The majority of horse races run in Britain are handicap races which, as the Encyclopaedia Britannica rightly points out, represent ‘an outright repudiation of the classic concept that the best horse should win’. However, the aim of the handicapping system is to create competitive races, in which each horse has, at least in theory, an equal chance of winning.
The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) employs a team of handicappers, who analyse every horse in every race and award a ‘performance figure’ which, in turn, is used as a basis for a ‘handicap rating’. A handicap rating expresses, in imperial pounds, the ability of a horse in the eyes of the BHA and determines the weight it is allocated in a handicap race. The horses that are eligible to run in a particular handicap race, in terms of handicap ratings, are stipulated in the race conditions. In, say, a handicap open to three-year-olds rated 0-55, a horse rated 55 would be allocated top weight, of 9st 7lb, while a horse rated 54 would be allocated 1lb less, or 9st 6lb, and so on.
Trainers often query the treatment of their horses by the BHA handicapping team but, while performance assessment may include informed opinion, as well as fact, each handicapper must provide a logical, reasoned explanation for any decision. Typically, a handicapper seeks to identify a horse that runs to the same level of form as its current handicap rating, or has run to the same level in recent races, and therefore provides a ‘benchmark’ for the race being assessed. Thereafter, the relative merits of the other runners in the race can be assessed using a sliding scale of pounds-per-length figures, ranging from 3lb a length for five-furlong races to 1lb a length for races over fifteen furlongs on the Flat, or National Hunt races.