Guide to handicapping

The Grand National is a handicap race.  This means that all the horses carry weights; the aim of handicapping is that the faster horses carry more weight and the slower horses carry less weight.  This makes the race as even as possible so that, theoretically at least, all horses have an even chance of winning.

The concept of handicapping may be simple, but in practice it is a complex process of rating horses and trying to achieve the right balance by giving extra weight where required, but not overly penalising horses for being good!  In this guide we run through the process in more detail.

What are ratings?

A rating is a measure of how fast a horse is.  It is measured in pounds and determines how much weight the horse should carry. (Remember 14 pounds = 1 stone!).

For example, if Three Legged Wonder is rated at 100 and Red Rum is rated at 140, then Red Rum is rated at 40 pounds better.  In other words, Three Legged Wonder will need to carry 100 pounds (7 stone 2 lbs) and Red Rum will need to carry 140 pounds (10 stones).  As you can imagine, carrying nearly 3 stone of additional weight makes it easier for Three Legged Wonder and the theory is that this will make the race more even.

Are handicaps fair?

You could argue that it’s not fair that the better horses are penalised.  However, racing wouldn’t be as competitive if the results of most races were forgone conclusions.  Imagine a scenario where there was no handicapping and only the best horses won all the races; it wouldn’t really capture the public’s imagination and who would bother owning a horse, unless it was one of the very best?

The handicapping system is there to keep horse racing competitive and give a wider range of horses a chance of winning.

Are all races handicapped?

Around 60% of all horse races run in the UK today are handicap races.  The largest non-handicapped races include the Epsom Derby and the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

How does a horses rating get decided?

It short, it’s not easy!

The handicapper is trying to determine how good the horse is and will consider its past performances taking into account the quality of the opposition, the condition of the ground and how fast the race was run. However, ultimately there is no magic formula to determine the rating, it will ultimately be based on the handicapper’s judgement. 

Due to the unique nature of the Grand National, the handicapping system for this race in particular needs to be subjective.  More on this later.

What are the typical ratings of good horses?

For flat races, the higher rated horses tend to have ratings in the 120s, while the very best jump horses are rated around 170-180. The scale for jump racing is higher because jumps horses carry more weight than Flat horses.

An example of the top rated horses as at April 2015 is produced below:

Horse

Chase Rating

Silviniaco Conti (FR)

173

Coneygree (GB)

172

Dodging Bullets (GB)

171

Captain Chris (IRE)

169

Menorah (IRE)

169

Sire de Grugy (FR)

169

Uxizandre (FR)

169

Al Ferof (FR)

168

Dynaste (FR)

167

Sprinter Sacre (FR)

167

Source: BHA (see below)

Who produces the ratings?

The British Horseracing Authority (“BHA”) produces the official ratings.  The BHA has a team of eleven Handicappers whose job is to study and interpret the form. They publish a list of ratings every week based on performances on the racecourse.

Where can I find a horses rating?

The BHA make all ratings available on their website.  You can view the ratings for over 14,000 horses online or download the ratings in to excel.

http://www.britishhorseracing.com/resource-centre/official-ratings/ratings-database/

The Grand National

For most purposes, horses will be rated throughout the year based on their performances and that rating will determine the weight as described above.  However, the Grand National is slightly different. Given the unique nature of the national, the handicapper may diverge from the standard published races and put more weight on factors such as past performance in longer races or in the Grand National itself. The Grand National is the only race in which the handicapper can use his discretion to determine the weight each horse will carry and can deviate from the normal handicap ratings.

The "best" horse in the race is given the top weight (usually around 11st 10lb) and the weights allotted to the other horses are set relative to this.

The minimum weight for the national is 10 stone. Therefore, even if a horse is allocated a lower weight, they must be “topped up” to 10 stone.  This means some of the lower rated horses can end up carrying a lot more weight than their handicap suggests they should – this is known as being “out of the handicap”.

Who sets the weights for Grand National?

The official handicapper for the Grand National is Phil Smith.

A new formula for handicapping the National was devised in 2001 to “compress” the gaps between horses. This was mainly because it was though that those horses carrying the top weights were being overly penalised.  Commenting at the time of the change, Phil Smith said: "Looking back over the history of the race, we realised that the highly weighted horses had a moderate record, so we thought something needed to be done to try to not overburden the better horses."

Who are the winners and losers from compression in 2015?

The result of compression on the 2015 handicaps is that the following horses have less weight than they strictly ought to have:

Carlingford Lough 5lb well in

Lord Windermere 5lb well in

Many Clouds 5lb well in

Sam Winner 3lb well in

Boston Bob 3lb well in

Unioniste 2lb well in

Note that the term "well in" means that the horse is carrying less weight than it's official handicap rating would suggest.

Everyone else is off their current rating, except:

Alvarado 1lb is worse off

Chance Du Roy 1lb is worse off

both having run well over the National fences before. Smith has raised them 1lb each to make it more likely that they will make the cut for the race at the bottom end of the weights.

Has compressing the handicaps worked?

When compression was introduced, no horse carrying more than 11 stone 6 lbs had won the national since 1977. 

A list of winners and their weights since 2001 is produced below:

Year

Horse

Weight

2014

Pineau De Re

10-6

2013

Auroras Encore

10-3

2012

Neptune Collonges

11-6

2011

Ballabriggs

11-0

2010

Don't Push It

11-5

2009

Mon Mome

11-0

2008

Comply or Die

10-9

2007

Silver Birch

10-6

2006

Numbersixvalverde

10-8

2005

Hedgehunter

11-1

2004

Amberleigh House

10-10

2003

Monty's Pass

10-7

2002

Bindaree

10-4

2001

Red Marauder

10-11

 

Whilst no horse carrying more than 11-6 has won the national since compression, what is noticeable is the number of horses that have won carrying over 11 stone over the last 10 years.  The last horse to win the national prior to 2001 whilst carrying 11 stone or more was Rhyme 'n' Reason back in 1988.

A review of performance by weight shows that horses rated between 11 stone and 11 stone 7 lbs inclusive have performed better than other weight categories in terms of winners and top 5 finishes.  However, despite the compression of handicaps, weights above 11 stone 7lb still seem to be too much for the vast majority of horses.

In summary, the 11 stone barrier no longer seems to be the burden it once was, however weights of 11 stone 7 lbs and above still appear to be a step to far.