Types of races

Types of racing

Handicap races

Well over half of all the horse races in Britain are handicaps. Horses carry different weights based on the official handicapper’s assessment of their past performances. It is a way of bringing horses of different abilities together.

In a handicap race, it is not always enough to work out which horse is best (in theory, the one allotted the highest weight), you have to work out which one is ‘best handicapped’. Is there a horse which you believe has a handicap rating that understates its likely level of performance in the race in question?

Perhaps today’s conditions – the state of the ground, the distance of the race, the conformation of the racecourse, the speed at which the race is likely to be run, the rider on board – will enable the horse to perform better than its its recent races. That sort of thing.

Since a horse’s handicap mark influences its prospects of winning, trainers are sometimes tempted to take steps to influence its rating. Some of the steps being within the rules of racing, others outside them.

There have always been trainers and jockeys who try to conceal a horse’s real ability by deliberately not trying to win a race. Usually this is with the aim of persuading the handicapper to reduce the horse’s handicap mark, thereby making it ‘well handicapped’. That is a serious breach of the rules, liable to result in severe penalty, if proven.

Improvements in technology, access to betting data and standards of stewarding have made it easier to detect ‘non-triers’. There are other, less crude methods of getting a horse well handicapped, such as running it over an unfavourable distance or on unfavourable going. For punters, this is either a fascinating aspect of the crossword puzzle or a tremendous irritation provoking moral outrage.

Non-handicap races

In these diagrams, the weight each horse carries is determined by the published conditions of the race. Horses contesting races confined to horses of the same age often carry the same weight and as a result, there’s a weight allowance for fillies and mares racing against colts and geldings. Previous winners may have to carry a weight penalty which may vary accordingly to the number and nature of the race or races previously won.

Where horses of different ages contest the same race, the weights they carry are based on the ‘weight-for-age’ scale. This is a refined version of a system invented by Admiral Rous in 1850 and reviewed by him in 1973. It makes allowance for the relative maturity of horses of different ages so that, depending on the time of year and distance of the race, a three-year-old will carry less weight than a four-year-old or older horse. Simple really.


Within the broad categories of handicap and non-handicap races are all sorts of sub-divisions, and all sorts of race distances. On the flat,  the shortest distance is five furlongs. The longest, the Queen Alexandra Stakes at Royal Ascot,  almost two and three-quarter miles. Over jumps, the shortest distance in both hurdle and chases is two miles. The longest hurdle race is almost three and a half miles and the longest chase, the Grand National, almost 4 and a half miles.

Other sub-divisions


Amateur riders races – Races for jockeys prepared to risk killing themselves without being paid for it.
Apprentice races An apprentice jockey is like an apprentice electrician, and similarly dangerous. Races confined to apprentices offer the sight of a small, inexperienced mammal sitting on a much larger one, travelling at over 30mph.
Bumper races The popular name for National Hunt Flat races. These are for horses not quick enough to race on the Flat but unable to jump properly.
Claiming races Horses are entered to be claimed for a range of prices. The claiming price determining the weight the horse carries. By choosing a low claiming price, the trainer can improve the horse’s chance of winning because it will carry a lower weight. For good or ill, it will also increase the likelihood of other people claiming the horse.
Hurdle races – Races supplied with obstacles to increase the chance that the one you have backed falls over.
Juvenile races Races for delinquents. On the flat, two-year-olds are regarded as juveniles. Over hurdles, juvenile races are for three-year-olds from October to December and for four-year-olds from January to April.
Maiden races Races for horses that have not yet won one, and are unlikely to.
Selling race Races in which the winner is offered for sale at a post race auction. Bidding will start at a sum specified in the race conditions. The current owner can bid for his own horse, thereby providing the opportunity to win the race yet lose money.
Steeplechases Races supplied with obstacles larger than hurdles for horses that have failed to fall over in hurdle races.


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