How Handicapping Works in Horse Racing (Beating the System)

Handicapping System in Horse Racing Explained

Understanding how handicapping works in horse racing is an important part of betting and trading successfully!

Readers of this blog are usually quite sharp. I don’t want to insult anyone’s intelligence, but;

in order to successfully navigate any system effectively, it’s important to understand the rules intimately

It’s a bit like football players throwing themselves on the floor, or the super-rich avoiding tax. Not always right, but human beings will always play the system right up to the line to get the best results.

So if we’re to succeed in making money from horse racing, we need to understand how the handicapping system works. Once we do it’s far easier to pinpoint areas of interest, and eventually find places where the odds are in our favour.

When it comes to betting and trading, finding value in the market is our number one priority.

Handicapping in Horse Racing Explained

When it comes to horse racing, handicapping is a big topic and an important one at that. So I’ve broken this post down into 4 easy to understand sections.

  1. Why you need to understand the UK horse racing handicapping system.
  2. How the ‘handicapper’ rates a horse’s potential, and what they do next.
  3. What it means for the general public.
  4. The effect handicapping has on trading horse racing markets.

Let’s get stuck into it!

Why is the Handicapping System Important?

Every year there are thousands of horse races, the most common type of race is a handicap. In total, it makes up for around half of all races in a year.

In short, if you don’t understand how the UK horse racing handicapping system works, you’re at a big disadvantage. Before you even look at all the other factors that make up a race. Finding that pivotal piece of information that provides value is a lot easier when you understand the handicapping system.

As I alluded to at the start of this post, people will always bend the rules and play right up to the edges if it suits them. You won’t change it, it is human nature. The best tactic as a sports bettor/trader is to observe, learn and profit from any edges that you gain from this knowledge!

Everyone knows horse racing is rife for ‘inside info. Most of the time it’s just hot air of course, if it’s the drunk old man in the corner of the pub shouting about “A cert”. Then it’s best to disregard it.

However, ignoring the fact that various owners and trainers are prone to betting would be foolish. Especially when they are the ones that possess the power to enter a horse into a race where it’s likely to receive a more favourable rating afterwards. Whilst previously racing it in weaker company.

That’s not cheating by the way, it’s just successfully playing by the rules. Some of the biggest offenders may have even got a knighthood for it…

Understanding the handicapping system alone is likely to help you avoid being on the wrong side of a ‘gamble’. Laying against a horse purely on its latest form. On the flip-side, it could also assist you in identifying profitable angles.

Interesting right?

Handicapping System Rules and Penalties

To understand the handicapping system rules we need to know what a handicap race is;

Handicap races are where horses are weighted, in line with ability, attempting to give each respective runner an equal chance of winning the race in hand

Sound’s very equal doesn’t it… not always the way.

What is a handicapper in horse racing?

Good question, a handicapper in horse racing has a very important job.

The handicapper has to assess a horse based on its running history. This decides the horse’s official racing (seen as OR on race cards). After 3 runs the horse is given a rating. After this, ratings are adjusted in line with performance. The horse’s official rating determines which races it may enter.

Every week the handicapper re-assesses the horse’s ability. This is why it’s possible for horses to quickly accumulate a winning sequence over the space of a week (under the same official rating). The handicapper then gives the horse a penalty of 3, 5 or 7 pounds to carry.

The idea is that the weight the horse carries affects its ability to run. This means that naturally faster horses will be weighted to put their speed more in line with weaker horses. (For a human comparison, imagine in the Olympics making Usain Bolt have to run with 2KG weights to even the field.)

In theory, if the handicapper is doing his job well the horses should finish like this:

Horse Racing Handicapping System Explained

Let’s cut to the chase.

Some readers may see where this is going!

The game is; to run the horse over the incorrect trip, track, going etc. Get the handicap rating down, and then enter it into a race where it has an unfair chance of winning. Then try to win several times with it over the week before the handicapper catches up. Effectively manipulating the handicapping system… sorry I meant navigating it.

As far as betting goes; you’ve already worked it out I’m almost certain. The time in which the under-rated horse is entered into a race with all its ‘chubbier’ chums, those in the know will bet it hard. I’d imagine there are a few quid in it.

Horses Handicap
When this happens you can sometimes see a linear downtrend in odds. There are much bigger examples where horses can go from odds of 20.00+ to 5.0 or lower.

Horse racing is seasonal, although the handicap system doesn’t have any kind of counter-measure for this. Meaning another favourable strategy is to run a young two-year-old horse over a short distance several times just before the end of the season. And lo and behold, as if by magic, the gamble starts on the first run back!

Hardly a secret.

Related Content: 3 Simple Horse Racing Trading Strategies

Horse Racing Handicapping System and Trading Betting Odds

As traders, we’re always looking for deviations from the ‘norm’.

I guess you may already be thinking it, but handicapping is a decent place to start with the mentions above. It’s quite surprising how often the same things tend to happen time and again.

On the flip side, a handicap race where there isn’t any ‘funny business’ going on should, in theory, be priced quite well. Something trading guide subscribers will know more about.

When trading it’s often a case of anticipation, letting profits run or cutting those losses short. All of which is quite variable. This is what makes trading harder than your usual flash-in-the-pan ‘system’. Knowing the variables well and how they function is an advantage in itself.

This is also the reason the potential upside is so much more rewarding… if it’s easy, its overall worth is often less. Unless you’re a horse racing trainer cheating the system! haha.

Early Morning Horse Racing Patterns

One potential horse racing handicapping betting system you can look to use would be analyzing early morning odds movements.

In the horse racing betting markets, you will see big movements in the odds daily. Your newfound understanding of how the horse racing handicapping systems works could uncover a new edge.

The horse “Everythingsontick” has seen consistent backing in the market today for a 3m1f handicap race. Despite being unfancied on the Timeform ratings and finishing 7th in its last race. However, since the market opened money has continued to back this horse.

Noting the trainers and stable of horses that on paper should be unfancied by the betting market. However, frequently seeing heavy backing could lead to a very profitable betting strategy.

Using a combination of Oddschecker and Betfair can allow you to look at the how odds have moved. This can enable you to spot potential moves early on in the market. The Racing Post and TimeForm allow you to see the form of the horse, alongside the jockey and trainer combination.

A big part of profitable sports betting/trading is the ability to spot repeatable patterns in the market. Then exploit the opportunity when you see the pattern forming in the future. This information could help you uncover a horse racing edge that leads to profit for years to come.

If you found this post useful, drop me a comment below!

Related Post: In-Play Horse Racing Trading Strategies

32 thoughts on “How Handicapping Works in Horse Racing (Beating the System)

  1. I do pretty good at handicapping , what I mean by this is there are certain races were I know who are going to be the challengers come the business end of the race, there are other races were there is no stand out contender or there are too many contenders, the latter certainly includes big meetings like Cheltenham which I will avoid like the plague if risking a few bob as we say up north.
    So my first criteria is to look for class 4 5 or 6 races, the rest of what I’m about to say makes absolute perfect sense but I find it amazing people don’t follow or have no knowledge of simple handicapping , what most find confusing is there to help you quickly indentify horses with a great chance of wining.
    The following takes no more than five minutes per race to indentify either a stand out horse or leave the race alone.
    Racing post , take note of today’s Mark , go into history of horse , note down wins or beaten by less than 2 lengths at or very close to today’s Mark , if this was in a higher class of race all the better, if it’s moving up in class it is going to be up against better horses , look at the average Mark of all runners when looking at a previous race, is today’s race average higher or lower?
    Once we have a couple of contenders we then look at recent form, I find the daily newspapers absolutely and utterly useless as they only publish recent form, is a horse that has won its previous 2 class 6 races got much chance today in a class 4 were a couple of horses have dropped back from class 3 ? You won’t find this information in the daily mirror!
    Finally , my personal preference is flat and all weather as one slip over the jumps can ruin your day.
    So where does all this tie up with trading? Quite simple, more often than not once you spot these horses more often than not they are pretty much heavily backed pre race, why are they heavily backed? they are the favourites , the true favourites , either first or second , get Good at this and you will be amazed at how many winners you pick.
    My personal preference is to pick out one stand out horse a day and DOB it, get this right an your average should be 5 right 2 wrong .
    I’m really not here to blow my own trumpet , my whole point is understand the sport whether you’re betting or not and you will enjoy it much more.
    Lots say they can’t win money horse racing, I would say it is much easier to predict than football providing you understand the basics and most importantly be selective.
    Great articles Caan by the way , you are one of the good guys .

    1. Thank you for sharing … One question which is probably obvious but could you define what is meant by “mark” (other than your name)? What is “today’s mark” etc .. sorry for being thick – but you gotta start somewhere … Cheers ..

        1. In practice, the weight that a horse carries is the weight of the jockey plus however many pounds of lead needed to make up the weight to the specified amount. So, *unless* the jockey is riding overweight, the weight of the jockey makes no difference.

  2. Brilliant post about the handicapping system, Caan. Thanks for taking time to write it. By far the best explanation I’ve come across cheers!

  3. Hello Caan. Thank you for this article I have long since wondered how the handicapping system works on the racing scene. Having read a handful of articles about the subject this was the most useful. Do you have any others about racing related topic that would be as useful to me? thank you sir.

  4. Great explanation

    But further to that, as you mention more often than not those horse would be Fav/2nd Fav and well backed into short prices…

    Is there any system or explanation to stay clear on some of those horses or even to hedge your bet elsewhere within a race…
    We see 8/1 – 12/1 shot regularly winning 8!runner races against an even money Fav. Not as regular but often these horse may be 20/1 – 50/1 …. and when they win they romp home easily, which I often find hard to believe…

    Thank you for your post

  5. There is absolutely no system for avoid these as there is with sport in general, some examples in the football world, Leicester winning the premier league, Greece winning the Euro, Wimbledon winning the FA Cup, Lincoln beating Burnley ( a personal favourite of mine ) sport is unpredictable at times but more often than not if you have some knowledge and find value you will come out on top, one of my points was to be selective, to put in practice what you know works in the long term, there is always going to be an under dog coming through in any sport, we are learning all the time, thats the great thing about horse racing, since I wrote here last Ive been looking at draw bias on all weather for instance putting my previous comments into practice but having an outside draw at Kempton gives little or no advantage in the short sprints.

    I really am no expert I just love the sport, I know people on here trade everyday and try to make a profit, I dont…I follow it for what it is, I dont feel I need to bet everyday to get full enjoyment out of it, however when I do see an opportunity I will have a go.

  6. Only 30% of favourites win handicaps and at mostly short prices this would be a risky target for your bets. You won’t get 5 out of 7 backing favourites.

    1. This is spot on. Backing favs is a loser in both short and long term. You’ll only get small returns on a day when all your selections come in….(rare)…..but then comes that day when you’ve backed every fav and hardly any come in……..thats damage day, thats where you’ll be set so far behind that even three straight days with all favs coming in still wont make up for it. Losing game for sure.

  7. Here is exactly what I do when handicapping a race, firstly look what weight the horse is carrying today, make a note of class of race and distance, no more at this stage. Then look into if the horse has won at this weight previously, was it in the same class and same distance, was it against similar rated horses as today?

    If the horse has gone up in weight 5lbs or under from its last race in which it won or came a close second then there is a fair chance it will run well again today, over that and the horse will struggle, this of course depends on previous wins at this weight.

    If a horse is going up in class and is carrying less weight look at what the rating of the races was at which it won and the rating of other horses in that race, if it is the first time the horse has run in a handicap then this is a negative sign that it will run well today.

    Next look at the distance to see how it has performed, does it run better over 6f than 7f?

    Ground , does it perform better on soft than firm, maybe it performs on both?

    Form in my opinion should not be taken into consideration when a horse is moving up or down two classes or more.

    Using this simple appraoch you will quickly determine which horses hav eno chance in todays race, never discount a 33/1 outsider just because of the price, if it has won or came close before at this weight against similar class of horses ( look at offical rating ) then it will probably have more chance of winning than a 8/1 who does not tick any boxes.

    Once you get used to this approach you will be handicapping a race in 5 minutes, remember you do not need to bet on every race!!

    This appraoch works equally well for laying and in running trading, if you use the information with pace figures your selection is much more qualified for a back to lay or lay to back, hope this is useful, works for me extremely well lay dutching.

  8. Hey man i really like your article and would like to view more.You have very good ideas.Horse racing is very competitive and requires more skills.

  9. HI,
    Good article, however, I am still confused by the mark Number against a horse, name, let’s 83. or 95, or 110, or in jumps racing 130 etc, what does the number mean and how does a horse get that number ???, sorry if I am not seeing it,


  10. I never knew that the most common type of race is a handicap making up for around half. I have been looking into betting on horse racing. I appreciate the information on horse racing with handicapping.

  11. Someone could tell me in the handicap day race, should we take into consideration the non-runners and review their averaging calculations?

  12. I would like to know how the rating of the horse works, If a horse is rated 100 and the other rated 85 what will be the difference if any between both horses in a (1) mile race

  13. It s not just punters that benefit from handicapping, though. The system allows breeders to compare horses not only from different countries but also from different generations. This gives them the chance to measure the value of studding and breeding. If handicappers are doing their jobs properly then they ll also be able to see a horse s decline over time, rather than just when they go through a bad patch. Horse must have run in at least 3 races, or 2 if they ve won one of them. If they ve run in three more events they can enter Handicap races with prize fund in excess of 30,000

  14. Of anyone is interested in speed ratings use only group 1 tracks . Ascot has 13 group races per year Newmarket 9 ect ect. So if you rate on speed add 13 points to your rating or 9 from Newmarket go through the form book.your ratings will become more acurate.

  15. Is there any use to this article? Or is it just a copypasta regarding handicap races?
    In being specific for what reply I’m looking for here – What is the edge that you’re advising us on here?
    If there is no edge and you’re letting us know that handicaps exist, no problem.

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