Horse Race Handicapping – How Does It Work?

Horse Race Handicapping

What is horse racing handicapping and how does it work? (Photo Cheryl Ann Quigley / Bigstock)

We all know just how popular the gallops are in this country, and many Australian thoroughbred horse races are actually handicap events. In this post we’ll take a brief look at what handicapping is, why it exists, and how it works.

Keep in mind that handicapping rules can vary from state to state and race to race.

What Is Horse Race Handicapping?

Handicap racing has existed in the country for a long, long time and many races within Australia are run under handicap conditions, including Australia’s most famous race – the Melbourne Cup. The idea of a handicap horse race is to try and level the field, giving every horse a better chance of coming home a winner by adding extra weight to the more fancied horses.

Total handicap weight includes the weight of the jockey, the saddle, and any extra ballast weight that needs to be added to bring the horse up to the total overall handicap weight allotted by the race handicapper.

All handicap races have minimum and maximum weight limits, but those limits will vary depending on the race and where it’s being run.

In modern Australian horse racing the two most common forms of handicap racing are:

  1. Ratings Based Handicapping
  2. Benchmark Handicapping

Let’s take a closer look at each form of race handicapping.

Ratings Based Handicapping (RBH)

Ratings based is the most widely used form of handicapping in Australia, and it forms the system used to determine the handicap weights for the Melbourne Cup 2019 horses.

The handicapper of the race is the person who determines the ratings of the horses for handicapping purposes. This is not to say the handicapper can just make up the rules as he/she goes along. They must be able to qualify their reasons for the handicap rating and offer a reasonable explanation for arriving at that rating.

Ratings place strong emphasis on very recent form of the horse, as well as their overall performances.

Other factors come into play as well as recent form. As an example, if a given horse is racing at a distance it is not used to competing at, that horse is already considered to be at a disadvantage and therefore might attract a lighter handicap weight despite maybe being in winning form.

It’s the same for track conditions. If a horse is known to perform well on a wet track, and on the day of the race it’s raining, then that horse will be considered to have an advantage and could be allotted a heavier handicap weight.

For a horse to be eligible for the Melbourne Cup, it must be able to carry a minimum weight of 50kg. The Victorian Racing Club (VRC) is responsible for determining the handicap weights for horses running in the Melbourne Cup and, based on form and international ratings, will confirm the handicap by mid September.

Maiden races are horse races featuring thoroughbreds that have yet to win a race. Because of this, maiden races do not attract handicap ratings.

Benchmark Programming – Merit Based Handicapping

The benchmarking handicapping system is more commonly used in NSW horse racing circles. It involves the use of a specialised and sophisticated computer program, which collects and analyses a wealth of information about each racehorse before allocating a handicap rating.

The information the program uses goes back years into the horse’s history, the age of horses, head to head comparisons, and also takes into account things like performances on certain track conditions, race distances, recent and past form and lots more.

Once the computer has arrived at a ranking for each horse, this information is then manually reviewed by a person highly experienced in form analysis. This person will then apply a merit value to each horse 48 hours before the event.

The process doesn’t stop there though. After computer analysis and expert analysis has been done, the race handicapping panel will then look at all the data and arrive at their final benchmarking figure for each racehorse.

This can all sound a little complicated when you dig right into it, and not really something you need to be heavily concerned about as a punter. It’s handy having a basic understanding of the processes though.

NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll

No. Horse Points
1 Flightline 351
2 Life Is Good 306
3 Olympiad 292
4 Jackie's Warrior 282
5 Clairiere 142
5 Country Grammer 142
7 Epicenter 121
8 Regal Glory 89
9 Nest 87
10 Hot Rod Charlie 48
As of August 1, 2022

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