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.
In recent years, in the interests of safety, the race conditions for the Grand National – particularly those relating to the eligibility of horses and jockeys – have been modified more than once. Nowadays, to be eligible to run in the National, horses must be at least seven years old and have an official handicap rating of 125 or more, according to the British Horseracing Authority (BHA). Furthermore, horses must have competed in three or more steeplechases during their careers, including at least one during the current season, and have finished first, second, third or fourth in a steeplechase over an official distance of 2 miles 7½ furlongs or beyond. To be eligible to ride in the National, jockeys, whether amateur or professional, must have ridden at least 15 winners – of which at least ten must have been in steeplechases – under the Rules of Racing in Britain or Ireland. Other changes to the race conditions for the Grand National since the turn of the century include lowering the maximum weight to be carried from 12st to 11st 12lb in 2002 and from 11st 12lb to 11st 10lb in 2009; as previously, no penalties are applied once the weights have been published.