A Brief History of Handicapping

Handicapping is a relatively new development in horse racing, having been introduced in the mid-19th century. The origin of the practice is credited to one Admiral Henry John Rous, a steward of England’s historic Jockey Club, who in the 1860’s devised the Weight for Age Scale (often abbreviated to WFA).

Rous noted that between the ages of approximately 2 and 3 years, race horses look similar yet the younger horses have not achieved the level of stamina attained by the older horses. Stamina comes into play during longer races, especially steeplechases where the horses must jump over many fences and obstacles while running at the fastest possible speed.

Admiral Rous conducted a variety of experiments that saw horses of various ages running in trials, carrying a series of weights. Eventually Rous was able to work out a fair and reliable system that added a so-called “impost” to the more mature horses, thereby slowing them down just enough to allow the younger horses to be competitive. The WFA system has changed little since it was introduced, and is used today in noted English races like the Golden Jubilee Stakes and in the American Breeders’ Cup Classic, Mile, Sprint and Turf races.

Another form of handicapping is more subjective, being decided by the racing secretary who assigns a specific impost to each horse. The secretary must consider each horse individually, and perform a careful review of their past performance, the distance of the race, and the weight of the jockey. The size of the impost, therefore, can be quite large in the case of horses that are on a hot streak.

One more famous example of handicapping is worth noting. Again we refer to Seabiscuit who triumphed time and again against horses carrying much lighter imposts.

In the 1937 Narragansett Special, Seabiscuit was assigned the heaviest impost of his career: 162 pounds! The horse came in third, losing to Calumet Dick whose handicap was only 155 pounds. Seabiscuit’s final win in his legendary career came at the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, known as the “hundred grander” due to its staggering (for the time) winner’s prize of over $100,000.