Play #0: Handicapping 101
Hello, and welcome to this foundation module in the Geegeez Play Book. Its intention is to bring new users up to speed with the fundamental components of racing and betting in Britain; and to remind those more experienced bettors of things that might have been forgotten or lost along the way. After all, for some of us, it's been a very long road!
Let's get cracking on Handicapping 101!
Not all horses are equal. I know, shocker, right? I hope you were sitting down for that revelation!
As examples, horses can be male or female; they can be young or old; they can be muscular or light-framed; they can be regally-bred or unfashionably bred; and they can be experienced or they can be running for the first time.
All of these aspects of difference have a bearing on the outcome of races.
SO FAR, SO OBVIOUS...
Because of these differences, the framework for British - and, generally similarly, Irish - racing includes numerous checks and balances principally to render "the contest", i.e. a horse race, more even. In the best races, this helps to answer the question, "which is the best horse?", and in races further down the pyramid, "who is likely to win?" and perhaps the holy grail for bettors, "which represents the best value?".
We'll work through these questions in due course, but first the building blocks.
Horses can race on the flat from age two, over hurdles from age three and over steeplechase fences from age four. This roughly reflects their physical maturity and ability to compete in such disciplines.
Flat races are held on turf and artificial surfaces - known as all-weather - from a distance of five furlongs (five-eighths of a mile) up to and beyond two miles.
Hurdle and chase races are run on turf only at distances from around two miles to more than four and a quarter miles (the Grand National being at that extreme end of the spectrum).
The ability of a horse is assessed throughout its career by an official handicapper. It is also assessed by a range of private handicappers, from the likes of Racing Post and Timeform to any number of enthusiastic individuals seeking to gain a betting edge by using their judgement.
At the top end of the ability hierarchy, ratings determine the champions, Group or Grade 1 horses who are considered peerless at their distance and discipline. At the middle to bottom end, official ratings establish which horses can race against each other, based on the ability bands of handicaps and other race conditions.
Getting A Rating
Unraced horses are initially required to compete in open company - that is, against all-comers - until such time as their level of ability can be assessed, whereupon they are allocated an opening rating. A horse's rating dictates for which races it is eligible; of course, it may suit an owner or trainer for their horse to begin its 'competitive' career at a relatively low level. More on this in due course.
Like humans, horses cover a broad church in terms of ability. Olympians and park runners rarely go toe to toe and so it is with horses once their respective levels are broadly understand. Instead, they are invited to race against horses of similar ability, based on race class.
British racing has seven numerical classes, Class 7 being the weakest and Class 1 being for Group and Graded, and Listed, races. The best horses race in Class 1 contests, the worst in Class 7. Most races are Classes 4 and 5 while there are also plenty of Class 6 races on the flat. National Hunt, or jump, racing only has Classes 1 to 5.
One of the myriad interesting nuances of racing is sub-class, whereby a given class band may be reasonably divided into more than one category for the purposes of establishing the better horses. This is most obviously the case at Class 1 level, which incorporates Group/Grade 1, 2 and 3 races as well as Listed events.
But it can manifest itself in, for instance, Class 4, too: the difference between a 0-80 and a 0-85 handicap can often be more than meets the eye in quality terms with an 80-rated horse being able to lord it as top weight but often unable to get involved in 0-85 company. Both races are Class 4 but one is contested by horses of a broader range of ability than the other.
How Horses Are Rated
The official handicapper typically requires a horse to run at least three times on the flat or over jumps prior to allocating an initial rating, or 'mark'. There are numerous exceptions, such as when the handicapper doesn't believe he has sufficient evidence upon which to base a rating (early season two-year-old form, for example, or novice hurdlers that have run down the field three times), or when he feels he has seen enough before then (such as if a novice hurdler finishes in the first four twice).
Handicap ratings on the flat are a minimum of 45 up to any number, typically the low 100's, with flat horses rated higher than that generally contesting Group contests.
Over hurdles and fences, horses rated 100 or less run in Class 5 handicaps mainly, all the way up to Graded racers which can be rated in the 170's and sometimes even the 180's.
As horses race against each other and win or lose, so their ratings go up or down.
There is plenty of detail on the why's and wherefore's of handicapping on the BHA's own site, here. This is recommended reading and I don't intend to rehash it here; suffice it to say, that much of the detail about pounds and lengths is covered within those pages.
The Maturity Curve
As with most of us, the first time a horse races can be considered an educational experience. Of course, there is a full range of talent on show and one horse at least has to win every race! But, generally speaking, horses can be expected to improve from their first to second starts, from their second to third and from their third to fourth starts.
Indeed, most horses may continue to improve either from practice and/or physical maturing for as much as their first couple of seasons in the game. There are exceptions to every rule, and some two-year-olds especially may be primed and ready for their very first career outing, never again reaching whatever level that first day brought.
How can we know about the likelihood of such things? From trainer and sire statistics, as well as market vibes.
Most horses "are what they are" by around their tenth race, but horses can improve DRAMATICALLY earlier in their career, especially when there's a material change. Some of the things which might be classed as a material change include:
- first start in a handicap
- up (or down) in distance
- down in class
- first start after wind surgery
- a notable trainer or jockey change
Indeed, when it comes to lightly raced horses, we as punters should ALWAYS EXPECT improvement when we see a material change in circumstances. Whatever form is in the book at this nascent stage of a horse's career may not be a true reflection of the level that runner will go on to achieve. We must always be open to such prospects early in a horse's career.
Conversely, in the case of "exposed" horses - those with plenty of form in the book - it is more about identifying the runner(s) best suited to today's conditions, particularly if that runner has been running under different conditions recently. These often present fantastic betting opportunities.
In the 'plays' that follow throughout this Play Book, we'll look at a range of situations and how Geegeez Gold can help you play them. I hope you find the Play Book both fun and profitable.
Creator, Geegeez Gold