What is a penalty?

In the world of horse racing, the term ‘penalty’ could, of course, refer to a disciplinary penalty, such as a financial penalty or suspension, imposed by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) on a jockey, trainer or owner for a breach of the Rules of Racing. In terms of framing individual races, though, ‘penalty’ refers to additional weight to be carried by a horse as a consequence of winning one or more previous races.

In Britain, the vast majority of horse races are handicaps, in which each horse carries a weight corresponding to its official handicap rating, as allotted by the BHA. The nature of handicap races means that a horse that wins such a race must, in the eyes of the BHA, have performed better than its current handicap rating, which should be reassessed. Unremarkably, with tens of thousands of horses in training, re-assessment does not happen overnight, but rather weekly, so it is possible that the same horse could be entered in another handicap before its rating has been re-assessed. If that happens, the horse must carry a penalty – usually 6lb or 7lb, as denoted on the racecard – to compensate.

Similar, but not identical, penalties apply in the upper echelons of British horse racing, specifically in Listed, Group 3 and Group 2 races. A horse that has previously won at, say, Group 2 level within a certain timeframe may be penalised 5lb if it later steps down a tier, to compete at Group 3 level.