Contributed, with thanks, by "Nag's Head" of the forum.
A basic understanding of handicapping is quite important for would be punters, as the vast majority of a day's racing is made up by such races. Below is a basic guide into the principles of handicap races.
Handicaps are races which bring together horses of varying levels of ability. The idea being that the better horses in the race carry more weight than the poorer horses. So in theory, all horses in a handicap have an equal chance of winning, if they all run to the best of their ability.
A prefectly handicapped race would be one where all contestants cross the line in a dead-heat.
The weight to be carried by a horse in a handicap is determined by the horse's Official Rating. This is a figure given to every horse after one of the following happens.
1. The horse wins a race
2. The horse loses 3 times and in at least one of these races the horse finishes in the first six positions. If it does not get a top six finish in the first three runs, then it must continue racing until it achieves a top six position before it receives an Official Rating.
The Offical Rating is often abbreviated to OR.
Once the horse has it's official rating, it can then contest a handicap race.
Once the horse has an Official Rating it is used in calculating what weight it will carry in a handicap race. The actual weight is in relation to the rest of the runners' ratings. Basically, the rating will relate to pounds in weight. This means that, for example, a horse with a rating of 55 will carry 10lbs less than a horse in the same race which is rated at 65.
Handicaps have different levels; races are classed as A/B/C/D/E/F/G. With A being the highest class handicaps and G being the bottom grade handicaps. The horse's official rating will determine which grade of race it can enter. So, if after 3 runs a horse gets given a rating of 55, it may, for example, contest a class E; a 0-75 handicap.
For the rest of the horse's career its rating will adjust according to how it performs. If it wins races its rating will increase, and it will have to contest better races. And if it loses, the rating will drop and it will stay contesting low grade races.
Horse's ratings are assessed once a week by the handicapper, so it is possible for a horse to rattle up two or three wins in a week and being allowed to race off the same rating. The handicapper can only make the horse run with a penalty; three, five or seven pounds, if it turns out quickly after a win, so although the handicapper would like to raise the horse perhaps by ten or fourteen pounds the next time he re-assesses, the trainer can unleash him again off what would be a lenient rating compare to what it will be a few days later.
Some trainers exploit this to the fullest, such as Sir Mark Prescott, who regularly manages to get his horses to rattle up long winning sequences due to this rule.
Another way handicapping can be exploited is this.
A trainer has an unraced 2 year old that is bred to excel at middle distances.
The trainer runs his horse 3 times as a 2 year old, over a trip of 5 furlongs, knowing the horse will not run well and gaining a top 6 finish in the process. The handicapper gives the horse a rating of 50, based on those 3 poor performances. The trainer then puts the horse away for the winter. The trainer then, knowing his horse will excel at a trip of 1 mile 4 furlongs, enters his horse the following spring in a low grade handicap off its rating of 50. The horse then rattles up 5 straight wins because he was rated on 5 furlong form, but the trainer knew the horse was potentially very good over one and a half miles.
No foul play, it is just the trainer playing the handicap system.
Handicaps are the lifeblood of most trainers and owners, and always will be. There will always be ways they can exploit them, so it is useful if we are aware of this too.
Hopefully the above has given you a foot hold on handicapping and how it works.