Does Weight Really Matter in Horse Racing?

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Of all the handicapping factors that confuse me, none are quite as befuddling as weight.

Numerous studies have shown that a horse’s impost has next to nothing to do with its performance in today’s race, yet some of the greatest horsemen, handicappers and handicapping services consider it to be of paramount importance.

Both the “The Sheets” and “Thoro-Graph” factor weight into their speed ratings and professional gambler Bill Benter includes a horse’s impost in his mathematical algorithms as well.

And let’s not forget George E. Smith.

In Racing Maxims and Methods of Pittsburg Phil, Smith, aka “Pittsburg Phil,” said this: “In handicaps, the top weights are at a disadvantage always, unless they are very high-class horses.”

Of course, in that same book, Smith also notes that “condition has more to do with a horse winning or losing a race than the weight it carries.”

This begs the question: Which is it? Does weight matter or is it meaningless?

Well, having already confessed to being befuddled, I obviously don’t have a definitive answer, but I do have some opinions on the subject:

1) In the grand scheme of things and considering the state of handicap racing in the US (which is practically non-existent), I don’t think weight has much impact on the results of races.

2) Although the impost itself probably doesn’t mean much, the perception that it can “stop a freight train” is still very real among many in the industry. Hence, considering weight, as well as weight changes, makes sense to me.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know: on the surface, these points seem contradictive, but they’re really not.

We’ve all heard of the “placebo effect” — real improvement in one’s health or well-being based on the belief that a particular medication is working, even when it is not — right? Well, weight on/off is kind of the racing equivalent of this.

Remember when Blind Luck edged out Havre de Grace in the 2012 Delaware Handicap? Larry Jones, trainer of Havre de Grace, felt that weight played a major role in his filly’s defeat.

“Tell me two pounds does not make a difference,” the veteran conditioner lamented after the race. “[Blind Luck] won six Grade 1’s versus our one and we are the highweight? That makes a lot of sense. I probably should not have run.”

Yet two pounds to a 1,200-pound horse is like actor Richard Gere running around with a gerbil on his back… or thereabouts.

Still, if a great trainer like Larry Jones believes that two pounds can make a difference in the outcome of a horse race, isn’t it wise to play along? After all, Jones said after the Del. ‘Cap that he “probably should not have run” — solely because of the weight assignment.

Thus, isn’t it logical to conclude that some trainers don’t run a fit and ready horse if they believe the assigned weight is too high or, conversely, they do run if they think the weights are in their favor? The stats seem to bear this out.

I scoured my database of nearly 55,000 races looking for horses that spotted their rivals at least a pound and the results were not encouraging:

Horses: 17,733
Winners: 2,713
Win Rate: 15.3%
$2 Net Return: $1.35
ROI: -32.61%
IV: 1.12
OBIV: 0.77 

OBIV Key

The numbers show that such animals win more frequently (generally, higher weight is assigned to horses that better fit the race conditions and/or hold other advantages, so this is not surprising), but they are severely over-bet.

And the digits decay even more as the weight gap increases. Take a look at the numbers on horses that were spotting their rivals five pounds or more:

Horses: 863
Winners: 138
Win Rate: 16.0%
$2 Net Return: $1.14
ROI: -43.08%
IV: 1.08
OBIV: 0.73

Maybe Larry Jones was right.

Derek Simon
Derek Simon is the Senior Editor and Handicapper at US Racing.
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