The Spring Carnival explained: Handicaps, weights and WFA — what does it all mean?


As we move through the Melbourne Spring Racing Carnival, you will hear a lot about the terms weight, handicap and weight-for-age.

So what does it all mean, and what effect will weight have on the top contenders for the Melbourne Cup?

Let’s talk about how the Spring Carnival works, how the major races are run, and what the horses’ weight means.

What does weight have to do with racing?

The answer is a lot. Every horse that races carries an official weight — for flat races (that don’t involve jumps) outside of Group level, the most common range is usually somewhere between 54kg and 60kg.

This weight to be carried includes the weight of the jockey and the saddle. If this combined weight does not equal the official mark on race day, then small weights are placed in the saddlebags to make sure the correct amount is carried.

What is the difference between handicaps and weight-for-age (WFA) races?

There are different types of races in Australia, but three of the main ones are organised differently by the weights of horses.

Handicaps: The Caulfield Cup and Melbourne Cup are two of the most well-known examples of handicap races in Australia, but there are thousands of handicap races held every year.

The handicapper — for the Melbourne Cup, this is Racing Victoria’s Greg Carpenter — studies the past form (racing results) and earnings (prize money won), and assesses the abilities of each horse.

The handicapper allocates a weight to carry for each runner in order to achieve a theoretical result where every horse crosses the finish line together.

This means that horses with the best form will receive the biggest weights, while those with poorer (relative) results will receive lower weights.

In the Melbourne Cup, the horse with the most official weight to carry — the “topweight” — must not be allocated an initial weight of less than 58kg. The minimum weight allowed to be carried in a Melbourne Cup is 49kg.

Set weights: These races are often for younger horses (two- and three-year-olds), where the weights are set according to age and sex of the horse. This results in most horses carrying the same or similar weight, with males carrying 2kg more than the equivalent female horses.

A jockey leans forward as he rides Winx galloping towards the line in the 2018 Cox Plate with a challenger on the inside.
Despite three straight Cox Plate wins, Winx carried 57kg to victory in 2018 as she had in 2017, thanks to weight-for-age rules.  (Getty Images: Michael Dodge)

Weight-for-age (WFA): The weight-for-age scale is usually used for top-class or Group races, with horses given set weights depending on the age and sex of horses, the race distance and even month of the year when the race is held.

The most famous WFA race in Australia is the Cox Plate, held at Moonee Valley over 2,040 metres.

Under WFA, all horses carry more weight as they get older — or to put it another way, younger horses get a weight allowance in comparison with their older, more physically mature competitors.

As in set weights races, female horses carry a 2-kilo allowance over male horses of a similar age.

What do we know about winners’ weights in the Melbourne Cup?

Rekindling pips Johannes Vermeer to win the Melbourne Cup
Rekindling carried 51.5kg to win in 2017 – his 3kg advantage over Johannes Vermeer (2nd) may have made the difference. (AAP: Tracey Nearmy)

The most weight ever carried to victory in a Melbourne Cup is 66kg by Carbine in 1890. The most weight ever carried by any horse in the Cup is 68kg by the great Phar Lap in 1931.

More recently, of the last 25 winners of the Melbourne Cup just three have carried 56kg or more — Makybe Diva (58kg, 2005), Delta Blues (56kg, 2006) and Protectionist (56.5kg, 2014).

In comparison, 10 of those 25 winners — and, more, importantly, four of the last five — carried 52kg or less to victory.

So having a light weight is something of an advantage and carrying a big weight to victory requires a top horse.

What weight will Incentivise carry in the Melbourne Cup?

A jockey points in triumph as he wins a big race on Incentivise with the rest of the field trailing in behind him.
It was daylight second as Incentivise cruised to victory in the Caulfield Cup, with Brett Prebble on board.(Getty Images / Racing Photos: Scott Barbour)

The new favourite for the Melbourne Cup is Incentivise, the star horse trained by Peter Moody, previously best known for training Black Caviar.

Incentivise has stunned racing pundits with his rapid rise — the five-year-old bay gelding has gone from winning his first race at the Sunshine Coast in March to running away with the $5 million Caulfield Cup last Saturday in one of the most impressive performances in some time.

When weights first came out in September, Incentivise was initially given the weight of 55.5kg for the Melbourne Cup.

However his Caulfield Cup win, as the equal topweight, drawing the outside barrier and covering a lot of extra ground on a soft track before putting paid to rivals with ease, has led to chief handicapper Greg Carpenter giving a weight penalty of 1.5kg.

So Incentivise will carry 55.5+1.5 = 57kg in the Melbourne Cup.

Aside from Makybe Diva’s win in 2005, the last time a horse carried 57kg or more to victory was the Bart Cummings-trained Gold and Black in 1977.

What part does weight play in making the Melbourne Cup field?

In 2021, 175 horses were originally nominated for the Cup. Each of those horses had to be allocated an initial weight.

The official Order of Entry is vital — it lists horses that are qualified for the Cup or in line to qualify for the Cup from most likely to least likely.

Realm of Flowers was officially in the field as the winner of the Listed race the Andrew Ramsden Stakes in May this year — however, the horse was withdrawn last week due to illness.

Grand Promenade is automatically in the field as the winner of The Bart Cummings at Flemington in August. Incentivise is also guaranteed a start as the winner of the Caulfield Cup.

The winners of the Cox Plate, and the Hotham Handicap at Flemington on Derby Day, will be given automatic entry to the field as well.

Outside of these five race winners (four this year), the remaining spots in the 24-horse field will be determined by the Order of Entry, which changes as horses win races and receive weight penalties.

These penalties make it more likely for them to make the final field.

How do horses outside the top 24 get in?

The non-exempt section of the Order of Entry begins with last year’s Caulfield Cup winner, Verry Elleegant, carrying 57kg.

Below that horse is last year’s Melbourne Cup winner, Twilight Payment, who is down to carry 58kg, and will be the “topweight” for this year’s race.

A jockey raises the whip in triumph as he rides his horse past the post to win the Melbourne Cup.
Twilight Payment won last year’s Melbourne Cup – the Irish horse will be topweight as he tries to go back-to-back in 2021.(AAP: James Ross)

The order runs down to the horses who are not yet eligible for the Cup ballot on 50 kgs.

For horses outside the top 24, as the Cup gets closer connections wait anxiously for word of horses above them in the Order of Entry withdrawing from the race or losing their chance to make the field due to injury or poor form.

While horses can expect to move up several spots through these sort of withdrawals, there is a limit to how far you can rise up the list.

For those lower down, they must win a race like the Geelong Cup or the Moonee Valley Cup and hope to win well enough to earn a weight penalty for them to jump high enough on the list, or throw everything at the Hotham Handicap on Derby Day as the last chance to get a spot.

This week Tralee Rose won the Geelong Cup. There was no weight penalty given, but the $240,000 in prize money — coupled with the withdrawal of Montefilia, Dawn Patrol and King Of Leogrance — lifted the Symon Wilde-trained horse from 27th to 20th in order, guaranteeing her a start.


Last year, Ashrun made a late charge down the outside of the Flemington straight to beat Sound on the line in the Hotham and grab the final place in the field. He went on to finish 10th in the Cup.


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