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What are Handicap Races?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Handicap races or handicaps are horse races in which each horse carries a different amount of weight in an attempt to equalize the field. Different regions of the world have different attitudes about handicap races; in some cases, they are reserved for less distinguished horses, while in other regions, handicaps represent the cream of the crop. In all cases, handicap races tend to make more money for the track, and they are also profitable for those who choose to bet on them, although the odds can be risky.

A handicap is based on the basic concept that different horses have different levels of ability. In a normal race, the best horse will win, sometimes by many lengths. In a handicap, each horse is assigned a certain weight, in the hope that heavier weights will slow more accomplished athletes, while lighter weights will give less talented horses an edge. The ultimate ideal is for all the horses to cross the finish line at the same time, although this rarely happens.

Weights are assigned by a handicapper, an official who ranks horses on the basis of their past race performances. Some handicappers also keep an eye on the exercise regimens of the horses, in the hopes of noting marked improvements in time and general performance. Handicappers typically rate horses on a weekly basis, so that they can quickly assign weights once a field for a race has been established.

In some cases, trainers or owners may feel that their horses are being burdened with too much weight. In that case, they may take the horse out of the race in protest. In other instances, people may withdraw their horses because they think that the distribution of weight is simply unfair; for example, they may object if a strong athlete is assigned a strangely low weight. Owners may also appeal to the handicapper, asking for a re-evaluation of the horse in question.

Since handicapping is designed to level the field, the odds on handicap races can get very interesting. People who bet on these races need to track racing trends very closely, as small things can make or break a horse in a handicap race. Betting may get very high on a handicap race, which works out well for the track hosting the event, since most tracks use a parimutuel betting system, in which the track gets a take of the bets. Handicap races may also be accompanied by a great deal of publicity, especially when famous rivals are going to the post together.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Sports n' Hobbies researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Mor — On Apr 16, 2012

@bythewell - It's still gambling, no matter what they think. They might be making their odds a little bit better, but not by much I'd wager.

If you could really predict what would happen, people would win more often. There are a lot of smart people in the world and there's a lot of money in horse racing. If you were willing to dedicate a lot of time to researching it, you could make a lot of money.

Of course, there might be people who do that. There are professional poker players and slot jockeys after all.

The horse racing handicap system must just make it more difficult for them to win, since if you've got a sure thing with low odds, you're better off playing that I imagine and it's difficult to get sure odds if they have been balanced by the house as closely as possible.

By bythewell — On Apr 16, 2012

@umbra21 - While it's perfectly reasonable to think of the horses as the athletes, you've got to remember that the jockeys are also considered athletes and can be as much of a factor in winning a race as the horses might be.

And this is particularly true in a handicap race. If they do manage to get all the horses balanced in terms of weight and ability, it can end up coming down to the skill of the jockey and the relationship they have to the horse.

Which in some ways can make the race more interesting.

And it can also make it much more difficult to predict, but I think the people who really study the horse racing entries closely get to the point where they can still pick a winner, even with all the added uncertainty of the weights. And if there is a horse who is particularly unbeatable, as there occasionally is, it can make the race better since it is no longer just a question of who will come in second.

It's not a perfect system, but that's why they don't use a handicap system for every race.

By umbra21 — On Apr 15, 2012

I've never heard of this before. What a very strange way to run a race. I mean, imagine if they decided that it was unfair for human players to be at a physical disadvantage and weighed some of them down so that they couldn't run as fast, or kick as hard.

Isn't the whole point of the competition to try and get the best athlete on the field that you possibly can? It's like they penalize the people who are racing the horses for doing that.

Sure, it will make betting more difficult, but then, people like betting on horses because they feel like they have some control, surely.

Weighting the horses would throw all of that control off. It would make betting on horses no different from putting money in a slot machine.

I'd personally rather see a race in which everyone is allowed to try their best, rather than one in which the animals are held back in order to make it "fair".

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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