What is handicapping? How does one handicap a race? The definition of handicapping varies from source to source, but in a nutshell, it’s analyzing any and all data available about a race in order to predict the outcome. This could include reviewing the past performance of the horses in the race (example of a PP); reading the racing charts of the starters’ prior races (example of a racing chart); watching race replays of the starters’ prior races; viewing the starters in the paddock; and watching the starters in the post parade and warm-up. Each of these approaches can provide valuable information to help you make decisions about the outcome of the race.
For the purpose of this post, we’ll focus on the past performance, or PP as it’s frequently called. Depending on which flavor you use, the past performance can provide a giant amount of information, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who equally factors each piece of data found in the PP. This means that it’s up to you to determine which pieces of data in the past performance you want to use and how you want to weight them in relation to one another.
Keep in mind that each type of race might call for a different application of the same data points. For example, determining the pace of a sprint race is much less important than determining the pace of route race, and the overall running style for a turf race is different from the style of a main track race. Depending on what type of race you’re handicapping, you’re going to need to think about the same data a bit differently.
I like to think of handicapping as asking and trying to answer a series of questions. Not only can the questions vary depending on the type of race, but each handicapper will approach the same problem with his or her own set of concerns. Ask multiple players to identify the most important question to answer when handicapping a race, and you’re not likely to find consensus. In fact, to test that theory, I posed the question to the HRF crew and there was not a single duplicate answer! Who can win? Who can’t win? Is the favorite vulnerable? What’s the pace scenario? Who’s in the best shape? Who’s the fastest? All of these are plausible “most important” questions depending on your approach.
Instead of trying to do what many have already done and done well (layout of a bunch of example scenarios and show you how you could factor them), I’ll try a slightly different approach. Handicapping books are full of intricately laid-out examples of every handicapping scenario imaginable, so be sure to check out our Top 5 Handicapping Books and Review section if you’d also like to pursue that approach!
Before we get started: if you’re not familiar with the past performance, you should first check out our overview then head over to The Daily Racing Form’s interactive tutorial on the data points. It’s truly an invaluable tool for understanding the contents of the past performance. When I first started off I would have the screen open every time I handicapped so that I could quickly get the meaning of each of the data points.
Here are some questions you can ask and try to answer as you look at a past performance. These certainly are not the only questions you could be asking, but they should help you get started if you arrived at this post via a search for “how to handicap” or “how to read a horse racing program,” two of our most frequent searches!
Which horse or horses are likely to set the pace, and will that pace be fast, slow or somewhere in the middle?
What is each starters preferred pace scenario?
What is each starters preferred running style and how does that play into the pace scenario?
Is there a lone speed who can wire the field?
Could there be a speed duel that will take a favorite out of contention?
Trying Something New/Changing Distance or Surface
Which trainer has a high or low success rate with a particular move (turf to dirt, sprint to route)?
If the horse has done it before (run at the distance, on the surface, etc), how did he/she do?
Is there anything about this try that’s different from the last attempt that might be favorable or unfavorable (preferred surface condition or likely pace scenario)?
If cutting back in distance or stretching out, is the horse replicating a successful or unsuccessful pattern? For example, has the horse won or performed well doing the same thing in the past?
If trying a new distance is there anything to suggest a good or bad effort? For example, if stretching out has the horse been almost getting there in time or cutting back has the horse done well until the very end of the race?
Does the horse’s breeding suggest that he/she should do well or not at the new distance or surface?
Is the trainer known for the type of race (turf, sprint, claiming, stakes race)?
Do the jockey and trainer have a decent win percentage together overall and at this particular track?
Is this the horse’s regular rider?
Is the rider currently doing well with the conditions (turf, sprint, front-runner, closer, etc)?*
Is either the trainer or jockey on a hot or cold streak?
If the horse is making a first start for a new team, how does this trainer do with new horses?
Same question for first or second time starters and 2-year-olds.
*The answer to this question would require using a program like DRF’s Formulator or Trackmaster’s Pro Plus
If a horse is coming off a break, does the trainer have a good win percentage with horses off a layoff?
If a horse is coming off a break, how has the horse done under similar circumstances?
The same two questions apply for second and third starts off a break.
Has the horse been improving in all of it’s starts? is he/she rounding into top form?
Is the horse training at regular intervals?
For first time starters, has he/she shown improvement and have they had any handled or gated works?
Is there a pattern to the works or does the trainer give the same type of work every time? (Note: many high-profile, larger barns tend to give the same 4 and 5 furlong work every time, which makes it hard to learn anything from the work tab)
All of these questions can you help you answer bigger questions such as: Who’s a vulnerable favorite? What’s the pace scenario going to be? Can the lone speed the field wire to wire? In his helpful piece about finding an edge at Zatt Technical, handicapper and author Nick Borg points out that “Each horse’s block of past performances tells a story.” With this in mind you might find it helpful to read each horse’s pp starting with his/her oldest performance instead of most recent (which is listed on top). This approach will give you a quicker understanding of the horse’s “story” and how the horse arrived in his/her current spot.
These are just a few of the things to consider while handicapping. Over time we hope to build a collection of pieces that look more closely at these and many other factors to consider. And over time, you’ll build your own set of questions to be answered depending on the problem at hand. In the meantime, enjoy the journey!