Fans of Thoroughbred horse racing may find themselves wondering from time to time: How exactly do they decide what a horse's handicap will be?
An aspect of many competitive (and wager-worthy) sports and games besides horse racing - chess, Go, running events, yacht racing, polo, bowling and, infamously, golf - handicapping allows competitors at differing level of experience to clash without the game dissolving into predictability. With handicapping, raw talent can compete evenly with greater experience, yielding maximum spectator interest. After all, what's more interesting than watching a fiery rookie test herself against a seasoned veteran?
Of course, "handicapping" can mean two different things - in horse racing as in most other sports. It can mean adding or subtracting a particular burden to a particular horse in order to even up the playing field; it can also mean guessing in advance as race's outcome, for the benefit of those who'd like to bet on a horse's performance. In the case of horse racing, one major form of the first kind of handicapping is known as the impost. This term means that each horse must carry a certain amount of weight; since jockeys, of course, vary in size (though most tend toward the lighter end of the scale), weights are added to the horse to even things up. Jockeys carry these lead weights in saddle pads during the race. Weights may also be assigned on the basis of the horse's age - a variation introduced by Admiral Rouse of the Jockey Club in 1855. The amount of weight assigned to a horse by the racing secretary may also depend on factors such as the horse's previous race performances and its familiarity with a particular race distance.
Then there's handicapping in the second sense - predicting who will reach the finish line when, for the sake of spectator wagers - and this sense of the term has been with us since the word was coined in the 1600s: we get the word handicap from a seventeenth-century version of lottery, in which players would place their bets in a cap, hence hand-in-cap. Horse handicapping in this sense is a subtle art, but the first thing you need is a subscription to the Daily Racing Form, the horsetrack junkie's Bible. This venerable broadsheet publication, founded near Chicago by Frank Brunell in 1894, keeps racing fans updated on each horse's past performance. Trying to handicap a horse without it is like riding public transit in Tokyo, for the first time, without a schedule, without knowing Japanese.
In addition to the Daily Racing Form (other sources for the same information may include the Equibase and Brisnet databases), handicapping depends on close observation of the horses themselves. How are the horses behaving in the paddock or during the post parade? Is he throwing a temper tantrum? Is she favoring one leg over another? Is a horse's tail switching this morning (bad), or are the ears in synch with each other, laying forward or backward (good)?
And finally, in a sort of postmodern feedback loop, the handicapper must monitor not only the horse but the way the horse is being perceived by the betting public. As odds fall or rise, reflecting spectator confidence in the horse (or lack thereof), the handicapper's estimation of the horse may change as well (which estimation, in previous races, may also have made its influence felt in the very betting that the handicapper now responds to).
But that's not all: Handicappers also look at a horse's speed (measured via something called a Beyer number, which averages past performances while also accounting for differences in race conditions, track speed, and other circumstances), its pace (frontrunner? kick-from-behinder?), its "form" (is the horse rested? out of practice?), post position (is the horse placed near the race track's inside?), and finally the race-day incidentals that will likely affect every horse - weather, track condition, etc.
Handicapping, in both senses, gives the world of Thoroughbred racing a bit of its drama, a touch of the unpredictable. The agony of a lost bet, the ecstasy of a successful one - both are due, in part, to the mentally challenging work of race handicapping.
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