A handicap race in horse racing is a race in which horses carry different weights, allocated by the handicapper. A better horse will carry a heavier weight, to give him or her a disadvantage when racing against slower horses. The handicapper's goal in assigning handicap weights is to enable all the horses to finish together (in a dead heat).
The skill in betting on a handicap race lies in guessing which horse can overcome his or her handicap. Although most handicap races are run for older, less valuable horses, this is not true in all cases; some great races are handicaps, such as the Grand National steeplechase in England and the Melbourne Cup in Australia. In the United States over 30 handicap races are classified as Grade I, the top level of the North American grading system. Handicaps are less common in harness racing, where handicapping is by increased distance rather than increased weight.
Handicap races are also common in clubs which encourage all levels of participants, such as swimming or in cycling clubs, or which allow participants with a variety of standards of equipment, such as some forms of car or yacht racing. In this case, the winner on elapsed time may differ from the winner when the times have been adjusted for the different competitors' handicaps.
Alternatively, in a 'pursuit' style handicap race, all participants are clocked in a time trial before the race. When this takes place at the same event as the main race, it is known as the handicap. In the race itself, the participants do not all start at the same "Go"; the starts are staggered, based on the handicaps. The slowest swimmer (or cyclist) starts first and the fastest starts last, making the end of the race (hopefully) close. An ideal handicap race (as in horse racing) is one in which all participants finish at the same time. The winner is the person who beats his or her own time.
Some motorsport events, especially in sports car racing, demand teams to stop the vehicle in the pitbox a fixed period of time depending on the drivers' classification, thus giving advantage to less skilled drivers. An example of a championship using this system is the International GT Open. The advantage of this system over ballast weight systems is that vehicles have the normal performance on track, so better drivers will be able to recover time and overtake slower drivers.
The term handicap race originated in the late 18th century, based on the 17th-century trading game hand-in-cap, that involved trading possessions and an umpire deciding the difference in value. Money was put in a cap for the traders to put their hands in, to simultaneously draw them out full or empty to indicate agreement or disagreement on the affair. In the 19th century, the term handicap was first used to describe the weight placed on the stronger horses to even up the race, and later the term was used by analogy to describe the heavier burden carried by people with physical disabilities.
-  British Horseracing Authority. Accessed February 5, 2011.
- "History of the PY" (PDF). Royal Yachting Association. Retrieved 23 June 2013.
-  UK Horse Racing. Accessed February 5, 2011.
- "Definition of handicap in Oxford Dictionaries (British & World English)". Retrieved 12 April 2013.