Theory of Handicapping

Handicapping is the practice of adding weight to horses in an effort to equalize their performance. This may appear at first glance to contradict the basic theory of horse racing, in that the fastest horse should win and not be penalized based on their past performance.

What handicapping does, however, is to accentuate the role of the jockey in pacing his horse through the course of the race. It can also add a measure of excitement to races by boosting the prospects of the weaker horses.

The most common type of handicapping uses the Weight for Age Scale developed by Admiral Rous of the UK’s Jockey Club in the 1850s. The theory of this scale is that younger horses typically do not have the same level of stamina as do more mature horses, thus the older horses carry an “impost” consisting of lead weights carried in saddle bags.

Not all horse races are handicap races, and many of the more famous races, notably the Triple Crown races in the USA, do not use the system. Perhaps the most famous race in which handicapping is used, is England’s Grand National. The Grand National is the most popular horse race in the United Kingdom today, and the race with the largest prizes for the winners. More people place wagers on the Grand National than any other race on the UK schedule, and it is arguably the one race with which the public as a whole is most familiar.

The Grand National is a steeplechase that covers a four and a half mile course at Aintree Racecourse in the city of Liverpool. Horses must jump over a total of 16 fences, 14 of them twice. The race originated in the late 1830s, though handicapping was not introduced until several decades later. There is an American handicap race also called the Grand National, first run in 1899 and managed by the National Steeplechase Association.

Only one horse has won both the American and English Grand National races. The feat was accomplished by “Battleship”, son of racing legend Man O’War, who won the US race in 1934 and the English race in 1938.