How to Handicap
Getting started by asking and trying to answer questions
Level: Beginner
By Dana Byerly, Hello Race Fans Co-founder

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. Check our post on Handicapping Process to see a discussion among several players on how they approach handicapping.

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. You can also check this handy video from Night School on how to read the past performance.

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?

The Connections

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

Form Cycle

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” 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!

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Charts and PPs provided by Brisnet


  • How can you find outdated racing systems ? you know the kinda stuff that you used to get in the mail all the time.

    What publishing companies sell these systems I am doing research for a paper and am having a difficult time finding these things.

    you guy’s are doing a good job keep going

    smitty reply to:

  • Thanks Smitty!

    You might try eBay.

  • I’ve heard that horses coming off a layoff have a small chance of finishing in the money. But what if the horse has been working since its last race? For example, if a horse’s last race was on December 27, 2012 and it’s April 6, and that horse has been working since February 2013. The horse showed decent works. Would the horse still be considered a loser?

  • I’d file that under “don’t believe everything you hear!”

    In my opinion there are two things to consider for horses coming off a layoff: 1) how the horse has done in similar circumstances and 2) is this a positive move for the trainer. For example, Todd Pletcher tends have horses fire off the layoff while Bill Mott and and Shug McGaughey are known for using races to prep for target race. Check the trainer stats in the PP for some guidance on the particular trainer. You can also check the PP to figure out if the horse has performed well off a layoff.

    Another factor is class, is the horse trying to move up in class or taking a drop. A horse jumping up in class after a layoff might have a tougher time than a horse dropping. There’s really no one size fits all answer for layoffs, but I don’t think a layoff is always an automatic toss. Good luck!

  • What does a racehorse trainer basically do in general? For example, I know trainers like Todd Pletcher, Shug McGaughey, Bill Mott, Bob Baffert, Doug O’Neill, and Bruce Levine. But what do they do to prepare a horse? Do they work out a horse? I read an article on what racehorse trainers do on wiseGEEK. Are the facts on this article true?

  • Hi Ryan,

    That article looks generally correct. Check out this video interview with Bill Mott, he talks about several aspects of training and preparing horses for a race:

    Also, in this video Ken McPeek mentions some of the types of details that trainers have to oversee:

    I would assume that each trainer has his or her own approach on how best to train a horse (length and frequency of breezes, workouts; types of equipment, etc).

    I hope this helps!


  • Hi Tom,

    I had to do a little Googling, but I found this site which seems to be dedicated to the Sartin Methodology:

    They also seem to have a library of materials… I hope this helps!

  • What does it mean when a horse is “lightly-raced”?

  • Hi Ryan,

    A lightly raced horse is one that has not raced that often and it’s usually used within the context of race in comparison to other horses in the race.

    For example, Midnight Taboo in this year’s Belmont Stakes is a good example. Going into the Belmont he had raced three times while Palace Malice had raced seven times, Oxbow had raced 11 times and Orb had raced nine times.

    Cross Traffic in the Whitney was another good example, he came in with four career starts against a field that all double digits career starts.

  • I always hear a lot about Beyer speed figures but some times a commentator will mention something else called I believe Ragason or something like that. What is that

  • Hi Liz,

    Here’s a brief explanation of Ragozin figures from our post “Figuring out Figs”

    “More premium figures (at least in terms of price if not prestige) exist, and these are so premium that they are called performance figures because rather than simply measure final time, they purport to measure the effort a horse exerted in each race. The most popular performance figures are Len Ragozin’s The Sheets and Jerry Brown’s Thorograph.”

    Our friends at TimeformUS recently built a tablet-friendly site for Ragozin figures, also referred to as “the sheets”, and you can find more information about them here. Here’s a further description from that link:

    “Sheets Figures measure how much quality the horse demonstrated on that day. Briefly, each figure includes speed, weight, allowance for unusual track condition, racing wide or saving ground, headwinds or tailwinds, peculiarities of track construction such as downhill areas, etc. The numbers generally range from zero to the forties. The lower the figure the better the race. The numbers measure how far away from a championship rating (zero) this horse was on this day.”

    I hope this helps, and thanks for stopping by!

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