The Professional Punter’s Guide to Nursery Handicaps

The Professional Punter’s Guide to Nursery Handicaps A nursery handicap is simply a handicap for two-year-old horses. We say ‘simply’ but, by definition, nursery handicaps are contested by immature, unexposed horses carrying weights allocated according to their ability, so they are notoriously difficult to solve.


To qualify for nursery handicaps, a two-year-old must have run three times on the Flat in Britain, or run twice on the Flat in Britain, winning at least once and earning an official British Horseracing Authority (BHA) rating of 85 or lower, or run once on the Flat in Britain, winning once and earning an official BHA rating of 80 or lower.


Obviously, winning form is the easiest for the BHA Handicapper to assess but, while he will usually err on the side of caution when allocating an initial handicap rating, he is often faced by two-year-olds that have qualified for nursery handicaps by virtue of three unplaced runs in non-handicap races, perhaps with disparate performance ratings, and are nigh on impossible to handicap accurately.


Nevertheless, the late Alex Bird, arguably Britain’s best known professional punter of all time, suggested that by comparing the time recorded by a two-year-old with that the winning time recorded by older horse in a handicap, over the same course and distance, on the same day, it was possible to develop a profitable angle for betting on nursery handicaps.


In fact, we can use this approach to create our own ‘private handicap’ for two-year-olds by following the steps below:

1. Subtract the time, in seconds, recorded by the two-year-old from the winning time recorded by the older horse.

2. Multiply the result from 1. by the ‘Pounds per length’ corresponding to the race distance in the table below. For example, if the race distance is 5 furlongs, multiply the result from 1. by 3.


Race Distance Pounds Per Length
5 furlongs 3lb per length
6 furlongs 2.5lb per length
7-8 furlongs 3lb per length
9-10 furlongs 1.75lb per length

3. Multiply the result from 2. by 6 (the average number of lengths/second travelled by a two-year-old)

4. Add the weight carried (in pounds) by the two-year-old, including allowances, to the result from 3. and subtract the weight carried, including allowances, by the older horse.

5. Add the official BHA rating for the older horse to the result from 4.


If you need to find the rating of any horse in training in Britain, you can do so here.


6. If the older horse is aged 4 years or older, look up the weight-for-age allowance that three-year-olds receive from older horses in the Official Scale of Weight, Age & Distance (Flat)


and add it to the result from 5.


7. If the two-year-old did not win its race, multiply the distance it was beaten (in lengths) by the corresponding ‘Pounds per length’ in the table above and subtract this from the result from 6..


The only caveats to this approach are that the two races must take place over the same course and distance, on the same day, and the older horse must be competing in a handicap. Once you have your ratings, you can use them in exactly the same way as any other speed ratings, adjusting them for the weight carried, to provide an indication of the relative chances of runners in most, if not all, nursery handicaps.

The Truth About The Going


The Truth About The Going If you visit the Stewards’ Reports page of the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) website, the chances are that, on any day when racing takes places, you’ll come across an report that reads something like, “So-and-so, trainer of so-and-so, which was pulled up, unplaced, etc, said that so-and-so was unsuited by the heavy, soft, etc going.”


Indeed, the going or, in other words, the underfoot racing conditions, is frequently used by racehorse trainers to explain a horse why a horse below expectations, so it stands to reason that the going is a critical factor in determining the outcome of a horse race.


In the United Kingdom, going descriptions range from hard to heavy, through firm, good to firm, good, good to soft and soft. All thoroughbred racehorses have different conformations and different actions, which can be indicative of the type(s) of going on which they’re likely to reproduce their best form. Horses with a pronounced knee action, for example, hit the ground from a greater height than those with a flatter, “daisy cutter” action and may prefer going on the soft side of good.


The good news for punters, of course, is that the going preference(s) of any horse, except perhaps a lightly raced or unraced maiden, can quickly be determined by reference to its previous form. Horse racing punters who focus on horses with good recent form usually only need to satisfy themselves that their selection is capable of acting under the prevailing conditions.


However, a period of torrential rain after a prolonged dry spell, or vice versa, can often throw up a bevy of “surprise” winners and is a time for punters to exercise extreme caution or to consider “shutting up shop” until the weather becomes settled once again. As a general rule of thumb, fewer horses are suited by extreme going – “hard” and especially “heavy”, which occurs more often – than intermediate going and more anomalous results can be expected during these periods.


The going description for each meeting is provided on the race cards in national newspapers and online, but is not always correct, so for an accurate, up-to-date description visit the BHA “Racing Updates” page. The “Racing Updates” page includes not only a textual description, such as “Heavy, Soft in Places”, but also the Going Stick reading, the time at which it was taken and other useful supplementary information.

The Zen of Form Study

The Zen of Form Study Practically every fact about the public performance of a racehorse can be extracted from the form book and, normally, the form book is the only way of comparing the performance of one racehorse with another. However, the form book, in its various forms, contains so much information that sometimes it’s easy to forget why we opened it in the first place – to identify the likely winner of a horse race!


‘Surprise’ winners, including racecourse or seasonal debutantes, or horses specially laid out for organised betting ‘coups’, account for a small proportion of winners, but the majority of horse races are won by horses at, or approaching, their peak, running within their normal sphere under favourable conditions against limited opposition.


Winning form is the easiest to assess and, in the absence of ‘inside’ information, recent form is the only reliable guide to the well-being of a racehorse, so it stands to reason that the first thing to look for in the form book is recent winning form. Of course, even a horse with recent winning form can be usurped by one of the ‘surprise’ winners described above, but we can reduce the chances of this happening by choosing to bet in races in which all the runners have fully ‘exposed’ form or, in other words, have run in at least five (or preferably ten) races, including two during the current season. Fairly obviously, the more recent the form the better.


These may appear to be statements of the glaringly obvious, but I’m often surprised when experienced form students jump straight into the form of the first horse on the race card, or a horse they’ve backed before, regardless of whether or not it has recent winning form. Form study is, no doubt, a fascinating activity, but we need to remember that it’s a means to an end, not an end in itself. The fact that horse A acts best on soft or heavy going and is now 7lb lower in the weights than when last winning a handicap, for example, is unlikely to be of any great consequence if horse A is on a losing run of fifteen, stretching back two seasons unless, of course, it’s encountering soft or heavy ground for the first time in that period.


Concentrating on horses win recent winning form and, hopefully, a relatively high winning percentage, means that you’re starting with the most likely winners, not wasting time eliminating horses with little or no chance. In fact, the easiest type of race to analyse is often one in which two or three runners have recent winning form and a relatively high winning percentage and the remainder have neither. Of course, if you come across a race in which none of the runners has recent winning form or a high winning percentage, you might want to leave the race alone completely.