Bookmakers and the betting public place much importance on the relative class of racehorses and rightly so. Aside from official ratings – which, after all, just reflect the opinion of the British Horseracing Authority handicappers – there is no absolute measure of class. In other words, all horse racing form is relative to the class of the race in which it is achieved and, by carefully monitoring changes in class, up and down, it’s possible to determine which horses represent good value and which don’t.
In Britain, Flat races are classified by a simple 1-7 numbering system. Class 1 races are further subdivided in Group 1, Group 2 and Group 3 races, collectively known as Pattern races, and Listed races. Classes 2 to 7 are defined by the official ratings of the horses that are allowed to compete in them. Class 2 races are open to horses officially rated 86 to 110, Class 3 races are open to horses officially rated 76 to 95 and so on down the classification to Class 7 races, which are open to horses officially rated 0 to 45. As you can see, there is a degree of overlap between one class and the next so, even using official ratings, assessing class is not altogether straightforward.
After a horse has run in three Flat races, or run in two Flat races and won at least one of them, it becomes eligible for an official rating, or handicap mark. An official rating is simply a number, on a scale of 0-140, which reflects, in Imperial pounds, the ability of the horse to which it is allocated. In other words, a horse officially rated 95 would be required to carry 7lb more than a horse officially rated 88 in a handicap race.
If a horse wins, or is placed in, a race and the BHA handicapper believes that it has improved on its previous form its official rating will be raised. Conversely, if the handicapper believes that a horse’s official rating no longer reflects its ability its official rating will be lowered. If a horse is already close to the upper limit for a particular class of race, a rise in its official rating may necessitate a rise in class. If, on the other hand, a horse is close to the lower limit for a particular class, a fall in its official rating may mean that it’s eligible for a drop in class.
By watching their charges on the gallops and on the racecourse, racehorse trainers glean information about their ability and, more often than not, are able to place them in races of the appropriate class.
However, some trainers are more ambitious than others and there may come a time when they accept that a horse has been too highly tried and drop it in class, sometimes significantly, so that it can compete more effectively. While it’s true that many horse races are won by horses attempting little, or nothing, more than they have achieved in the past, horses dropping significantly in class are easy to spot, by bookmakers and punters alike, and often represent poor value.
Conventional wisdom dictates that most trainers place their young horses, even those who may be destined for Pattern races later in their careers, to win a lower class maiden race before stepping up to higher class events. Even Frankel, who went on to win a total of fourteen races, including ten at the very highest level, made his racecourse debut in a maiden race.
Horses of potentially higher class may win their maiden races easily, but still be offered at generous odds when they take on tougher assignments, simply because of the disparity in class. One recent example of this type of horse is the Godolphin filly Zibelina, who won a Class 5 maiden race at Newcastle by 10 lengths on her racecourse debut in June 2013 and followed up in a Class 1 Listed race at Ascot, at odds of 14/1, the following month on her very next start.
The issue of class is, by its very nature, a tricky one, but there are one or two abiding principles that can, hopefully, make your betting more profitable:
Be wary of any horse dropping in class, unless it has demonstrated, by virtue of its recent past performance, that it’s capable of winning in the lower class. If a horse is regressive, even a drop in class may not improve its performance.
In handicap races, be wary of any horse stepping up in class if the rise in class is accompanied by a rise in the weights of 14lb or more. Adding weight to any horse, even a highly progressive one, will eventually slow it down.
Don’t be afraid to back winners of maidens or handicaps stepping up Class 1 races for the first time, provided they’ve won impressively or demonstrated progressive form in the lower class and aren’t hopelessly outclassed, according to official BHA ratings.