every horse a fair chance of winning. Better-performing horses carry more weight, while those with lesser records carry less.
    • Competitive Balance: These races are designed to be more competitive and unpredictable because the weight adjustments aim to equalise the chances of all horses.
  2. Non-Handicap Races:
    • Weight Rules: In non-handicap races, also known as conditions or weight-for-age races, horses carry weight based on a set of conditions stipulated by the race organisers. These conditions could include the horse’s age, gender, and past winnings, but do not take into account recent form in the same detailed way as handicap races.
    • Inherent Advantages: As a result, these races can sometimes see a more predictable outcome, with inherently stronger, faster, or more successful horses having a distinct advantage.

In summary, handicap races aim for equity among competitors by assigning weights based on ability and performance, whereas non-handicap races follow a more fixed set of weight rules that do not aim to balance the competition in the same way.

Final Thoughts

Handicapping in horse racing is a critical aspect that ensures fairness and competitiveness.

It influences how races are run and is a key factor in betting strategies.

Understanding handicaps allows bettors and fans to appreciate the nuances of horse racing and make informed decisions.


What does a handicap mean in horse racing?

In horse racing, a handicap refers to a system where horses carry different weights assigned based on their past performances to level the playing field. The purpose of handicapping is to give every horse an equal chance of winning, with better-performing horses carrying more weight. This system creates more competitive and unpredictable races by balancing horses’ chances according to their abilities.

What does it mean if a horse is out of the handicap?

If a horse is “out of the handicap” in horse racing, it means the horse is carrying less weight than the minimum weight stipulated for a particular handicap race. This situation arises when the horse’s official rating is below the range set for the race, resulting in it competing at a weight disadvantage compared to other horses that meet the minimum handicap criteria. This term is often used in racing to describe lower-rated horses participating in handicap events.

How do you pick a handicap winner?

Picking a winner in a handicapped horse race involves analysing various factors: assessing horses’ past performance under different weights, considering the impact of the assigned handicap on each horse, and evaluating track conditions and jockey skills. It also requires studying recent form, understanding how each horse performs over a specific distance and surface, and noting any changes in a horse’s rating or form. Successful handicapping often involves a blend of statistical analysis, knowledge of horse racing dynamics, and keeping abreast of current form and conditions.

Find out more about horse racing betting:


  1. https://www.britishhorseracing.com/regulation/guide-to-handicapping/translating-performance-figures-initial-handicap-rating/ ↩︎