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What does Handicap in Horse Racing Mean?

Handicapping is a ratings system in horse racing designed to give every horse in a race an equal chance of winning. Horses with greater ability carry more weight than horses with lesser ability.

The horse’s official rating is a figure known as a ‘handicap mark’. The handicap mark determines how much weight a horse carries in a race.

Every racehorse is allocated an official handicap mark based on its performances in its first three races.

Handicapping means, on the whole, horse races are equal and competitive. Handicap races group horses of similar ability together, which means even low standard races can be fantastic betting heats.

As horses progress, or regress, their handicap mark rises or falls allowing them to compete in different classes of race. Handicapping is very much considered when punters are placing a bet. You can learn all about types of bets, horse racing terminology and betting odds to give you a good overview of racing and betting.

What is a Handicap in Horse Racing?

A handicap race is one in which the higher-rated horses are allocated a higher handicap mark and therefore carry more weight than those with a lower handicap mark. As a result all horses should have an equal chance in a race.

Horses, just like people, have different levels of ability. There is little point in racing a very talented horse against a horse with little ability. The human equivalent would be Usain Bolt running against Mark from next door. It wouldn’t make for a very fair contest or a very competitive one.

Weight that Must be Carried by a Horse in a Handicap Race

The official ratings are displayed on the right hand side of the racecard under the heading ‘OR’. An example of weight that must be carried in a race is as follows; a top rated horse of 85 in a 0-85 handicap race will carry top weight of 9 stone 7 pounds.

Horses rated lower in the same race, for example 75, which is 10lb below the top mark, carry 8 stone 11 pounds.


Horses may ‘run under a penalty’. This is when a horse has won and hasn’t yet been assigned a new handicap mark (these are published every Tuesday). On the Flat a penalty is to carry 6 extra pounds and over Jumps 7 extra pounds.

To run under a penalty the horse would be running in quick succession as a trainer may feel the horse is ‘ahead of the handicapper’ e.g. a Flat horse wins off a mark of 50 and is due to go up to 60 but by running under a penalty before that mark kicks in it is running off the equivalent of 56 and is theoretically 4lb ahead of the handicapper.

There may be exceptions for fillies running against colts or geldings who sometimes carry less or for younger horses, this is known as ‘weight-for-age’.

How Does a Horse get a Handicap Mark?

Handicap marks are allocated by the official handicapper. The handicapper will watch the horse’s performances and assign the horse’s handicap mark. This is done after its first three runs and the horse is then eligible to run in a handicap race.

After three runs a horse will have had a chance to compete against individuals of different abilities and the handicapper can assess how close it finished to its rivals who are already handicapped.

Is the Grand National a Handicap Race

The Grand National is a Grade 3 Handicap over steeplechase fences, which means horses in the race carry different weights depending on their ability.

In recent years, the type of horse running in the Grand National tends to be classier so they will carry the highest weights.

For the Grand National, the weights at the top of the handicap are compressed. This decreases the gap between the top and bottom horses in the race, adding to the fiercely competitive nature of the race.

Is the Cheltenham Gold Cup a Handicap Race?

No. The Cheltenham Gold Cup is a Grade 1 Chase and all horses carry the same weight. Only the top-rated horses tend to compete in this top tier event, which is the most prestigious Jumps race of the National Hunt season.

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