For casual punters who might have the odd yearly flutter on the Grand National or the Cheltenham Festival, there’s often one thing that confuses them: handicaps.
The concept of adding weight to a horse might seem like a crazy one, but it serves the purpose – in theory, at least – of levelling the playing field in a race and giving every horse a chance to win.
The reality is that simply isn’t the case, but handicapping the best horses can lead to more entertaining and competitive races for spectators nonetheless.
There can’t be many races on the calendar where the weighting matters quite as much as at the Grand National, where carrying too much – or too little – over Aintree’s famous fences (not to mention the 4m 2f trip) can ultimately ensure a runner has a low probability chance of winning.
The weights for the 2023 edition are out, and it’s no surprise that two of the top weights – Hewick and Conflated – have been scratched from the reckoning. Both are respected horses that contested the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but connections felt that carrying 12st 2lb around the Grand National course would be too much to ask.
The other horse tasked with such a burden, Any Second Now, has an excellent record in the race with a pair of top-three finishes, but his odds have lengthened on account of carrying top weight.
But there will be some asking why does it matter? Won’t the best horse win regardless of its handicap?
Let’s take a look at the history books to find out….
What is a Handicap in Horse Racing?
There’s a specific tier of National Hunt and flat races, handicaps, where the object is to create as close a contest as possible by weighting down the fastest or best-staying horses. Specifically, lead plates are added to the saddle to create the desired weight.
These have been run for well over a century, with the Grand National one of the most famous examples of them all.
The handicapper will consider a horse’s form, their record in the National, age and gender are just some of the factors that go into the ratings, as well as an analysis of how well each horse has run at different weights in the past.
The idea is that the best horses will be handicapped the most and the lowest-quality or inexperienced horses the least – creating what should be a utopia of the whole field crossing the finishing line at the same time. Of course, it never pans out that way.
The weights of each horse are calculated in stones and pounds, so if you see 10-6 on a racecard then you know that horse is carrying 10st 6lb, which includes the jockey and their saddle.
Handicapping isn’t an exact science, and sometimes a horse will be able to outrun their mark and other times they may underperform as a direct consequence of being harshly treated in the ratings.
Does the Handicap Affect My Bet?
As mentioned, the Grand National is a strength-sapping race ran over some of the stiffest fences in the sport – so carrying top-weight, or close to it, will require an extraordinary effort to win.
But before you go off to back the bottom weights, don’t forget that these horses have been treated kindly by the handicapper because they are perceived to be of a lower quality than their rivals – in some cases, a low rating will be given simply to give them a chance to make it round the course without falling or being pulled up.
Punters should be looking to strike the right balance by judging each horse on its merits; which have the speed, stamina, jumping prowess and handicap to perform the best in the Grand National field?
If the question was that easily answered, we’d all be millionaires and there’d be no bookmakers left!
A general rule of thumb is to disregard those at the top and the bottom of the weights. There hasn’t been a 12-stone winner of the Grand National since Red Rum in 1974, while Lord Gyllene and BobbyJo in 1997 and 1999 respectively are the only 10st winners since 1979.
But, of course, this could be the year when those records are broken….
What is the Ideal Grand National Handicap?
Each edition of the Grand National is so unique, given that the race takes place in April – thanks to the vagaries of the British springtime, that means the drama could unfold in warm sunshine on good-to-soft ground or in a Biblical downpour in heavy going.
The conditions also play a part in the ‘right’ weight to bet on, although remember it is vital that you bet on horses with a handicap that they can outrun.
As a bit of research, we’ve taken a look at the last 20 Grand National winners and averaged out their handicap. Here’s the last ten of them:
Weights of the Grand National Winners – 2012 to 2022
|2017||One for Arthur||10-11||14/1|
|2016||Rule the World||10-07||33/1|
|2014||Pineau De Re||10-06||25/1|
Even from this small sample, you can see the wide variance in handicaps and how the bookmakers expected the horse to perform.
For example, Tiger Roll was one of the shortest-priced Grand National favourites in recent memory in 2019 at 4/1, and so he was expected to perform well even with a tough handicap of 11-05.
Conversely, Auroras Encore was not expected to perform that well even with a generous mark of 10-03. But he out-ran expectations alright – it just goes to show the chaos and unpredictability of the Grand National.
So, for what it’s worth, the average winning weight of the Grand National in the past 20 years has been….drumroll please….10st 10lb.