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Grand National 2018 - 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 March 2018 is produced below:

Name Chase rating
Cue Card (GB) 176
Sprinter Sacre (FR) 175
Coneygree (GB) 172
Silviniaco Conti (FR) 169
Uxizandre (FR) 169
Sire de Grugy (FR) 168
Smad Place (FR) 167
Dodging Bullets (GB) 166
Many Clouds (IRE) 166
Traffic Fluide (FR) 166

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.


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.

What does compression mean?

A new formula for handicapping the Grand National was devised in 2001 to “compress” the gaps between horses. This was mainly because it was thought that those horses carrying the top weights were being overly penalised ie the better horses were being asked to carry too much weight.  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."

Compression is therefore the process of making the difference in weight between the top rated horses and the lesser rated horses smaller (ie compressing the weight difference).

Who are the winners and losers from compression in 2018?

The result of compression on the 2018 handicaps is that the following horses have less weight than they strictly ought to have:

Many Clouds 1lb well in

Don Poli 1lb well in

Silviniaco Conti 1lb well in

Carlingford Lough 1lb well in

Valseur Lido 1 lb 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 6lb worse off

Highland Lodge 1lb worse off

Pineau De Re 2lb worse off

Typically horses that have run well over the National fences before will have their weight increased. In addition, the higher rated horses will ultimately be the ones that make the cut for the big race, so the handicapper may raise some weights to make it more likely that they will make the cut for the race at the bottom end of the weights.

A final point to make on compression is that the handicapper will look at weights around the middle of February.  These weights are then fixed, but horses may race between February and the date of the Grand National (at the beginning of April).  This means that the national weights may stray even further from official handicaps.  For example in 2018, Silviniaco Conte romped home in the Betfair Ascot Chase a matter of days after the handicap was set. This further increased his handicap so that the horse was 6lbs well in by race day.

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:





Many Clouds



Pineau De Re



Auroras Encore



Neptune Collonges






Don't Push It



Mon Mome



Comply or Die



Silver Birch









Amberleigh House



Monty's Pass






Red Marauder



Looking at the list of winners since 2001, it is noticeable how many horses that have won carrying over 11 stone.  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.  Until 2018, it was thought that weights above 11 stone 7lb were too much for the vast majority of horses and hence this was limit beyond which the horse had no chance.  However, Many Clouds below that out of the water last year.

In summary, the 11 stone barrier no longer seems to be the burden it once was and compression appears to have worked.  You may see a lot of websites that attempt to predict winners based on past experience.  One of the factors they often look at is weight, making the assumption that horses carrying in excess of 11 stone will struggle as they have done in the past.  This isnt a factor I would give a lot of attention to in the new world of applying compression!