In horse racing, what is a penalty?

In simple terms, in horse racing, a penalty is a disadvantage, or handicap, in the form of extra weight to be carried, imposed on a horse for winning a race under certain circumstances. In Group Two, Group Three and Listed races on the Flat, for example, penalties are incurred by horses that have won at the same, or higher, level within a certain period of time.

Usually after three runs on the Flat, or three runs over hurdles or fences, or a combination of the two, a horse qualifies for an official rating. The official rating represents the ability of the horse, according to a team of handicappers at the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), and is reassessed after each subsequent race.

If the horse wins, say, a handicap race – which each horse has a theoretically equal chance of winning – it must, logically, have performed better its current official rating so, when reassessed, its official rating will increase, typically by 6lb or 7lb. However, if the same horse if turned out again within the space of seven days – that is, before it has been reassessed by the BHA handicappers – it typically has to carry a standard penalty, of 6lb or 7lb, to allow for that fact.

What is a handicap race?

In horse racing, Flat or National Hunt, a handicap race is a race in which each horse carries a weight determined by its official rating, so that, at least in theory, every horse has an equal chance of winning. To be eligible to run in a handicap, a horse must qualify for an official rating and, to do so, must usually run in three non-handicap, or weight-for-age, races, so that the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) handicapper has the opportunity to assess its level of ability. The official rating of each horse corresponds to its ability, expressed in Avoirdupois pounds, in the eyes of the handicapper. In a handicap race, the horse with the highest official rating carries the heaviest, or ‘top’, weight, while the other horses carry less weight, proportionate to their official ratings. Of course, the official rating of a horse can go up, down or stay the same, depending on how it performs from one race to the next.