Who Polices The Handicappers?

A trainer suggests the system makes them cheats

Horse racing’s handicapping system is designed to ensure level playing fields for all, providing an equal chance for the horse of little ability competing against the horse of greater ability, with minor tweaks and adjustments between the numerous racing jurisdictions.

But over the last few years more and more cries are going up from new and experienced bettors around the world: “It’s become really hard to find winners, it’s harder to read form than it ever was, it’s easier walking into a casino and playing black or red!”

In their latest newsletter, the International Racing Club suggest that doing that won’t be near as exciting in the long run, of course, but the disillusioned punters undoubtedly have a point.

The way race programming has developed, the ratio of staged handicaps vs staged plates and the way the same runners are rotated or interchanged at various levels within the system, is affecting the outcome of betting results over a period.

There are more rocks on the playing field, more arguably unquantifiable factors in a single race, and losses are incurred more often.

There are any number of reasons for this phenomenon, including the fact that some racing jurisdictions are trying to assist smaller stables to survive in tough economic times (and faced with a declining horse and owner base), by programming a bigger proportion of lower-rating handicaps, i.e. catering for the weaker, or lowly rated horses. In other, more flourishing industries, it could go the other way round.

As result of this, and the ensuing exploitation of the systems by trainers manipulating the ratings of their horses, more and more runners of significantly varying abilities are rated closer to each other than they should be.

This leads to often “unbelievable” results and in-and-out running. Form students are scratching their heads.

Lissa Oliver writes about the globally accepted handicapping system in general, in Trainer Magazine this month: “All is fair in love, war and on the racecourse. Except… When did you last see a 10-way dead-heat? Even outside of the handicap system, in the truly level competition of a Grade 1 race, the weak receive an allowance against the strong. The elders are penalised to assist their youngers. The fillies are compensated against the colts. Inexperienced jockeys receive allowances based upon, not exactly experience, but wins. In some jurisdictions, women riders receive weight allowances, too.

“It might be equal, although results usually prove otherwise; but is it fair? Racing is the only sport in which winners are penalised and losers are rewarded. Is it any wonder another populist view of racing is one of deceit and cheating?

” ‘Are the jockey clubs looking for equality or equity?’ asks renowned handicap expert Mark Cramer. ‘There’s a difference. I think it’s a noble effort to have some sort of handicap system, but I’m not sure how equitable it is.’

“Cramer further argues: ‘The system makes it that races labelled as handicaps are the hardest to decipher for the studious horseplayer. Furthermore, the whole weight factor may be overrated. A horse carrying two pounds extra is like me running with an envelope in my back pocket.

‘The handicapping system favours one type of horse, for example in the Arc, it’s the three-year-olds who get a weight edge. I think the harness race industry does a better job with handicaps, simply making a high earner who’s above the earnings limit start the race 25 metres behind the field.”

Lissa Oliver continues: “An earnings-based system rather than one based simply on wins alone is a suggestion put forward by more than one industry expert, but the current system of handicapping has been in place for 170 years, introduced by Admiral Rous in 1851. Rous was appointed the first official handicapper in Britain in 1855 and devised the Weight-For-Age (WFA) scale, which in theory should afford horses of different ages an equal chance of winning.’

“Tellingly, it says a lot about our sport that Rous is still remembered anecdotally for the remark, ‘I have just gone through the next race and have discovered that I have handicapped each horse so well that not one of them can possibly win.’”

She asserts: “We could argue that if it isn’t broken, why fix it? Certainly, many trainers have no issue with the system, other than its interpretation by the various official handicappers in relation to their own horse.”

Michael Grassick, CEO Irish Racehorse Trainers Association (IRTA), contends: “I always feel the system is unfair on a horse who has run and placed. The horse goes up two pounds, runs again and gets placed second again and goes up another two pounds. That horse will find it extremely hard to win and is not being rewarded for consistency. Personally, I don’t think a horse should be put up in the handicap until it has won.”

Oliver: “Grassick makes a valid point, underlined by the research and figures gathered by owner John Dance, an investment manager and CEO of stockbroker company Vertem, based on every Flat horse in Britain with an official rating. In March 2019, Dance tweeted his findings that 2.6% of Flat horses were Class 1; 5% were Class 2; 9.5% were Class 3; 16.6% were Class 4; 20.7% were Class 5; and 45.6% were Class 6 or lower. 83% of Flat horses, he noted, were Class 4 or lower.

“Even if we agree with the system in place, the given ratings—based on the personal opinion of the handicapper—are often going to be contentious.

“Retired UK trainer Bill O’Gorman explains, ‘Handicaps are a reasonable way of ensuring competition between ordinary horses, much as in golf. As in golf, there needs to be a degree of trust. The most obvious solution is to award a rating only upon quantifiable form rather than upon the lack of it.’

“Whether for or against the existing handicap system, there is a prevailing preference among industry professionals for alternative options, including those suggested by Cramer and O’Gorman. Paddock judge and racing historian Peter Corbett is unequivocal on the subject: The handicapping system operating in Great Britain is not fit for purpose.

“He muses, ‘It seems incredible that nearly 200 years later racing in Britain still uses this method. One myth is that it is designed to give each horse in the race an equal chance. This is self-evidently not the case. The idea that any individual, or collections of individuals, however learned in the art of handicapping horses, can do so and equal the chances of all the runners in a race is ridiculous.

‘Another rather silly expression when at the finish of a handicap, half a dozen runners are close together is to say ‘that was a triumph for the handicapper’. Rubbish! That was simply happenstance; if the race were to be run a couple of weeks later under the same conditions, the result would probably be completely different.

‘Some trainers and owners are certain that the system is designed to prevent progressive horses from winning. Some horses can become almost valueless because they are euphemistically described as ‘in the grip of the handicapper’. I have never read or heard anyone prominent in racing describe this situation as ridiculous, which it surely is.

‘A horse badly handicapped after its first couple of runs and allotted too high a mark can indeed have its chances of winning a handicap for the foreseeable future severely compromised.’

Oliver, in closing: “Corbett reminds us, ‘On the Flat, horses that are good enough to compete in Pattern races may never run in a handicap, and any handicap mark is likely to be irrelevant. However, for those horses that are below this level, the mark it is allotted will dictate its future career.’ ”

In South Africa, a place where punters “shout” perhaps the loudest on public forums, arguably due to a belief that the entire racing industry is as corrupt as the embattled country’s untouchable government, one career bettor recently pointed out: “The horse and owner population here have decreased worryingly fast due to economic factors, mismanagement and more recently Covid 19. The quality of horses are dropping, the quality of races too.

“Within this system of average horses rotating in lower-range handicaps we have seen a handful of trainers consistently winning with what appear to be formless runners. They win one day, run last the next day. Their runners are near impossible to assess and sometimes they plant three or four runners in a single race, who beat each other in turn, and within weeks. These runners move up and down within a low merit bracket and their form is so patchy it’s a joke. Punters are punch drunk. This should not be allowed.”


A prominent trainer responded: “The punter is wrong. The trainer, or trainers, he refers to are simply shrewd. The handicapping system here lends itself to manipulation. The trainers who study it closely and place their horses cleverly can manipulate it expertly to their advantage. They are creaming it, but have every right to do it, because the system allows them to.”

We spoke to a few more trainers, one Johannesburg-based Top 10 handler arguing: “The first and biggest flaw in the handicap system is that we assume all horses age on the same day. So, a horse born in August is treated (for weight-for-age purposes) exactly the same as one born in December (or for the northern hemisphere, that’s January and May).

“Any horseman- or woman knows that, when it comes to younger horses, there is a massive difference in maturity of horses born, for example, five months apart. This is not factored into the WFA allowance. The other flaw is that the handicappers assume every horse makes WFA improvement on a monthly basis in his younger years.”

Said another Joburg trainer who also wished not to be mentioned by name: “The system is so unfair on losers it’s almost criminal. A consistent loser is penalised, and should a horse win well the handicapper feels it is his job to stop it, which illustrates a massive weakness in the system: The Human Factor!

“Merit rating is all about the handicappers’ opinion. This is the biggest factor contributing to false ratings as there are some handicappers who lack the ability to properly analyse form. This can destroy a horse’s career and force trainers into being dishonest which means punters ultimately are defrauded. I have to ask: Are handicappers honest and who polices them?

“Handicappers have too much say in the outcome of races and horses’ careers – while they are not policed! They have too much power. This is 2021 not the 1800s. The more we eliminate the human factor, the better for all in racing, right the way through to the punter, and, by implication, the rookie racegoer.”


A leading Cape trainer agreed, saying: “This system makes us cheats, it makes us dishonest to be competitive. Running horses who are short in the betting knowing that they can’t win, is defrauding punters but it’s also a clever move from your personal stable’s perspective.

“Handicapping Maiden winners is also incorrect as maiden form is too inconsistent. Winners of maidens should be made equals and then handicapped once they have competed amongst themselves. That will be way more reliable.

“Times and pace of races are never considered when penalties are decided. Bad horses run on top of good horses in slow run races which gives a false impression of their ability. They battle to run to that level of form again and it takes ages for their ratings to return to their correct marks. The best solution here is sectional timing, and we have the technical expertise to include this as a factor in handicapping.

“But overall it has to be said that the system is 200 years old and should be replaced by a computer system. Handicapping considered as an ‘art form’ is nonsense. The human element is so obviously flawed, it encourages dishonesty from various players, and may include the handicappers themselves!”

[email protected]


Have Your Say - *Please Use Your Name & Surname

Comments Policy
The Sporting Post encourages readers to comment in the spirit of enlightening the topic being discussed, to add opinions or correct errors. All posts are accepted on the condition that the Sporting Post can at any time alter, correct or remove comments, either partially or entirely.

All posters are required to post under their actual name and surname – no anonymous posts or use of pseudonyms will be accepted. You can adjust your display name on your account page or to send corrections privately to the EditorThe Sporting Post will not publish comments submitted anonymously or under pseudonyms.

Please note that the views that are published are not necessarily those of the Sporting Post.

Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments



Popular Posts