What is a handicap race in horse racing?

May 29th, 2024

You’ve likely heard the term handicapping referring to the process of analyzing a horse race to determine the most likely winner. Bettors who handicap horse races are known as handicappers.

But… what is a handicap race? The term is related, and yet at the same time, it means something completely different.

A handicap race is one in which each horse is assigned a particular weight to carry, based on their talent and accomplishments. The idea is to create a more competitive race by requiring the fastest horses to carry the most weight, giving slower horses with lighter weight assignments a chance to compete for victory. The process of assigning weights for horses to carry requires an understanding of which horses are faster than others, so the handicappers who assign weights are much the same as the handicappers who bet on races.

Handicap races used to be commonplace at the highest levels of the sport in the United States. In the days before exotic wagers—when simple win, place, and show bets were the only options for bettors—handicap races made betting on races with heavy favorites more appealing. At least if a 1-10 favorite were carrying a high weight assignment, there was a chance lightly weighted rivals could challenge for an upset.

One of racing most famous handicap horses was Roseben, a star sprinter during the early 1900s. He often carried more than 140 pounds in his races, and when he won the 1905 Bronx Highweight H. he toted 50 pounds more than the runner-up. But Roseben wasn’t unbeatable under high imposts, and that’s what made betting possible. In 1907, he finished second as the even-money favorite in a six-furlong handicap race, a contest in which Roseben carried 150 pounds and the winner toted 92, a difference of 58 pounds. 

The rise of exotic wagers, and easy travel between racetracks competing to attract the best horses, gradually eroded the prominence of handicap races in the United States. Some races have held on to their handicap roots, such as the historic Santa Anita H. (G1), but the difference between the high and low weight assignments has decreased significantly. In the 2024 Santa Anita H., top-weighted Newgrange carried 124 pounds while bottom-weighted Highland Falls and Mixto toted 118 pounds.

However, handicap races remain commonplace abroad, including in the United Kingdom and Hong Kong. In those places, handicap races fill a similar need as claiming races in the United States. But whereas claiming races seek to achieve competitive fields among lower-level racehorses by offering each horse for sale at a particular price (thus attracting horses of similar talent and value), handicap races use differing weight assignments to assemble competitive matchups.

The next time you’re betting a handicap race, be sure to keep weight assignments in mind. Look at the weights the horses have been carrying in recent races, and compare those with their assignments for the race you’re currently analyzing. If two horses carrying 124 pounds finished one length apart in a past race, and now the winner will carry 126 pounds and the runner-up 123 pounds, you may have found a reason to favor for the runner-up in their rematch.