When watching sport, uncertainty of outcome is often what drives interest. Contests where the outcome is predictable are often criticised for being boring. Although some might argue that watching a dominant champion can increase interest in a sport (think of Tiger Woods or Roger Federer over the past 15 years), almost everyone accepts uncertainty of outcome is desirable at some level.
Sports governing bodies employ a variety of techniques in order to increase uncertainty of outcome, with varying levels of success. Some sports are more amenable to levelling the playing field than others. For example, in football financial fair play rules are an attempt to restrict dominate teams from becoming even more powerful. The success of these rules is debatable.
A sport where uncertainty of outcome is more readily tackled is horse racing. The most widespread means to generate uncertainty of outcome is through the handicapping process. For those unfamiliar with the sport, each horse has a handicap rating. In Ireland at the moment this is a number between 65 and 177 (see full list here). Don Cossack is the highest rated National Hunt horse running in Ireland today on a rating of 177. In theory, this rating predicts that this horse would beat every other horse in training.
In order to overcome the predictability this would bring, handicapping is used, with higher rated horses carrying more weight in races. This process increases uncertainty of outcome, as the ability of the horse is not the only consideration when attempting to predict the outcome of a race.
Recently my father presented me with a list of the of the top 15 most valuable jump races during the 2016-2017 season (presented to the right). The races marked in red are handicaps. The other races are those where equal weights are carried by all horse (gender concessions still apply).
The biggest prize is a handicap – the world famous Aintree Grand National. As is the 3rd biggest (Irish equivalent). In fact, almost half of the list are handicaps. In total the list adds to €5,610,400. The Aintree Grand National is more than 20% of this amount. In total, the seven handicaps are worth €2,824,000 (50.34%).
The irony here of course is that the best horses generally don’t run in handicaps. It is difficult to conceive lesser athletes in baseball, football, basketball, rugby, tennis, golf, etc. playing for more prize money than elite athletes. This just does not happen. The best players play for the biggest prizes.
Incentives prevent handicapping of this sort being introduced in most human sports as it would act as a disincentive to top performers. Horse racing is fortunate in this regard and interest in handicap races on these islands is as popular as ever. In fact, given the distriubtion of prizemoney above it's likely 'better' horses will appear more frequently in handicaps in the months ahead.