The Punting Club Masterclass – A pro punter’s guide to how handicapping and ratings can work for you

I was once advised by two fellow professionals, both of whom I had the greatest respect for, not to bother with personal handicapping.

“It’s a waste of time,” they told me. “You can get it wrong far too often.”

Both were talking from their own past experiences, and as indicated by their advice they did not find it a worthwhile thing to do.

However, particularly for handicaps (which make up the majority of races), I have found it essential to have my own ratings database, allowing me to compare to the official handicapping system and exploit any potential discrepancies, and I have developed a system that I use for jump racing.

Room for interpretation leads to mistakes

It is important to recognise that the handicap rating given to any horse is somebody’s opinion.

Granted, it is based upon evidence, but nonetheless it is the official handicapper who allocates a horse their BHA rating.

The official handicapper will usually calculate a rating only on what a horse has achieved on the racecourse, which equates to their finishing position in a race, but they may also take into account other circumstances, such as fallers who might have won and winners who were eased down at the finish.

A rating can also be raised retrospectively if a particular race has worked out well and might be lowered if a race has worked out disappointingly.

These allowances are made solely at the handicapper’s discretion and are purely subjective.

In the case of the commercial handicappers such as the Racing Post or Timeform, it is the experts who work for these organisations who allocate the ratings. Similarly to the official handicapper, they will also take into account particular race circumstances when formulating their ratings.

So although the handicap system is based on weights and measures, there is plenty of room left for interpretation.

I was fascinated to see how the ratings I formulated would compare with the official ones and whether it would be financially beneficial for me to continue working in that way. That process began more than 25 years ago and still continues.

The handicap system is based on weights and measures but there is plenty of room left for interpretation – Edward Whitaker.


At the outset there were certain areas of the system that could be exploited. For example, novice chasers moving into handicaps were given an overly generous allowance; the weight for age received by four-year-olds in chases was too great; horses who had been off the track for a season or more were being dropped in the handicap far too much; and Irish-trained horses moving to Britain were having their handicap marks translated to the British system at a much lower level than was merited.

These anomalies often went unnoticed in the betting markets. They have been rectified over time and those edges have vanished, but others still exist.

Finding your edge

In calculating ratings, visual impressions are important but can be misleading.

A horse who looks to have won impressively by ten lengths can often be overrated. In contrast, a horse can show distinct ability but due to many possible reasons can finish well beaten and be rated accordingly.

Distance, ground, track, fitness, experience, time, race pace and jockeyship are just some of the key factors to consider when evaluating any race and the performances of horses in that race.

You’re looking for horses whose bare form doesn’t reflect the level of ability they have shown, one obvious example being those bred for longer trips who have found conditions too sharp.

Depending on the improvement I estimate a horse to be capable of, I can rate them up in a way that the official handicapper is unable to do. I will also add ‘+’ or ‘++’ for improvement I estimate could be forthcoming.

It is with time and experience that you learn how to identify and weigh up all of these aspects, although often even experienced commentators will make broad assumptions when analysing a race, such as claiming that because a horse is running off a higher mark than they have won off previously that horse will need to improve to win. Statements like this are far too simplistic and don’t consider the nuance of each race.

The aim in formulating my ratings is to be able to highlight a horse’s level of ability ahead of the official handicapper. This can be a horse I have identified as having shown more ability than their official rating indicates as well as horses who have a rating higher than they are able to perform to.

However, when evaluating any race, the race ratings are just a part of the examination that is set.

First, each horse needs to be analysed individually and then the entire race assessed as a whole. My ratings and comments act as the backbone that give me a starting point when studying each day’s racing and I would find it very difficult to operate without them.

Stop trying to back winners

One of the biggest myths about the professional gambler is that people believe the purpose of doing the form work and getting ‘inside contacts’ is to find the winner of a race and then pile into it.

In fact, the biggest mistake amateurs make is that they go into form study in order to find the winner of a race. This is an impossible task.

The purpose of the work is to formulate the best odds possible; that’s all a mere mortal can do. No amount of form work will mean you know the winner.

A winning punter becomes a winning punter because they have a better understanding of the probabilities and can therefore assess the odds on a race more accurately than the market.

The more knowledge you have, the greater the likelihood of achieving this.

Repeatedly betting with this advantage will eventually lead to success.

RACING POST – September 2022

RACING POST – The Punting Club Masterclass – August 2022

There’s one question I’ve been most asked more than any other over the last 30-plus years as a pro punter: “How do you make it pay?”

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Professional backer – Horse Racing Advisory Service