The NZTBA commissions New Zealand's Chief Handicapper, currently Mr Dean
Nowell, to frame the Free Handicaps for two-year-olds and three-year-olds, at the end of each season.
From 1980 until 1993 there were two Handicaps, one for two-year-olds and one for three-year-olds. In 1994 two sub-categories for three-year-olds, 1200m-1600m, and 1601m-plus were introduced.
The Free Handicap assigns a weight in kg to each horse for a hypothetical race within a stated distance range in which all ranked horses would start. Thus, it is an assessment of each horse in relation to its peers, although the handicapper inevitably has an eye on how the best horses of each generation rank against each other.
Although the weights express the handicapper's judgement of each horse's form only in the season under review, it is always interesting to see how weighted horses perform in subsequent seasons. For example, in the first quarter of 2006-07, Seachange (given 57 kg in the 2005-06 NZ 3yo Free Handicap, 1200-1600m) defeated Darci Brahma (who headed the same category with 61 kg) twice at weight-for-age in the first two legs of the Hawke's Bay Spring Triple Crown, run at 1400 and 1600 metres. Legs (given 57 kg in the 2005-06 3yo Free Handicap, 1601m-plus) then beat Seachange in the final leg, the Ormond Memorial G1 over 2000 metres.
Naturally, the Free Handicaps spark lively discussion and debate within the racing community about the relative merits of horses from different generations.
Was Xcellent one kilogram better than Veandercross? Was King's Chapel the equal of Sunline at three? Would Mi Jubilee have been a match for Ballroom Babe at two? How does McGinty, given 59.5 kg at two, and 59 kg at three, compare with Jokers Wild (60 kg at two and three)?
See Free Handicap Champions for interesting comparisons of the top-weighted New Zealand horses since 1980; and the Free Handicaps Archive for all horses assessed since 2001-02.