Handicap races or handicaps are horse races in which each horse carries a different amount of weight in an attempt to equalize the field. Different regions of the world have different attitudes about handicap races; in some cases, they are reserved for less distinguished horses, while in other regions, handicaps represent the cream of the crop. In all cases, handicap races tend to make more money for the track, and they are also profitable for those who choose to bet on them, although the odds can be risky.
A handicap is based on the basic concept that different horses have different levels of ability. In a normal race, the best horse will win, sometimes by many lengths. In a handicap, each horse is assigned a certain weight, in the hope that heavier weights will slow more accomplished athletes, while lighter weights will give less talented horses an edge. The ultimate ideal is for all the horses to cross the finish line at the same time, although this rarely happens.
Weights are assigned by a handicapper, an official who ranks horses on the basis of their past race performances. Some handicappers also keep an eye on the exercise regimens of the horses, in the hopes of noting marked improvements in time and general performance. Handicappers typically rate horses on a weekly basis, so that they can quickly assign weights once a field for a race has been established.
In some cases, trainers or owners may feel that their horses are being burdened with too much weight. In that case, they may take the horse out of the race in protest. In other instances, people may withdraw their horses because they think that the distribution of weight is simply unfair; for example, they may object if a strong athlete is assigned a strangely low weight. Owners may also appeal to the handicapper, asking for a re-evaluation of the horse in question.
Since handicapping is designed to level the field, the odds on handicap races can get very interesting. People who bet on these races need to track racing trends very closely, as small things can make or break a horse in a handicap race. Betting may get very high on a handicap race, which works out well for the track hosting the event, since most tracks use a parimutuel betting system, in which the track gets a take of the bets. Handicap races may also be accompanied by a great deal of publicity, especially when famous rivals are going to the post together.