In horse racing, weight is always a contentious issue and nowhere more so than in handicap races, where all the horses have similar ability and are weighted according to their official rating and relative to the opposition. According to the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), a horse that wins a handicap typically rises 6lb or 7lb in the weights which, using the approximate pounds-per-length conversion employed by the BHA Handicapper, translates into anything between two and seven lengths, depending on the type and distance of the race contested.
However, given that a typical thoroughbred racehorse can weigh up to half an Imperial ton, or more, it can be argued that adding 6lb or 7lb to the burden it carries is unlikely to make much difference and the effect of the extra weight is over exaggerated. In fact, Phil Smith, Head of Handicapping at the BHA once said, ‘We are thought to have a decisive influence, but in reality there are far more important factors in a horse’s performance than the weight it carries. The key things are its health, the ground and the trip.’
The effect of weight in handicaps has been widely studied but, before we discuss possible profitable betting angles, it’s helpful to identify the types of horses that contest handicaps. The eligibility rules for handicaps, including ‘nursery’ handicaps for two-year-olds, mean that all the participants are ‘exposed’ to a greater or lesser degree. However, all of them also generally fit into one of the following categories:
Proven horses are those that have won a similar race, on a similar course, under similar conditions to those prevailing, off a similar handicap mark. In theory, they need only to be fit and have luck in running to win, provided the opposition isn’t equally proven, progressive or promising.
Unproven horses, on the other hand, can be usually identified by a marked disparity in class, distance or weight between what they’ve achieved in the past and the race being contested. This category includes horses that have won races in the past, but have risen sufficiently in the handicap to prevent them winning again; such horses are often said to be ‘in the grip of the handicapper’ and usually need their official rating to be lowered before they become competitive again.
Progressive horses are those whose form shows advancement from one run to the next. This category includes less exposed types, with the scope to defy rising handicap marks, especially when racing against more exposed opposition.
Regressive horses are those whose form shows deterioration from one run to the next. Regression may actually be caused by declining ability, as the result of age, or by stepping up in class off too high a handicap mark. In the case of the former, the downward trend is usually irreversible, but in the case of the latter, it can be halted by a drop in class, official rating or both.
Promising horses are those whose form is likely to improve, for whatever reason, based on the evidence already to hand. By definition, this category also includes less exposed types and a similar comment to that for progressive horses applies.
Obviously, there may be a degree of overlap between categories; a ‘progressive’ horse could equally be labelled ‘unproven’ if, as the result of the advancement in its form, it is stepping up in class off a handicap mark higher than its previous winning mark.
The reason for mentioning these categories is that weight is only one variable of the many that determine the outcome of a horse race and, as such, cannot be considered in isolation. The fact remains that horses going up the handicap ratings are usually improving, while those going down are regressing and the two groups react differently to weight changes. An American study conducted a few years ago suggested that for horses running in two consecutive races, over the same distance, under identical conditions, those carrying more weight required 3lb more to worsen their performance by one length, while those carrying less weight required 6.2lb less to improve their performance by one length.
This phenomenon, if we can call it that, may account for the fact that, despite the BHA Handicapper’s best efforts, a remarkable linearity exists between the position of a horse in the handicap and its winning strike rate. Although none of the top three in the weights wins often enough individually to generate a level stakes profit, collectively the top three win over a third of all handicap races, with the highest rated horse winning most often, the second highest rated horse winning second most often and so on. The rating allocated by the BHA Handicapper is supposed to reflect the ability of the horse in question, in Imperial pounds, so it makes sense that those horses carrying more weight are more able than those carrying less but, by the same token, all the runners in a handicap are supposed to have an equal chance, at least in theory, which clearly they do not.
It’s also interesting to examine the relationship between class and weight as a horse moves up the handicap ratings. With a few exceptions, any horse that wins a handicap race will inevitably have its handicap rating raised to some degree and, sooner or later, a rise in handicap rating will necessitate a rise in class. It’s a fact that horses that carry more weight in the same, or lower, grade after winning vastly outperform those that carry less weight in a higher grade after winning. In other words, it’s not extra weight that beats the horse, but the fact that it’s racing in a higher class, against better opposition.
Contentious though it may be, weight is an issue that largely takes care of itself, so it’s not one with which we need to tie ourselves in knots. The fact remains that the vast majority of handicap races are won by horses at, or approaching, their peak, attempting little, or nothing, more than they’ve achieved in the past and facing limited opposition. It’s usually to satisfy ourselves that a horse is physically capable of carrying the weight allocated and has won off a similar handicap mark, in a similar race, or is sufficiently progressive or promising to overcome a rise in its handicap rating.