Handicapping thoroughbred racehorses is necessary from the perspective that racing would be entirely boring from the point of view of the punter, and everyone else for that matter, if nothing was done to introduce some opportunity for longer priced horses to win or place.
Backing favourites generally offers such low payouts that if this were the only possible tactic for a punter to follow, there would be nowhere near the level of interest in the sport of racing that is indeed present these days.
The system of allocating weight to a horse based on its past performance and a host of other factors is fairly elaborate. It serves to allow trainers to prepare their horses for campaigns and to construct strategies that give their horses the best possible chance at doing well. An extreme example of using handicapping to determine what events to enter in terms of quality level and distance would be how Black Caviar’s connections knew that regardless of how great a competitor she was, it would have been absolutely pointless to send her out to race at anything over 1600 metres.
A less extreme example would be the case where a trainer, thinking that one of his charges might have potential as a stayer, would prepare a runner for being tried at a longer distance by finding a race of a slightly lower quality level, so as not to offer a lamb to the wolves.
From the punter’s perspective, understanding handicaps and how they affect odds permits them to look for attractive wagering opportunities that involve a skill level above that of blind luck. This makes it all interesting.
In Australia, horses are handicapped slightly differently from state to state. There have also been some changes in the methodology over the years as racing has grown, changes made in order to try and boost field sizes and provide racing opportunities for horses that might not otherwise be competitive. Basically, in races where handicaps are used, the highest past performing horses have to carry more weight than the lower achieving horses. This is essentially what makes it possible for a longer priced horse to beat a favourite.
There are many factors involved in the handicapping process. Trainers have to understand the system thoroughly. Punters, at least those who want to wager more than occasionally, need to know enough to gain an edge in making their selections, without losing sight of the fact that there is, and always will be, the random elements of fortune with which to contend.
Races are classified as either Benchmark Events or Rating Based Events. Here is a basic, brief overview of the handicapping method used in Benchmark Events.
Handicaps are set by a computer that considers many criteria. Among these are comparisons of one horse to another, form cycle, track grading and race conditions. Multiple years of historical data is used to establish handicap figures, which are then adjusted as more races take place.
Merit based handicapping is used to examine past performance and assign a benchmark figure that does not take into consideration possible future performance improvements.
This benchmark handicap is then adjusted according to an extensive list of factors, including but not limited to, review of race film, event quality and strength of field, recent race times, track condition and weights carried. The results of this analysis are then compared with the horse population. From this, it is determined how much weight to give any particular horse for any particular event, with additions or subtractions possible. The possible permutations of these assessments are practically infinite. A horse with a benchmark rating below that assigned to the race will receive a weight reduction from 59 kg., while a horse with a rating above that of the race will have to carry additional weight. This is what makes it possible for a lower rated horse to have a shot at winning against a higher rated one.
There are frequent instances of perceived inequity, when a horse can get into an event lightly burdened, or be assigned a weight that seems excessive, and there is more than a little dissention over this, but for the most part, the system is generally fair.
Switching now to Ratings Based Events, this system is in many ways similar to Benchmark Events, but not exactly so. The basics of the plan are in effect in every Australian state.
In broad strokes, horses are assigned a ratings band. Any horse with a rating equal or lower than that of a particular race can qualify for the race, subject of course, to the regulations of the balloting system.
There are eight different ratings bands, commencing with 0-58 and concluding with 0-95. The progression from one ratings band to the next is not sequential. For example, the jump from the 0-58 band to the next is only by a rating of four, to 0-62, but the move from the sixth band, 0-82, to the seventh band, 0-89, finds an increase of seven.
If that all sounds a little obtuse, all that truly need be kept in mind is that a horse with a benchmark rating that exceeds the rating of a potential race is not eligible for that race. It gets interesting when a trainer thinks that he might have a horse that might narrowly exceed the band of a race that the trainer truly wants to take part in and would attempt to keep his horse’s band below the top limit of the race.
As far as how the different states differ with regard to handicapping, it should be noted that things are done fairly similarly everywhere.
Tasmania relies on Victorian Horse Racing handicappers to assign the benchmarks to events run in Tasmania. Western Australia shows the benchmarks with a ‘+’ sign after the rating. Horses below the benchmark carry the minimum weight; horse above the benchmark will carry an additional one half kilogram for every point by which it exceeds the race benchmark.
South Australia Horse Racing is similar to Western Australia Horse Racing, which is similar to the system used by the other states for ratings based events. Northern Territory also follows a similar approach; while ACT is closer to that of NSW. Queensland uses a combination of the new benchmark system and the older system that classified races from class one to class six.
The truly fascinating aspect to the subject of handicapping for punters is that it is an area that allows for many different levels of punter participation. Even the casual punter with a basic understanding of handicaps can use the system to identify horses, that regardless of the odds for any particular race, might offer a chance of winning or placing that is better than what the handicapping system or the odds would seem to indicate.
Punters who want to make a deeper study of horse racing handicapping will find the opportunity to develop a level of expertise that might enable them to consistently develop racing punting into a reliable source of income, as long as the elements of chance are never overlooked.
After all, your favourite is totally unaware of its handicap, and cares not one whit about how much of a plunge you may have taken.