There are approximately 15,000 horses currently in training in the UK. Clearly all horses are not created equally, with a broad range of ability represented across this range of runners. In order to create competitive, exciting races, a method is required to rate individual horses. The method used is the handicap ratings system.
The British Horse Racing Authority is responsible for assessing the ability of each individual horse based on their performances at the racetrack. The BHA expresses this assessment in the form of an official rating which is assigned to every runner in the UK. In addition to helping create a ranking system for racehorses, the ratings system also assists with the framing of competitive racing. It does this through its use in determining how much weight a horse will carry in an individual contest. One ratings point equates to one pound of weight.
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Let’s take an example of two horses pitted against one another in a handicap race. The first horse has an official rating of 100 with the second rated 95. The aim of a handicap race is to give each horse an equal chance of winning, therefore in our example the first horse would be required to carry 5lbs more weight than the second in order to create a level playing field. Ratings are continually assessed and updated to take account of either improving or declining performances.
A look at the highest rated horses of all time will help give some perspective to the ratings. Frankel is the highest rated flat horse with a mark of 140. Ratings aren’t quite as established in jumps racing, having only been used comprehensively since the late 1970’s. Kauto Star’s peak rating of 190 makes him the best chaser of modern times with Istabraq top of the hurdling tree on 176.
In order to provide opportunities for all the horses in training to race competitively, a racing classifications system has been created. The fixture list is framed to include races which are only open to horses within a specified ratings band. For example a Class Three 76-90 handicap is only open to horses with an official rating between 76 and 90.
Whilst all standards are catered for, a regular programme of top class races is spread throughout the season. These top tier events are referred to as “pattern races”. Both flat and jumps (National Hunt) racing have their own racing classifications.
Flat Racing Classifications
Group One, Two and Three Races: These are the real top level events. Group One races are the highest class of race run in the UK, they include the 1,000 Guineas, the 2,000 Guineas, the Derby, the Oaks and the St Leger. Together these five races are known as the Classics of the British flat racing season. All horses carry the same weight in these top-class races regardless of their official rating (though fillies and mares generally get a small weight allowance in races in which they run against colts and geldings). Here we get to really see who the best of the best is.
Listed Races: Races contested by horses just below Group class. These can be either handicap or non-handicap events.
Conditions Stakes: Races for which the weight is determined by the age and sex of the runner rather than the official rating. Colts and geldings carry more weight than fillies and mares. Older horses carry more weight than younger animals by virtue of having reached a greater physical maturity.
Classified Stakes: For horses who have run at least three times or run twice with at least one win. Restricted to animals with a rating at or below a specified figure. Horses above the specified rating are permitted to enter, but the excess of their rating must be carried as additional weight.
Maiden: This is where the majority of horses start their racing careers. Maidens are races for horses who have never won a race and are predominantly races for two-year-olds. Any horse who wins a maiden is automatically given a rating making them eligible for handicaps. For those runners who don’t manage to win, three maiden runs are required before a rating is assigned.
Auction Maiden: A maiden race restricted to those horses to have been sold at public auction for a value not exceeding a specified amount.
Median Auction Maiden: These are restricted maidens. They are open to any two-year-old whose sire has produced two or more yearlings to have been sold at auction in the previous year. The median price of these sales must not exceed a specified amount.
Nursery: A handicap for two-year-olds.
Maiden Handicap: For maidens aged three and upwards with a maximum rating of 70. Each runner must also have run a minimum of four times.
Novice: Open to two or three-year-olds who have not won more than twice.
Novice Auction: A novice race restricted to horses sold at public auction for a value not exceeding a specified amount.
Claiming Stakes: In these races the BHA sets the maximum weight a horse may carry. They also set a maximum and minimum claim price for the race. Connections then determine how much weight they would like their runner to carry. There is a penalty however, for every pound below the maximum weight, there is a corresponding decrease in the claiming price. For example a horse carrying the maximum weight in a claiming race with a maximum claiming price of £14,000 would cost £14,000. In our example race the penalty for reducing the weight by one pound is a £1,000 lowering of the claiming price. So, if connections of another horse in the race opted to reduce the weight carried by their runner by seven pounds, then it could be claimed (bought) after the race for £7,000.
Seller: After these races the winner is offered for public auction.
Apprentice: Restricted to apprentice jockeys. When competing against professional jockeys, apprentices are allowed to reduce the weight carried by their mount. This is known as an apprentices allowance and can vary from 3-10lbs. No allowances can be claimed in an apprentice only race.
Amateurs: Restricted to amateur jockeys.
Ladies: Restricted to female amateurs and apprentices.
Gentleman: Restricted to male amateurs
Handicaps: Those races where the weight carried is determined by the official rating of the horse. Handicaps are grouped into classes, with class one being for the highest rated and class seven for the lowest.
- Class 1 Listed Handicaps for horses rated 96-110+.
- Class 2 This includes the Heritage Handicaps. The rating bands for this class are 86-100, 91-105 and 96-110.
- Class 3 The ratings band for this class are 76-90 and 81-95
- Class 4 For horses rated 66-80 and 71-85
- Class 5 For horses rated 56-70 and 61-75
- Class 6 For horses rated 46-60 and 51-65.
- Class 7 Generally these are classified stakes races for horses rated 0-45.
National Hunt (Jumps) Racing Classifications
As with flat racing, National Hunt racing is divided into quality bands which are referred to as classes. Again Class One is for the highest standard of runners with Class Six being for the lowest. A general breakdown for the type of race found in each class is:
- Class 1 Pattern (Grade One, Two and Three) and Listed races
- Class 2 Open Handicaps and Handicaps 0-140+
- Class 3 Handicaps 0-120 and 0-135 and Novice Handicaps 0-120 and 0-135
- Class 4 Handicaps 0-100 and 0-115 and Novice Handicaps 0-100 and 0-115
- Class 5 Handicaps 0-85 and 0-95 and Novice Handicaps 0-85 and 0-95
- Class 6 National Hunt Flat Races and Hunter’s Steeplechases
Amongst these classes there are various types of races. The BHA aims to provide the opportunity for all horses to run at the racetrack. We can see from the types of races offered that there really is something for everyone.
Graded Races: These are the highest class of races. Much like the flat they offer the chance to see the very best runners competing against one another. Weight allowances for age apply in some races and mares receive an allowance in even the top events. There are three Grades: One, Two and Three. All the championship level events are Grade Ones (for example, the Cheltenham Gold Cup). Grade Two events include limited range handicaps and races with weight penalties for previous victories. Grade Three races come next and tend to be valuable open handicaps.
Listed Races: These are races just below group class.
Handicap Hurdle/Chase: As with flat races where the weight carried is determined by the official rating of the horse.
National Hunt Flat (Bumpers): Flat races usually over a trip of two miles. Restricted to horses between the ages of four and six who have either not previously run at all, or have only ever run in bumpers. Many national hunt horses gain their first race course experience in these races.
Maiden Hurdle/Chase: For horses who have not previously won a hurdle/chase race.
Novice Hurdle: Restricted to horses who had not won a hurdle race prior to the start of the current season. A winner of a novice hurdle may run in another such event in the same season but would have to carry a winner’s weight penalty.
Beginner Chase: Restricted to horses who had not won a chase race prior to the start of the current season. A winner of a beginners’ chase may run in another such event in the same season but would have to carry a winner’s weight penalty
Juvenile Novice Hurdle: Hurdle race restricted to horses aged three at the start of the current season.
Novice Handicap: Is open to horses who, before the beginning of the current season, had not won a race.
Hunter Chase: As the name implies these are chases for hunters. Horses must have been used for the purpose of hunting in the current year, as certified by the Master of Hounds. These are weight-for-age chases and only feature amateur jockeys.
Conditional Jockeys: For conditional jockeys only. A conditional jockey is the jumping equivalent of an apprentice.
Amateurs: For amateur jockeys only.
Claiming Stakes: The horse’s weight is determined by the price placed on them by connections. The lower the claiming price the lower the weight carried. Horses can be bought (or claimed) by other owners and trainers for the specified price after the race. (See flat racing section for a more detailed explanation.)
Selling Hurdle/Chase: Low class races where the winner is offered for public auction after the race.