Off the Track – The Handicapper

The art of handicapping has become synonymous with horseracing in the US. A handicapper is a person who tries to predict not only the winner of each race but also which horses will place second and third. The dictionary defines handicapping as "the placing of advantages or disadvantages upon competitors to equalize the chances of their winning”. Down the years, organizers have tried several methods of laying the track to equalize the chances of all entries. At one point they experimented by allowing inferior horses to have a start of a length or less over the better horses. However, by trial and error, handicapping was left principally to the weight of the odds.

The track handicapper, by his assignment of weights to each horse, gives them a pat on the rump and says: "You can do it, old boy!" In addition to his own judgment, good or bad, a track handicapper is aided or sometimes hindered by elaborate scales of weights drawn up for particular situations. The Kentucky Derby, for example, is weight for age, and since all entries are three-year-olds, each carries 126 pounds. Fillies are given a five-pound advantage and carry only 121 pounds. Most of the weight, of course, is taken up by the jockey. If a boy weighs 108 pounds and his horse is to carry 120, the 12 pounds are made up with lead in the saddlebags. Many contend that a pound of "dead" weight actually had the effect upon the horse of a pound and a half of "live" weight.

There are formulas, too, which the track handicapper applies for horses that have won so many races or so much money. Usually, a horse that wins a race is assigned more weight in his next race unless he is being entered with a much higher class of animal.

It can be readily seen then that the fan and the expert on the racing paper are not "handicapping." They are not trying to bring the horse to the finish line in a tie because, if every fan in the grandstand wins, the track goes broke and the horses must shift for themselves.

In other words, the job of the track handicapper is to scramble all the conditions in such a way that any horse can win. The job of the fan or expert is to unscramble these conditions so that the one horse that will stand out over the others, is picked for laying stakes on. In effect, what the fan and racing paper expert try to do is finding flaws or loopholes in the work of the track handicapper.

The contest of wits between the expert selector and the track handicapper becomes paradoxical when it is realized that both use the same variables to arrive at their decisions. The track handicapper takes into account the horse's age, speed, consistency, etc. and then assigns a weight. The selector takes the same variables and finally arrives at a horse, which he believes is the best amongst the entries.

The track handicapper must do his work far in advance of known track conditions that will prevail at race time. Selectors on racing papers must also make selections in advance and track conditions may change. The player, however, can make his selections at the very last minute before the horses reach the post.

The job of a track handicapper is a complicated one. He should be well aware of all the parameters that affect the horses and should arrange the weight tables in such a way that the race appeals to the public.

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