How Are Handicap Ratings Decided In Horse Racing?

Official ratings in both codes of horse racing are very important when it comes to determining how good a horse is. This rating often determines what quality of race a horse will be trained for, whether that is Group/Grade action or a handicap contest.

The very best horses in their respective division tend to run in Group or Graded races. These take place over level weights and racecourses put up the biggest prize money to attract the leading runners from around the world.

The majority of the races on a horse racing card are handicaps. The allocation of weight given to each runner will depend on their official rating. This is done to give each horse, in theory, an equal chance of prevailing. Clearly, this does not always prove to the case so the odds compilers at horse racing betting sites will examine the weights and then come up with opening odds. Such tools exist to ensure the most competitive odds can be offered.

After every run, the official handicapper assesses how well a horse ran and adjusts its rating. If it wins its race, it is more likely to move upwards, while a horse who has run below its best often shoots down the ratings. This will naturally impact how odds are calculated.

The handicapper has a range of factors to take into account with each horse. They include their distance behind the winner, ground conditions, the time taken to complete the race and if a horse was impeded at any stage.

If a horse wins a Group or Graded race, like for example the Derby which was won in 2020 by Serpentine, their rating could rise more than it would from a handicap. These races are not easy to win so the horse has proved it can perform at the highest level.

Have Trainers Appealed The Ratings Before?

Given handicap marks are subjective, horse racing trainers do have a right to appeal. The first step would be to contact the handicapper to ask if the mark can be looked at again. If the handicapper sticks with their initial decision, the trainer can raise the issue to the head handicapper.

If after the opening two steps, the trainer is not happy with the outcome, an official appeal can be made. The case is looked into more thoroughly. For their case to be examined, the trainer must pay a deposit. In the UK it is £400 per appeal. This is lost if the appeal is unsuccessful.

One of the most famous arguments over a horse’s official rating came earlier this year before the 2021 Grand National. The 2018 and 2019 winner Tiger Roll was given a mark of 166 which would have equated to him carrying 11st 9lb. His owner Michael O’Leary, of Gigginstown House Stud, was not happy with this mark and opted against running his horse in the world’s most famous steeplechase.

Racing fans were denied the chance to see Tiger Roll equal the record for the most wins in the race. He may have to wait until next year for another chance to compete in the marathon contest at Aintree.

The handicap system in the sport makes the battle between bookmaker and punter even more fascinating as both are trying to figure out if a horse is off a lenient mark or not before a race.


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About Editor

Rich Nilsen is a 19-time qualifier to the National Horseplayers Championship (NHC), an event he has cashed in four times. He was the first player to finish in the top 10 of the NHC twice. A former executive with and a member of the NHC Players’ Committee, Rich is a graduate of the University of Louisville Equine Business Program and is founder of, a site devoted to horse racing education and promotion.

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