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I have heard many times that the idea of horse race handicapping is that the handicapper aims to arrange that all the horses cross the finish line at the same time. But I am a little bit sceptical that this is really what is going on. If it were really true then you would expect certain behaviours that I simply do not see. Take for example the Grand National (which has around 40 entrants). If handicapping really worked then you would expect:

  1. Nobody would have any clue whatsoever about who might win until after the handicapper had chosen the weights.

  2. All the discussion around who might win would revolve around the handicap and the idea of talking about a horses abilities without reference to the handicap would be plain silly.

  3. It would be every bit as likely that a really slow donkey of a horse would win as a superstar.

  4. The chances that the previous winner would be favourite to win would be very slim (approx 1 in 40).

  5. The chances of a horse ever winning three times (i.e. Red Rum) would be incredibly small (approx 1 in 40x40x40 which is 1 in 64,000).

Now I'm not really a horse racing buff, so maybe I haven't been paying enough attention, but I haven't really seen that these things have been happening. Can anyone clarify what is going on?

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    When you say that you haven't really seen that these things have been happening, can you provide some examples that led you to that conclusion? – Dr.DrfbagIII May 3 '16 at 15:28
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    As I said, I may not have been paying attention, but with regard 1, if handicapping was critical then with a race as big as the grand national you may expect the handicap weights to be announced with a little fanfare (like the draw for the football world cup) but I have never seen the GN handicap announcement ceremony. With regard 2, I have never heard any TV punter even talk about the handicap weights in the GN. After Red Rum won a third time I don't remember people going round saying "my goodness, that handicapper did a lousy job". – Mick May 3 '16 at 15:43
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Just found this blog post containing the sentence: "There is convincing evidence that superior horses are not always penalised enough in UK racing."

I guess the whole idea of handicapping is to marginally reduce the gap between first and last but not to eliminate it altogether.

  • What is this "convincing evidence"? Doing a quick look into your question (not enough knowledge to form an answer), although the aim of handicapping is to "even out" the field, there are many factors to consider. However, the most important factors (cited in multiple sources), are speed and pace. From an outsider's, unbiased standpoint, no matter how handicapped the horse is from its speed and pace, it is more likely to overcome because of its supreme capability in those areas. That said, I could be wrong... – user527 May 4 '16 at 16:06
  • "Other factors affecting the outcome of a race are track condition, weather, weight that the horses have to carry, daily bias of the racing surface, and many more factors that the handicapper cannot know." If this statement from Wikipedia (in lieu of a more appropriate source) is true, then handicapping is based on controlled variables (or controlled in the sense that it's objectively measurable and handled accordingly) and the uncontrolled variables are the reason why your expectations are not met. – user527 May 4 '16 at 16:28
  • @mastermind_ed: your arguments do not explain why the (inherently) fastest horse is still so prone to winning. I suggest you read the article linked to in my answer. – Mick May 4 '16 at 16:50
  • I don't have arguments...just observing from the outside looking in. I suggest to list this "convincing evidence," even if it is "F = m * a" and/or "its feasible one horse is handicapped significantly more compared to others, but not enough based on its ability." I find it weird I can't find anything on the "fastest horses" to fully see your point. – user527 May 4 '16 at 17:57

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