When the Grand National rolls around, there is often a lot of excitement about which horses will end up running in what is known as the ‘World’s Greatest Steeplechase’. The field size of the Aintree event is 40, with part of the race’s difficult being jostling for position during the early exchanges. Indeed, many jockeys become unseated or horses fall at the early fences precisely because they struggle to find the space that they need in order to be able to get a good run at the jump. The question is, what is the field size in most races?
There are a number of important factors that need to be borne in mind when a race is being organised and the field size determined. Ultimately, the safety of the horses is the most important factor, so any events taking place at a course that doesn’t have enough room for a large number of horses to run safely will have a maximum field size that reflects this put into place. The other factor is the number of declarations that are made, with many races in the modern era struggling to trouble the maximum field size because of a lack of entries.
Safety Deciding Factor For Field Size
Some racecourses are more capable of welcoming larger fields than others. That is a fact that is borne out by the statistics around the number of horses that run in each event that a meeting tends to have. Aintree Racecourse, for example, is a large course that is used to hosting the biggest steeplechase on the planet. Given the fact that 40 large thoroughbreds take to the course each April when the Grand National gets underway, it is hardly a surprise that the course on the outskirts of Liverpool doesn’t need to worry too much about field sizes.
At other courses, however, it would be unsafe to welcome so many horses onto the turf for a race. As a result, it is the size of the course and the safety that then applies to the horses that matters, with the maximum field size being adjusted accordingly. At Epsom, as an example, the Derby has a limit of 20 horses. That is 30 for the Wokingham Stakes at Ascot, and we already know that it is 40 for the Grand National. It is, no pun intended, horses for courses. The safety of participants is always at the forefront of the decision making.
What The Racecourse Can Handle Off The Track
Whilst the safety of the horses is always of paramount importance when a decision is taken about the maximum field size for a race, there are other factors that need to be thought about by those responsible for making the decision. One example of this is how many horses a racecourse has got room for in terms of its stabling capacity. After all, there is no point in a course saying that 30 horses can take part in a race if the stables on-site only offer enough room for 20 horses. Each horse needs to have its own stable upon arrival at the racecourse as part of the BHA’s rules.
On the matter of field sizes, the British Horseracing Authority is clear on this point. It makes the point that the Field Size Limit is in place for the purposes of safety, but that the runners can be restricted below this figure on occasions ‘when the number of declared horses for all races, including divisions, exceeds the Stabling Capacity for the fixture’. Runners will be reduced by each race in turn according to a specific order, with that continuing until the point that the number of horses is no long ‘above the Stabling Capacity’.
The order that horses are eliminated in begins with the lowest weighted in handicap races, or the lowest rated in Listed or Pattern races. If needed, a ballot can be used to further reduce the numbers. There can be occasions where the race is divided into two divisions, or more if needed. That will happen if the number of declarations still exceeds the safety limit and is more than 18. Obviously this can’t happen if the course’s stables don’t have enough room for all of the horses taking part in all of the races and an individual stable is needed.
Are Field Sizes Large Enough?
One question that has been asked of horse racing repeatedly is whether field sizes are large enough. The larger a field is, the more competitive a race is likely to be. The problem is, many courses believe that having more races presents them with an opportunity to make more money from the watching public, so the number of races in a meeting and the number of meetings themselves began to increase. In 2000, for example, the field size averaged more than 12 per race in the United Kingdom. In 2005, that had dropped to just more than 11.
By 2013, the number had fallen to below nine per race. The push for an increase in races had led to the horses being spread more thinly, meaning that there were fewer and fewer taking part in events. A field of six horses is more predictable than a field of 12, so that is something that suits the bookmaker but isn’t good for the punter. As racecourses have more races to host, the amount of prize money that they have on offer starts to be spread more thinly too, meaning that it is less and less appealing for horses to be run in certain events.
In 2022, an article in the Racing Post drew attention to the fact that field sizes in the UK were at their lowest since BHA records had begun in 1995. That has been most evident in jump racing, with an average of 7.59 runners per contest, or 6.6 for steeplechase events. In flat racing, on the other hand, it was 8.42 on turf and 8.61 on all-weather surfaces. In other words, field sizes are dropping to such an extent that the maximum is all but irrelevant. There are numerous reasons for this, such as the poor prize money and horses being sold abroad, but whatever the reason, it isn’t good for racing.