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Finding Horse Racing Handicap Winners - A Few Ideas

Published: May 4, 4:35pm Last Updated: Jul 28, 10:12am ulundi on Horse Racing 4 Comments 5532 Views

Would you want to be the BHA official handicapper? On the job satisfaction front it must be like searching for the Holy Grail.

The aim, in every race to get all horses to run a dead heat, the impossible dream. So at the end of every day, the handicapper's report should say, “ could do better”. 

You can read more about handicapping in our betting school article Horse Racing Form Reading Made Easy and What To Look For

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One hopes that in the interest of their personal sanity that those who work for the BHA compiling the official ratings ( there are twelve of them) are not so harsh on themselves and that a decent bunch finish gives them hope to keep on going.

The nightmare of a Gosden once raced maiden winning a handicap by twelve lengths from a mark of 85, six weeks before finishing runner up in the Derby (take a bow Jack Hobbs) are few and far between.

Horse Racing Handicapping

Handicapping it is not a career that has people ringing up to say thank you.

Quite the opposite one suspects with trainers often complaining that their charge is badly handicapped, on the downgrade, or using whatever means to get a lower rating, but not so keen to highlight the improver who keeps defying his mark.

Then there are the owners. The rise of the super owner in recent times has coincided in an increased media presence which one suspects some rather enjoy however silly it makes them look. Even if most of the banter is harmless fun, criticising someone's integrity surely crosses the line and the English assessors took plenty of stick in the run-up to Cheltenham and the Grand National for their treatment of the Irish horses who were allotted higher marks in this country than they were running off back in Ireland.

The racing gods obviously took offence as the Irish proceeded to win seven out of the ten handicaps at the festival which certainly torpedoed the idea that they were harshly treated. 


Over 60% of horse races are handicaps.

The obvious conclusion from that was the English handicappers would struggle against the Irish on their home patch at Punchestown last week but in fact, they performed well above expectations with three winners.

What can be gleaned from this from a punting point of view is debatable except to accept that the professional handicappers generally do an excellent job and that they usually have a far better idea of the relative merits of horses than owners, but having said that handicapping is still to a certain degree subjective and as punters we may sometimes have a different view on a horse's performance. If we are right that can lead to profits.

The idea of this blog is to highlight the areas where the punter may have an edge. Over sixty percent of races in the UK are handicaps and most of us enjoy trying to solve them and there are many different methods of trying to do so.

Flat Race Horse Racing It is amazing to think that the first handicap race was run in 1790 and the weight for age scale which allows horses of different ages to compete on level terms was devised in the mid 19th century and has had only minor adjustments since.

Similarly, the official weight differential in terms of distance one horse beats another has also remained unchanged. 

The BHA handicappers use a set scale for lbs per lengths depending on the distance a race was run over. 

So over five furlongs one length represents a 3lb difference whilst over sixteen furlongs one length represents 1lb.

Jump racing is much more subjective as soft ground and jumping errors can contribute to much greater margins of defeat. For example, the official handicapper is unlikely to allow a horse beaten twenty lengths a 20lb pull if the two meet again next time out.

Of course nowadays very few compile their own ratings. 

With the Racing Post as well as other publications providing a full ratings base there is no need as all the information is there but the way those are used vary from person to person. Every form student has his own method of interpreting them and in this post, I will try to explain what I look for to solve the puzzle.

When I was younger, I used to spend hours working out collateral form lines ( Horse A runs against horse B who subsequently runs against horse C, we can now sort out the relative merits of A v C), thinking it was the clever way to sort out the best-handicapped runners.

Nowadays, form students regard this as very old fashioned, probably with good reason. The result of a horse race is much more likely to be affected by ground conditions, track and pace suitability, and luck in running than the odd pound of weight here or there.

A broader and much more productive use of the collateral form is to use it in terms of races. So if winners start appearing from certain races it is highly likely that said race was of higher quality than it first appeared and of course, the opposite also applies. One often hears paper talk of a “hot maiden”, where loads of subsequent winners emerge from one race. 

Subsequent Winners

Following hot races that throw up a lot of future winners can be a profitable angle for the alert punter.

These are frequently well publicised so runners are well flagged up, but there are many lower grade races throughout the season which turn out with hindsight to have been way more competitive than originally thought. 

Spot them early and they can be an excellent source of winners.

Nursery Handicaps

Nurseries are handicaps for two-year-olds which by their very nature have less form in the book and are therefore more difficult for the assessor to rate accurately. Being young horses, their rate of improvement may well be more rapid than those more experienced.

Generally, juveniles need to have had three runs to be given a mark to be able to run in nurseries. There are however exceptions to the rule. For example, if a horse has run once and won, it can run in a nursery if the handicapper is prepared to allocate it a mark of 80 or less.

They are under no obligation to give it a mark at all if they do not think there is enough evidence to provide an accurate rating, but on occasions they do. I have found that these once raced winners are usually worth a close look especially if they come from one of the bigger stables. 

Horses that have run twice, winning one, can run if they are allotted a mark of 85 or less and these also merit close attention but the great majority of runners in nursery handicaps will have had a minimum of three runs.

Nursery Races

A Nursery is a race exclusively for 2-year-old horses.

There used to be saying to always back the top weight in a nursery. 

I doubt whether this paid regular profits (see below) in the past, going into the punter's Room 101 with the outsider of three nonsense,, but I suspect it arose from the fact that the higher weighted tended to be the more exposed early sorts and when they won they went off bigger prices than seemed likely from their form figures.

Top Weights In Nurserys

Top weights in Nursery Handicaps won 20% of these races in the last two seasons. (2018 and 2019)

As I have never been a one for systems, my method for attempting to unravel nursery handicaps is to concentrate on runners that have already run with a handicap mark. 

This has probably arisen from trying to second guess (with little success) the ability of thrice raced maidens dropped into a handicap with limited previous form in supposedly higher class races. 

This involves a large amount of guesswork in regards to their ability which is no way to attain regular profits.

 At least if a runner has previous form running from his/her rating one knows where one stands and one can make a judgement from their horse racing form which is already in the book.

Three Year Old Handicaps

An improving three-year-old is one of the most overused comments one reads from pundits about this age group.

 It suggests that the horse starts the season at one level of ability and finishes the season at a higher one and therefore it is improved. 

It is also perceived that this is not the norm and these are horses to be followed from a betting perspective, well yes, but only to a certain degree.

My view is that most young horses are going to improve as the season goes on. 

Providing they stay clear of injuries and run in optimum conditions they are likely to put in improved performances as they gain more experience, conditioning, and maturity. 

So I would say that there are more “ improvers” than is generally thought to be the case.

The result of this is that three-year-old handicaps become of a higher standard throughout the season. 

This is reflected in the ratings band for such races as the season progresses, and also explains why it is difficult for three-year-olds to beat their elders early in the summer.

What Is Weight For Age?

This is a weight allowance given to younger horses to enable them to compete with their older rivals.

The weight for age scale adjusts in mid-season so theoretically, a younger horse should have as much chance against older handicappers in April as it does in September. 

That is patently not the case, however, this is because a 0-80 for older horses in May is generally a better (faster) race than a 0-80 for 3-year-olds at the same time of year. 

The older horses already have the improvement in the locker whilst the younger horses still have it to come.

 If you run the exact same races in July the difference between the races would be less. At the same time, the three-year-old handicaps with the same ratings bands in July are generally of a higher standard than those in May. 

So in July, the three-year-old handicaps are getting stronger whilst the races for older horses have reached a plateau, hence you find that the younger horses tend to get more success in all aged handicaps as the season progresses.

All this is of course a generalisation, but the reasoning that younger horses stepped up into all aged handicaps later in the season are ones to note is sound.

 Personally, I try to avoid the obvious ones ( winners) and look for those that have shown a decent level of form in three-year-old handicaps without necessarily having won, who then run in all aged races from July onwards. 

Of course, there are many such candidates which is where the hard work comes in.


The form analysis for handicaps in jump racing needs to be approached from a different angle if only for the reason that the horses have usually been around longer and the handicapper has a better gauge of their ability.

On average a winner of a jump race gets raised 7 ½ lbs for winning a race which seems a high figure and explains why it is difficult to run up a sequence. 

A few years ago it became apparent that the ratings of horses that were getting well beaten were not coming down at the same rate but lately, I have noticed that they are being dropped a bit quicker and a greater amount.

One of my punting angles is to identify such horses in the hope that they will return to form. 

Of course many are not capable of running to previous levels but that is not to say they cannot win from reduced marks.

It sounds obvious but I always look for a horse running over similar conditions as when he last provided an accurate indication of his ability and compare the relative handicap marks.

I tend to avoid those going the other way, especially last time out winners who tend to be overbet. To win three races on the bounce would necessitate on average defying a 15lb higher mark. Not impossible but rare.

Indeed there is often greater value supporting those who have been placed on recent occasions but whose ratings have either been left unchanged or even raised marginally. 

They are running off marks one knows they are competitive from whilst the last time out winner is often going up to levels he has never won from.

Handicap Winners on Sunday

A winner of a handicap on Sunday will not get its new rating till the following Tuesday, which can encourage trainers to run the horse again before the new rating is allocated.

Handicap marks for all classes of races are readjusted once a week, specifically at 7 am every Tuesday.

The handicappers allocate new marks for the performances of racing the previous week, namely Sunday to the proceeding Saturday.

This means that a horse who wins on a Sunday will not be re-rated for a further nine days. 

Until his rating is adjusted he will run with a penalty ( unless he has won an apprentice/conditional event) and the longer period of time he can run with that penalty enables the trainer to get an extra couple of days between races and a bigger choice of races he can run in. 

So always note runners who have further entries later in the week. The shrewd trainer may be trying to run up a quick sequence.

I hope some of the points above are of some interest to readers and good luck with all your punting throughout the summer.


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