How Does Handicapping Work in the Grand National?

Horses Jumping Fence

Aintree’s crown jewel – and the biggest steeplechase contest run anywhere in the world – of course needs very little introduction, with the name of the Grand National being recognisable from Merseyside to Melbourne, and just about everywhere in between!

However, whilst the names of legendary winners such as Red Rum and the current era’s very own Tiger Roll, together with famous fences such as Becher’s Brook and The Chair, may be familiar to even those with only a passing interest in the sport, what perhaps isn’t so widely understood is exactly how the conditions of the race are set. Specifically, why do the runners carry the weights they do? In other words, what are the factors that affect the handicapping of the Grand National?

Handicap Races

Unlike many other high profile National Hunt contests, including the likes of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Champion Hurdle and the King George VI Chase, which are run as level weights affairs – with the exception of mares and age allowances – the Grand National is run as a handicap race. What this means in practice is that whilst the purpose of the Gold Cup is to crown a champion of the sport by determining who is in fact the best of the best when granted a level playing field, the aim of the Grand National (or indeed any handicap race) is to provide each of the runners with an (at least theoretically) equal chance of winning.

The manner in which this handicapping is achieved in the sport of horse racing is through the requirement that the more talented performers in the field carry more weight than their less able rivals. In a standard handicap race these weights are determined by a horse’s official rating – a rating assigned by the British Horse Racing Authority’s (BHA) official handicapper, and based upon a horses past performances. This official rating – also referred to as the horse’s “mark” – is a fluid measure, often going up following a good run, or being decreased on the back of a poor performance.

Another important point to note about a handicap race is that each contest will specify a maximum and minimum weight – a common example in National Hunt racing – including the Grand National – being a maximum weight of 11st10lbs and a minimum weight of 10st. This effectively means that no horse in the race may carry more than 11st10lb or less than 10st – no matter what their official rating. In practice, the horse with the highest official rating will be assigned the specified top-weight, with the weights to be carried by the other runners then being set in relation to this.

Before going on to look at how this handicapping procedure varies slightly when it comes to the Grand National, we will first take a look at how it looks in practice by considering two theoretical runners competing in a handicap race.

  • Horse A, Dave The Rave, is the top-rated runner in the race with an official rating of 174.
  • Horse B, Bobbajob, is set to line up in the same contest and has an official rating of 160.

In this instance Dave The Rave will be assigned the specified top weight of 11st10lb and (because in the ratings world one ratings point equates to one pound in weight) Bobbajob will be saddled with 10st10lb, i.e. 14lb less than Dave The Rave.

Grand National Tweaks

The process outlined above explains how handicapping works in the vast majority of handicap races. As alluded to though, things are ever so slightly different when it comes to the Grand National.

A handicap it may be, but the Grand National is a unique contest in relation to the manner in which the weights to be carried by the runners are assigned – being the only race in which the BHA’s head of handicapping frames the weights specifically to reflect a horse’s chances in this individual race, rather than using the official handicap mark which represents the runner’s general level of ability.

That is not to say that a runner’s official rating is irrelevant when it comes to the Grand National – far from it – as these official ratings do still form the base from which the BHA handicapper works when assessing the National. Many runners will in fact end up running off their official rating, but the ratings of certain contenders may be altered for the Grand National. There are two main reasons why these alterations are made; namely a process referred to as compression, and what is known as the “Aintree Factor”.

Compression of The Weights

The aim of compression is to decrease the gap between the top rated and lowest rated runners in the Grand National. In practice this has generally been achieved simply by allowing the higher rated runners in the field to run from a mark which is lower than their official rating – bringing them back to the pack in ratings terms. There are those who criticise the crudeness of this method – and it does seem to hand an unfair advantage to those runners who are able to run off a reduced mark – but there is a theory behind this practice, which does also seem to be backed up by the stats for the great race.

The theory goes that it is that much more difficult to successfully shoulder a high weight under the gruelling conditions of a Grand National than it is in a more regular chase. It does seem to make sense for instance that it would be tougher to carry the 11st10lb top weight around the 4m2½f and huge fences of the Grand National, than it would be in a more standard three mile chase. This theory has support from the results of the race – with no winner carrying more than 11st to victory between the years of 1984 and 2009. It seems that these higher rated runners possibly do need a little helping hand – which is where compression comes in.

Consider a 174 rated runner set to line up in the National. By assigning this runner a Grand National mark of 170 – as opposed to that official rating of 174 – the horse will likely still be the highest rated runner in the field, and so be required to carry that top weight of 11st10lb – however if the marks of those runners lower in the handicap are left to race off their official ratings, our top weighted runner will be relatively better off.

Going back to our previous example of the 174 rated Dave The Rave, and 160 rated Bobbajob, we can see that under standard handicap conditions, Bobbajob should carry 14lbs less than Dave The Rave. However, should Dave The Rave’s mark be “compressed” to 170, and Bobbajob’s left unchanged on 160, this disparity in weight carried will be reduced to 10lbs, making the top-weighted runner’s task that bit easier.

Initially devised and applied prior to the 2001 edition of the race, it has taken a little while, but with four winners carrying over 11st between 2010 and 2019, recent evidence would suggest that this process has achieved the objective of levelling the playing field between the higher and lower weighted runners.

One additional benefit compression has had is in increasing the general quality of the race. Possibly due to the appeal of being able to compete off a mark lower than their official rating, connections of the higher rated chasers in training have seemed more willing to enter their stars in the national since this process was first introduced. There are of course those who argue that the softening of the fences and huge increase in prize money in recent years may also have something to do with this.

The final notable benefit of compressing the weights is that it allows more runners to carry the correct weight during the race. With the gap between the maximum weight of 11st10lb and minimum weight of 10st being 24lb – and one pound equating to one ratings point – any runner rated more than 24lbs below the top weight, would still be required to carry this minimum weight. Such runners would then theoretically be at a disadvantage – a situation known as having to run from “out of the handicap”.

Again using Dave The Rave as an example, this would mean that should he be set to run off his official rating of 174, then any rival rated below 150 would still be saddled with the minimum 10st, and would so carry more weight than they should from a handicapping standpoint. By reducing Dave The Rave’s mark to 170, this lowers this basement value to 146 – allowing more runners to race from within the handicap. This process in tandem with the generally increasing quality of the race looks to have put an end to the days when the Grand National field contained swathes of runners carrying the minimum of 10st – many of whom were racing from well out of the handicap.

The Aintree Factor

Aintree Racecourse Empty
Aintree Racecourse

Credit – Rept0n1x / CC BY-SA

Next we come to the “Aintree Factor”. Considering the unique challenge that this race represents, both in terms of the marathon trip, and especially the formidable obstacles which stand between the competitors and glory, it is surely worth paying particular attention to a runner’s ability to handle the conditions when allocating those Grand National ratings.

And indeed this is the case, with previous good performances over the National fences, in a trial such as the Becher or Topham Chase, or particularly in the Grand National itself being a major factor in the thinking of the BHA Handicapper when determining the ratings ahead of the latest edition of the Aintree showpiece.

This Aintree factor can often offset, or completely cancel out, the effects of compression – a fact well illustrated by the weights carried by previous winners of the race in recent years.

  • 2015 winner Many Clouds only received one pound of compression when returning in 2016.
  • Ballabriggs received none at all when defending his crown in 2012.
  • 2009 champ Mon Mome, meanwhile, was actually assigned a mark two pounds higher than his official rating when lining up in 2010.

The Task Facing Tiger Roll

When looking at the next edition of the race, one runner who will likely be affected by both the compression and Aintree Factors is the living legend that is Tiger Roll. Having been there and done it on the biggest stage of all, not once, but twice, there will be plenty willing to bet that the Gordon Elliott star can join Red Rum as a three-time winner of the race.

We will of course now have to wait until 2021 to see the Tiger in action over the big fences once again due to the postponement of the 2020 in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. But just how much tougher will his task be next time around? The best way to consider this is to look at the challenge from a handicapping perspective, when compared to his previous triumphs in 2018 and 2019 – and using the Grand National rating he had been assigned for the now abandoned 2020 edition of the race as a guide to what he can expect in 2021.

Looking back to 2018, Tiger Roll lined up off a mark of 150 – fully 11lbs below that year’s top rated runner, Blaklion – and was saddled with 10st13lb. The Gigginstown star of course prevailed by a rapidly diminishing head from the fast finishing Pleasant Company that year.

Given that narrow margin of victory, Tiger Roll seemed to have been set a pretty tall order in being handed a mark of 159 ahead of the 2019 renewal. However, Tiger Roll has been a fast improving horse for the past few seasons now, and in between the time of the weights for the National being released and the race taking place, he had turned the Cross Country Chase at the Cheltenham Festival into a procession. That 22-length romp resulted in an increase in his mark to 167, meaning he was actually eight pounds well in on the day of the race. As such it wasn’t the biggest surprise to see him come home two and three quarter lengths to the good in relatively comfortable style under a weight of 11st5lb.

On the bare form of that win, the rating of 170 handed to Tiger Roll ahead of the 2020 edition looked perfectly fair on the grounds that one pound is generally thought to be roughly equivalent to one length. Officially rated 171, that also gives Tiger Roll one pound of compression, which some may view as generous given his undoubted ability under the conditions. Possibly of more significance than his rating though, is the fact that he will now likely be the top-weighted runner in the race and so saddled with the welter burden of 11st10lb.

A look at the past 10 winners of the race outlines the challenge facing the two-time champion. If Tiger Roll is to make it three, he will become the highest rated winner in the past 10 years, and also the first to carry more than 11st9lb to victory.

Year Horse Weight Carried Rating
2019 Tiger Roll 11st 5lb 159
2018 Tiger Roll 10st 13lb 150
2017 One For Arthur 10st 11lb 148
2016 Rule The World 10st 7lb 148
2015 Many Clouds 11st 9lb 160
2014 Pineau De Re 10st 6lb 143
2013 Auroras Encore 10st 3lb 137
2012 Neptune Collonges 11st 6lb 157
2011 Ballabriggs 11st 150
2010 Don’t Push It 11st 5lb 153

In short, Tiger Roll does face a tougher task than he has in previous years, both by virtue of now having to concede weight to the entire field, and having to carry more weight in real terms. A tougher task, but not an impossible one!