Handicapping Horses

Handicapping Horses

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It is said that 90% of the race outcome depends on the horse. Perhaps. Each horse is a separate actor in the tangle of information, and 30,000 new horses enter the field each year. Their racing careers are not that long, just a few years at most, so that the handicapper is constantly meeting new friends.

Most seasoned handicappers believe three basic things about horses:

  • the most fundamental variable in predicting the outcome of a race is the horse (as compared to the jockey, the trainer, the owner, the track, etc.);
  • while the horse is a powerful athlete, parts of its physical makeup can be weak or injured, and these conditions, if unnoticed, will cause surprises in the outcomes of races; and
  • the horse's mental and emotional make-up - its personality - greatly contributes to the animal's performance at the track, for good or ill.

Performance History

The horse's performance history is probably the number one element of information for handicapping. For each race ever run, information is available on the size of the field, the track and track conditions, the post position, the length of the race, the position of the horse by fractions (intermediate mileposts of the race), the finish, and commentary on how the race was run. Researchers not only look for qualities (like speed), but trends that will aid in predicting the next performance. Sometimes this means second-guessing what a trainer might do to improve performance (such as adding blinkers). Often the performance history shows what the races were like in terms of competition, and how this horse seems to perform,
given a specific contour of a race.


It is not a coincidence that horses related to champions tend to be champions. Certainly a few high stakes winners seem to come from nowhere, and many offspring of winners never get out of the claiming pool, but the odds of finding a future champion improve if the bloodline has some winning horses in it. For example, Smarty Jones, who won the 2004 Kentucky Derby (and $5 million), is a great-great-grandson of Secretariat, who won the same race 21 years earlier, running it a whole 5 seconds faster than his great-grandson.

Physical Condition

The time a horse spends in the paddock and the post parade before a race gives wagerers an opportunity to evaluate directly several physical and emotional characteristics of the horse. Examples are pent-up energy, playfulness, sheen of the coat, fullness of the abdomen area (no bones), and so on. How a jockey warms up a horse might be a "tell" concerning the jockey's (or trainer's) opinion of the horse's physical condition. Some of these characteristics can also be gleaned from the performance statistics and the race footnotes of prior races (all available in the handicapping materials). For example, a horse may have a long layoff in the performance history, indicating some sort of recuperation. The Daily Racing Form may also carry news stories or even editorial comment about the physical condition of a given horse or perhaps his barn. The presence of bandages on the front legs of a horse is a warning sign that all may not be well. Medication also may be listed as part
of a horse's information. Analgesics are a bad sign. Lasix may or may not affect the horse's performance. Most handicappers believe a change in the administration of medications is relevant.

Age and Gender

Age and gender of horses are important elements of information for handicapping. Female horses (fillies or mares) are usually entered in races against other females. Races are usually restricted by gender, though sometimes a mare will be allowed to enter a non-restricted race. The handicapping then has to determine if this female has the size and strength to compete well with the males. Some males are gelded, meaning their testicles are removed. This often makes the horse more focused on racing (rather than on the birds and bees) and improves performance. The decision by an owner to geld a horse is sometimes tricky, as it means that the horse has no promise for breeding purposes (obviously), but does show promise in winning races at a certain level of competition.

Each horse is "deemed" to have been born on January 1, so a "three year old" could be much younger. Virtually all horses are foaled in the Spring, so that the disadvantage may only be a month or two. Very young horses run differently from horses in their prime. The three year olds are really like the new young adults, and should be at the peak of their condition.

Personality and Heart

Some handicappers feel that this is the most important feature of the horse, once it has been determined that he is physically fast enough and otherwise able to run to win. Most horsemen agree that on any given day, a horse may or may not feel like running hard. "Class" horses love racing and can be expected to be in the mood to perform all of the time. Assessing the horse's mood, its competitiveness and discipline, is a part of handicapping that touches more on the art than the science. It relies a lot on understanding what has been written after races, and on collateral information about the horse, the barn and the bloodline. Personality affects how he (or she) runs a race. For example, a "speed horse" is one that loves to get out in front in a hurry and rip down the track. A "stalker" or "pace horse" is one that likes to hang back a little behind the leader. Then, when the leader tires, the stalker can move into first position to win the race. (Of course, if the race is slow or a short distance, the speed horse in front may not tire.) A "hanger" is a pace horse that chronically doesn't come up with everything it takes to convert on the move to the front. A "closer" is a horse that does not mind letting the pack go on ahead for a little while. Then, somewhere in the second half of the race, the closer makes a move, puts on a burst of speed, and overtakes the field to win. Unless, of course, he doesn't. These last two types demonstrate most prominently where the skill of the jockey comes into play.

Equipment and Medications

Equipment is another pertinent aspect of handicapping. Blinkers are noted in handicapping materials, as some horses improve their performance with them. Others do not, and worse still, some horses actually dislike them. When blinkers are used for the first time, it means the trainer thinks the horse does not perform to potential and might benefit from more concentration in the race. But there is the risk that he will hate them. Also, when blinkers come off (that is, they were noted in previous races, but not this one), it means the trainer thinks the horse has a desire to see what is going on, and that this might boost his performance.

Look for bandages on the front legs. Bandages on the rear legs are not a bad sign, but on the front, they are. Handicapping information includes this fact when it occurs. It probably means that the horse is considered weak where the front bandages have been placed, or perhaps he is recovering from an injury. Unexplained front bandages usually chase handicappers away from the horse.

Shoes are important to the horse's performance, particularly on the hind legs, which generate 80% of the horse's power. On wet tracks it is particularly important for the horse to have extra traction. "Mud calks" or "stickers" are shoes have a block to provide this assistance. Thus, the disclosure of mud calks on a horse is positive information (if the track is muddy or sloppy). Another kind of shoe,
bar shoes, are used if the horse has a sore hoof or other problem, so the mention of bar shoes on a horse is not a good sign (unless adequately clarified).

Equipment information is available on the Daily Racing Form. Sometimes the addition or subtraction of blinkers on a horse will modify the horse's performance. Apart from blinker information, it is hard to obtain equipment information in time to handicap a race from the race book.

Medication is also thought to affect performance in the same way that equipment does. Thoroughbred horses are permitted to take a couple of medications, but if a horse does take them, it must be noted on the racing form. The most common medication is Lasix, a diuretic that prevents internal bleeding. It is extremely common these days. A bold "L" in the racing form by the data on the horse means that Lasix has been administered. If it is first time Lasix, the "L" is white inside a black circle. Many handicappers believe that first time Lasix is a plus, after that it is neutral, and that going off Lasix is a minus. All the other authorized medications are analgesics, so they should light up a caution light if they are reported on the form.

Observing the Horse

One of the reasons for going to the track, if you can, is to see for yourself the condition of the horse at the time of saddling up. Tracks have an area behind the grandstand (called "the paddock") where the horses are brought before a race. This is where the identity of the horse is checked. Also, the track veterinarian checks the condition of each horse, and the horses are on open display to the public for at least 25 minutes before the race (to rule out last minute tampering). It is at this time that equipment is placed on the horse, and the jockey mounts. After this period, there is a "post parade" when the horses and riders make their way from the paddock to the starting gate. The post parade lasts about 10 minutes on the racetrack. Most of the time, a trainer will use a lead pony and rider to accompany the race horse and jockey from the paddock to the track and throughout the post parade. How the horse reacts to the lead pony and rider is another clue to whether the horse is ready and able to run a good race. (Attentive is good; unruly is bad; playful is excellent, showing pent-up energy).

Handicappers regard this last chance to evaluate the horses as an important advantage in predicting outcomes. Closed-circuit race television also tries to let viewers see as much of this pre-race activity as possible. Sometimes the pari-mutuel odds will start changing rapidly during this time, reflecting the public's positive or negative evaluation of the horse's physical condition or behavior, made visible in the paddock and post parade.

Positive traits include the sheen and condition of the horse's coat (bright, not wet, and lying down flat), eyes (bright and attentive), ears (pricked but not showing upset), belly (rounded with no ribs showing). Handicappers steer away from horses that display a dull coat, sulky personality, lack of interest, ears pinned down or back, and hyperactivity (or very low activity). A bull neck is
said to telegraph pent-up energy, a good sign for the race.

It is also a good sign if the horse is well made up for the race. It means that the "barn" (meaning the trainer's organization) has invested in giving the horse some quality attention, from the trainer to the groom. Winning horses have their pictures taken in the winner's circle, and this is good for the trainer's business. So if the barn dresses the horse well, it may mean that they expect the horse to win. On the other side of this equation, a horse that looks sort of ratty may have been entered in the race for some other reason than winning (like claiming or for experience). If the horse has protruding ribs, it may mean that it is off its feed or that the barn is unable to find the right feed combination to make the horse thrive.

Next to the trainer, the jockey probably knows the horse the best. During warm-ups before each race the jockey may communicate an opinion about the horse. An older horse needs to warm up more than a young one. If the jockey is not warming up the older horse, it may mean that he (or she) is worried about some physical condition, and is protecting the horse. A good warm-up without excessive sweating is a positive sign. If a horse is sweating much more than the others, it may mean nervousness or some physical problem.