Since 1965, the Lincoln Handicap, which traditionally marks the start of the Flat season ‘proper’ in late March or early April, has been run over the straight mile on Turf Moor, Doncaster. However, the race was inaugurated, as the Lincoln Spring Handicap Stakes – later renamed the Lincolnshire Handicap – at Lincoln Racecourse, on the Carholme, on the western edge of the city of Lincoln, in 1853.
Aside from interruptions for World War I and World War II, the Lincolnshire Handicap continued at Lincoln Racecourse for over a century. Indeed, in its heyday during the inter-war period, the Lincolnshire Handicap dominated the horse racing press for weeks on end and, along with the Grand National, formed the traditional ‘Spring Double’. Remarkably, the 1948 renewal of the Lincolnshire Handicap drew a field of 58 runners, which was a record under Jockey Club rules.
Nevertheless, in 1964, the Horse Race Betting Levy Board announced that it was withdrawing financial support for Lincoln Racecourse, thereby forcing its closure. The Lincolnshire Handicap, renamed the Lincoln Handicap, was transferred permanently to Doncaster Racecourse, some 40 miles away; in 2006 and 2007, the Lincoln Handicap was staged at Redcar and Newcastle, respectively, while Doncaster was closed for redevelopment, but has otherwise been held at the Yorkshire venue every year since.
The most valuable flat handicap in Europe is the Ebor Handicap, run over approximately 1 mile and 6 furlongs, or 1 mile 5 furlongs and 188 yards, to be precise, at York Racecourse during the so-called ‘Welcome to Yorkshire Ebor Festival’ in August each year. Inaugurated, as the Great Ebor Handicap, in 1843, the race takes it name from Eboracum, a Roman fortress town that ultimately evolved into the modern-day city of York.
The Ebor Handicap was first sponsored by the Tote in 1976 and sponsorship passed to bookmakers Betfred following their purchase of the Tote, for a report £265 million, in 2011. By that stage, the Ebor Handicap was already the most valuable flat handicap in Europe with total prize money of £210,000 and by 2017 that figure had increased to £285,000.
In 2018, Sky Bet, the sports betting division of Sky Betting & Gaming, was unveiled as the new sponsor of the Ebor Handicap. As part of a five-year sponsorship deal with York Racecourse, Sky Bet increased the total prize money for the Ebor Handicap to £500,000 in 2018 and, again, to £1,000,000 in 2019. In 2019, the race conditions were changed to exclude three-year-olds, so the Ebor Handicap is now contested by horses aged four years and upwards.
Nowadays, handicapping – that is, allocating each horse in a race weight according to its ability, such that every horse has an equal chance of winning – is performed by a team of dedicated, professional handicappers employed by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA).
However, prior to 1851, no compensation was made for horses of different abilities or different ages racing against each other. The man who effectively invented handicapping was Admiral Henry John Rous, who was elected a member of the Jockey Club in 1821, at the tender age of 26, and appointed senior steward of the Jockey Club in 1838, following his retirement from the Navy two years earlier.
In 1850, Rous published ‘The Laws and Practices of Horse Racing’ and the following year devised the first ‘weight-for-age’ scale. The weight-for-age scale, which is still in use today, describes weight allowances that younger horses receive from older rivals, over different distances at different times of year. By compensating for the lack of physical maturity in younger horses, the weight-for-age scale affords horses of different ages an equal chance of winning. Rous was renowned as an expert handicapper, especially in two-horse races, or ‘matches’, and was appointed official handicapper in 1855.
In the last two decades or so, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) has encouraged better horses to participate in the Grand National by ‘compressing’ the weights. What this means, in practical terms, is allowing horses at the top of the handicap to run off lower handicap ratings than would otherwise be the case. This, in turn, decreases the difference between the highest and lowest weighted horses in the National field, creating, at least in theory, a more competitive race.
The notion that horses at the top of the handicap had previously been disadvantaged by carrying additional weight over the extreme distance of the Grand National appears to be borne out by results since the turn of the twenty-first century. Since 2001, seven horses have carried 11st or more to victory in the National, whereas in the preceding two decades only Grittar (1982), Corbiere (1983) and Rhyme ‘N’ Reason (1988) did so. At the other end of the handicap, no horse has carried the minimum weight of 10st to victory since Bobbyjo who was, in fact, 14lb out of the handicap proper, in 1999.