Racing: Sporting Vernacular 5. Handicap

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The Independent Online
WHEN THE County Hurdle rounds off Cheltenham on Thursday, the handicapper's work will be done. "Handicap" originally referred to a gambling game: two parties put up a possession (a watch, say) against the other. An umpire adjudicated on the relative values while the parties put their hands in a hat (hand i' cap).

At the verdict the players withdrew their hand with a different sign (cf the paper-stone-scissors game) according to whether they wanted to proceed or not. If they agreed, the umpire took the money; if not, whoever voted to proceed won the cash. In the 18th century, when an umpire ruled on a weight disadvantage for a superior horse, owners would perform the same manoeuvre to signify agreement.

Later, the term was extended to any contest in which advantages are evened out, and came to apply to the disadvantage itself - acquiring by extension its non-sporting sense.