Handicap races are often the subject of debate within the betting fraternity. To bet or not to bet, that is the question. Many professional backers refuse to bet on handicaps or even to study this type of race because in their opinion handicaps are just too difficult to solve. One cannot say they are wrong in that assumption because a study of past records will show that through the average starting price of the winners of all the different categories of races run, the winners of handicap races returned (on an average basis) the biggest starting prices. What makes them so unpredictable and difficult to resolve is the fact that all the runners in a handicap are weighted on past form to run a dead heat: of course this never happens. However, there are backers who specialize in handicap races, and are successful; they know full well that, in percentage terms, they will back fewer winners than their fellow backers who shun this type of race, but are quite prepared to forego the more regular returns in exchange for the rewards of bigger prices about the winners and, in some cases, the attractions of each-way betting. Of course the decision of whether or not to bet in handicaps is a purely subjective matter, but if one is prepared to put in the time required to necessitate proper study, then it can be worthwhile and financially rewarding.
• Basically, handicaps are structured on a "class" basis, which seems at first sight to be contradictory, given the egalitarian nature of these races. To qualify for entry to a handicap, a horse must have raced at least three times so that the Official Handicapper can assess its approximate ability. The Official Handicappers rate horses in terms of pounds, from around 20lbs for the very poorest animal to 140lbs (10 stone) for an exceptional one. The lowest grade of handicap is the seller, and the highest is the open handicap race. The Royal Hunt Cup and the Stewards' Cup are two such examples from the highest grade. There are many grades in between: 0-70, 0-100 etc.
• Some runners win only in their own particular grade, and for differing reasons, for instance, a good-sized, robust horse with an official rating of 84 and carrying bottom weight of 7st 7lbs might be beaten on a regular basis while competing in major handicaps because it just does not possess the necessary pace, or class, to compete effectively against the high grade handicappers, even though earning a low weight; yet that same animal may win a much lower grade contest (0-70) whilst shouldering top weight of 9st 81bs simply because it was up against a lower grade field of runners and was able, because of its physique, to carry its burden well and "outclass" the opposition. Keen students of handicap form become familiar with the pattern of running of the experienced handicappers and find good research rewarding.
• One should not attach too much importance to the breeding aspect of the contestants of most handicap races, particularly as regards to older horses. The trainer will have discovered the general level of ability of his horse and has concluded that the animal is, by definition, a handicapper. The breeding side will, however, still come into play with the two-year-olds and lightly-raced, early-season three-year-old handicappers. Although the trainer will by now have a fairly good estimation of the horse's optimum trip - and they are usually correct - never be afraid to differ. Practice at forming your own judgements.
• A racehorse cannot be fully assessed by the Official Handicapper, nor attain eligibility to run in a handicap race, until it has run three times. If a horse has run twice and ran prominently on each occasion without winning, then it is often the case that the connections will deliberately wish for the animal to be well beaten on its third run in order to receive a lenient rating and, as a consequence, getting in its first handicap with a nice low weight: so, have second thoughts when deciding whether to back a maiden of any age on its third racecourse appearance.
• Special attention should be paid to the going in handicap races. Each runner will have been allotted a rating which should, in theory, result in the whole field of runners going across the finishing line as one. However, when looking through past form it will become apparent that the Official Handicap Rating for many of the runners has been awarded for performances on varying degrees of going, ranging from very firm to very soft. They may have dropped a few pounds since achieving their optimum rating, but the principle is there: always check the Official Rating, the distance, and particularly the state of the ground when a horse achieved its best performance, and compare them with the same for today's race. The going will not always have such a major bearing on the outcome of non-handicap races. Non-handicaps are often much more cut and dried affairs between just a few chief protagonists, with the other runners fairly well out of contention; and so although it is bound to have some effect, the going will not have such a marked impact on the outcome of a race, as would have been the case in a handicap.
• Note three-year-old handicappers that possess scope, and after either winning or going close in a good handicap, have a long and deliberate break. This allows the animal with scope to cancel out its penalty, or rise in the Official Ratings, with physical improvement and maturity. If, for instance, a horse has been raised 7lbs in the Official Ratings for a victory or a very prominent run during the last week in May over a distance of one mile; it then reappears during the first week in September, and, by using the Official Weight-For-Age Scale, it can be seen that the rise of 7Ibs has been neutralized by way of more than three months of physical improvement. Examples of this have been shown in the section dealing with three-year-olds. Before backing this type of candidate, be sure it has a preparatory race first. It may have been off the track through injury or a virus, and might also be the type to need an outing in order to bring it back to concert pitch. Unfortunately some of these three-year-olds never recover from setbacks, so first let it prove itself again on the racecourse.
• A number of the major handicaps are won by lightly-raced three-year-olds and four-year-olds emanating from the bigger, classic winning stables. This type of yard will always contain well-bred horses which, although possessing ability, do not have sufficient talent to succeed at Group level. When it is realized that an animal is not up to winning at Group level in the U.K., Ireland or France, it will either be campaigned at other European venues - usually Italy or Germany - or will be aimed at one of the major handicap races at home. Unfortunately, however, they so often finish up at unrealistically short prices. But good early ante-post odds can sometimes be obtained if one is sharp enough or well informed. Keep your eyes open and ears flat-to-the-ground for news and information of these candidates.
• If a progressive handicapper rises to the level whereby it is able to win a high grade handicap off a high handicap rating, and is then pushed on further into Listed or even Group Three company, it may yet be able to show still more improvement and defeat seemingly better class rivals. Listed events are frequently contested by horses which have either too high a rating, and so will have to carry big weights in handicap races, or do not have sufficient speed to win in Group Three company. These factors will often allow the progressive high grade handicapper to step in and win. The bigger the weight carried when winning or going close in a big handicap, the more meritorious will the performance be - and even more so if gained on a Group One track. Watch out for this kind of betting opportunity - it often represents good value.
• Pay particular attention to three-year-olds which perform with distinction against older horses in handicap races; this is particularly significant during the first half of the season, and even more so over a distance of ground, as many three-year-olds have not yet attained sufficient strength to compete effectively against their older opponents over non-sprint distances during the early stages of the season: the higher the grade of track, then the more meritorious will the performance be.
• It can be significant when a horse with decent, if not high grade handicap form is competing in lower class, non-handicap events, i.e. Maiden, Selling, etc. Most handicaps are of a competitive nature, and this horse may be up against decidedly moderate animals. Check the Official Ratings of the runners and keep a good eye out for good value betting opportunities when these instances present themselves.
• Pay attention to the number of runners in handicap races. If, for instance, the particular runner you are studying is competing in an eight-runner handicap race where its rating, the going, distance, type of track and grade of race is very similar to its last outing where it finished a close third in a field containing twenty-two runners, then this horse is noteworthy and deserving of your attention. Today it has just seven opponents as against twenty-one last time out when it defeated nineteen of them. Of course the reverse is also true:
if your candidate for study ran well last time up against only seven other runners and now faces twenty-one opponents, then you would have to have good reason to be confident of success, with it now facing so many more opponents.
The above guideline may not always work out, but it very often does, and not only finds value-for-money bets, but just as importantly, helps avoid losers. What no one can deny is its logic. The same principle also applies to non-handicaps, but only to a certain extent. It applies to a more imperative degree in handicaps because the form is so tightly knit.
• Over the course of a season, not too many horses are capable of winning a standard handicap when rated higher than 100 by the Official Handicapper. When allotted a high rating, it often means the horse has to shoulder a biggish weight in a competitive race, and to win must be in tip-top form with conditions to suit. Although a few older horses do perform this feat during the course of a season, the majority of handicap winners rated 100+ tend to be improving three-year-olds who often progress to win Listed Stakes, and occasionally Group-class races, and perform with great credit.
• When reading through the home gallops' reports from your daily and weekly racing papers, note any handicapper that is working with higher class horses. It will almost certainly be the case that it is being used as a lead horse; but this task sometimes brings about an improvement as it will often try to compete with the better horses.
• Familiarize yourself not only with the previously best winning mark in the ratings and the overall form of the runners that you are studying from the specialist daily racing paper, but also turn to the "Today's Ratings" section where each runner's current Official Rating, together with the last four Official Ratings which each horse "ran off' can be located. It can quickly be seen by how many pounds each horse has been raised or lowered in the ratings. This is valuable information to the student of handicap form, so use your racing paper to the full. With the right application there are good priced winners to be found in handicap races, and there is no reason why one should not specialize in them - provided one is prepared to put in the time and effort required.
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