Most of us watch horse racing for the sheer joy of watching these beautiful creatures going up against one another in the purest form of racing that there is. Whether you’re a fan of flat racing or the National Hunt, you get to see supremely talented beings taking each other in a race to the finish, guided by jockeys that are more than just there for the ride.
The problem is, not all races start in the manner that we would hope, with numerous different things taking place to mean that a false start is declared and the event can’t go on.
In many ways, it is probably surprising that false starts don’t happen more often. Whilst jockeys do have some control over the horses and we’re not exactly talking about wild animals here, they are still creatures with their own mind and control over their own bodies.
The fact that they need to act correctly on the right cue means that it is difficult to ensure a race starts exactly the way in which we’d like it to. Unlike in other sports like running in the Olympics, the rules aren’t as strict for a runner that gets a bit carried away.
Out Of The Stalls
One of the big differences between jump racing and its flat equivalent is that flat races tend to start out of stalls. This isn’t always the case, but flat racing uses stalls quite often, which also allows for the limiting of false starts.
When it comes to jump racing, the horses tend to trot up towards the starting line and a lever is pulled to send the tape up in the air, getting the race underway. Obviously one of these starts is more prone to false starts than the other, but in both cases the human brain is largely responsibly for calling an error in the start.
Whereas the like of 100 metres races at the Olympics use pressure pads to determine whether an athlete has gone from the blocks sooner than a competitor, in horse racing it is all down to the starter feeling as though a horse has gained an unfair advantage over its rivals. The manner in which flat races get underway compared to jump racing is different, largely because there are no obstacles to ‘level the playing field’ once the race gets underway. As a result, stalls are used to offer a modicum of fairness in the events.
This presents the field with the chance to get off to as even a start as possible, given that it is physically impossible for a horse to creep ahead of a rival when placed in a stall. This becomes particularly relevant in sprint races, when you consider the fact that they are much shorter race types in general.
Runners are loaded into stalls from the back, whilst the front of the stall remains closed. They only open once all runners are in place and the starter feels that it is the right time for the race to get underway, when they spring open at the same time.
There are various things that will stop a horse from getting out of the stall quickly, including its own natural reactions. Jockeys also need to inform the horse that it is time to go, which doesn’t always happen as quickly as you’d hope if you’re betting on the horse in question. It is about as fair a way to start a race as anyone has come up with, which is why the starting stalls are so ubiquitous at flat racing courses around the world. You might be wondering how a false start can even happen when starting stalls are used, which is a fair question.
Just because it is difficult for a horse to emerge from its stall isn’t the same as saying that it is impossible. When you consider the weight of a horse, it is perhaps not all that shocking that they are able to get through a stall if it is inclined to do so. The stalls also only have a cover on the top-half, which has led to some horses effectively ducking down to get out onto the course, much to the disgust of the jockeys on their back. More likely than that, though, is a mechanical failure that leads to one of the stalls not opening properly.
On occasions when something happens in flat racing to mean that a false start has to be declared, the race should theoretically be re-started with all horses back in the stalls. Of course, more often than not an escaped horse or horses that have begun the race will run a fair distance of it before the jockey riding them realises that a false start has been declared. This means that energy has been wasted, so the horses concerned are not on a level playing field with the ones that didn’t misunderstand and managed to be stopped from running.
This means that, more of than not, horses that escaped their stall will not take part in the race when it is restarted. During the process when an escaped horse is being tracked down and stopped, the other horses are released from their stalls and are only put back into them once the runaway has been caught. Either it will be re-entered into the stall with the other horses or else it will be withdrawn altogether and the other horses will take part in the race without their fellow competitor. It is not ideal, but it’s the fairest method there is.
How It works In Jump Racing
Though false starts in flat racing do happen, they are thankfully rather rare. The same can’t really be said for National Hunt events, which can start in a much more rag tag manner than their flat equivalents.
The fact that jump races usually last for at least a couple of miles and regularly go for double that length means that there isn’t the same sort of need for precision as in flat racing. As a result, starting stalls don’t tend to be used in jump racing events, with horses instead being asked to line up roughly towards the starting line.
A piece of tape or some string is spread across the track, with the field approaching it carefully ahead of the race’s beginning. The starter will raise a flag to inform the field to approach, after which they will give the signal for the tape or string to be removed and the race to being, presuming that they are happy that the runners are approaching the start in a fair and generally uniform manner. If, on the other hand, the starter is not happy with how the horses are approaching, they will ask the field to take a turn and approach the start again.
You might think that this all sounds relatively straight-forward and, in a lot of cases, it is. The problem is that the skill of the jockeys plays a massive part in getting their horse to approach the start in a calm and sensible manner, which means that animals with their own minds are being asked to control themselves under the orders of a human. They don’t always do that, not least because they are in a line with other horses, sometimes as many as 40 approaching the line together. Getting them to do so in unison is nearly impossible.
If one or more of the field begins racing ahead of the others, especially if this results in them breaking the tape or string that is the starting line, the starter will call them back. Most false starts are pulled up quite quickly, at which point the starter will ask the jockeys to get the horses lined up and stationary rather than walking towards the line. The race will then commence from a standing start, which has been the rule since 2014. It isn’t a perfect way to begin a race, but it avoids scenarios in which there are multiple false starts when walking or trotting in.
What If You’ve Placed A Bet On A Race With A False Start
You might well be reading this piece because you’ve placed a wager on a race, only to witness a false start. The good news is that most bets go ahead as normal, with the only exception to this being if the wager that you placed was on a horse that ended up being withdrawn because they started and ran too much of the race to take part in it properly.
In this instance, the horse in question is usually considered to be a non-runner, meaning that you’ll get your stake back if you placed your bet on the day. If you bet on a race with a horse that is withdrawn, Rule 4 comes into play too. If you bet ante-post you will likely lose your stake.
Rule 4 involves a deduction on all winning bets, with the amount taken a direct result of the Starting Price of the horse that was withdrawn. You can read more about Rule 4 elsewhere. In terms of bets, a false start is different to a refusal to start. If your selection was due to start but simply refuses to do so, it will be considered to have taken part in the race and it will be settled as a losing bet. This means that your stake money will be taken by the bookmaker that you’ve placed the bet with, which is worth knowing in advance.
The Most Famous False Start Ever
When you consider that 1,000s of races take place around the United Kingdom and Ireland every year, it is perhaps somewhat surprising that more false starts don’t happen. When they do, they are usually not all that influential and the horse or couple of horses that ran part of the course are quietly withdrawn from the event and the other horses take part in it as planned.
It is with this in mind that what happened at Aintree Racecourse in 1993 is the exception that proves the rule, when the 147th Grand National ended in a nightmare for race organisers and the jockeys concerned.
Keith Brown was in charge of the race, taking control of his final Grand National before his retirement. He asked the jockeys to bring their steeds forward, only to see several riders become entangled in the starting tape. Brown waved his red flag, recalling the riders that had already set off. Ken Evans, a course assistant, was located further along and waved his flag, ensuring that the horses that had begun their journey returned to the start to get the race back underway. They lined back up and Brown attempted to start the race again.
Because this was in the day before standing starts, it was another trot towards the starting line for the horses in the race. Once again some jockeys got entangled in the tape, so once again Brown attempted to wave the red flag. Unfortunately, it was tangled up and he couldn’t get it to unfurl quickly enough, meaning that Evans didn’t know that he was supposed to stop the horses that had already begun to make their way around the Grand National course. There were 30 horses that had jumped the first fence, with nine others back at the starting line.
Part of the problem was that 15 animal rights protestors had invaded the course near the final fence, so when officials and trainers tried to call attention to the jockeys that were running around the circuit, many thought it was a return of the animal rights protestors and chose to ignore them. It wasn’t until the final fence of the first circuit, the water jump, when many of the riders realised that something wasn’t right. Not all of them did, however, with 14 horses carrying on to run around the circuit for a second time and seven making it to the end.
Esha Ness, trained by Jenny Pitman, crossed the line in first place, having achieved the second-fastest time in the history of the Grand National. As you can imagine, there was confusion about what would happen next. Some believed that the result should stand, whilst others wanted the nine horses that obeyed the false start shout to to be allowed to take part in the race. The Jockey Club later declared it to be a void race, refusing any shouts to re-run it at a later date, forcing bookmakers to refund in the region of £75 million in bets.