Where to Start?

Tue, Apr 27, 2010

Betting News

Where to Start?

When is a runner not a runner?

King John’s Castle in the Grand National and Twist Magic in the Punchestown Champion Chase were two high profile horses that refused to race when their respective contests got underway.

It prompted the usual outrage and uproar, breast beating and navel gazing. Big Mac has clear and strong views on this topic. He thinks punters should have their money refunded in such situations. Many punters feel the same way and a lot of them seem to think that the onus should be on bookies to make the refund from their own money.


It is the responsibility of the trainer and the jockey to get their horse to the start in time. Once it’s at the start it should be ready to race at the same time that the rest of the field is ready to race. If all of your competitors in a contest are ready to run why should there be any delay, any compromise, any special sanction for you?

King John’s Castle’s distress, fear, reluctance, whatever it was caused a substantive delay to the biggest race on earth. Twist Magic’s non participation at Punchestown led to him receiving preferential treatment the next time he lined up in the Celebration Chase at Sandown.

Twist Magic’s rivals were materially disadvantaged by the willingness at Sandown to accommodate the horse and his powerful yard by leading him in at the trot and allowing him a running start over his rivals. For a horse who enjoys an uncontested lead these days that was an unfair advantage. An advantage he was granted because he had previously failed to start. That’s wrong.

Day in day out throughout the summer months we will see examples of horses who have been well trained and patiently prepared for their races, standing in starting stalls for several minutes at a time waiting for less well trained, less well prepared rivals to join them in the stalls. Again, that’s wrong.

Those who have put in the long hard hours at home are being disadvantaged and compromised by those who have not put in the same amount of effort. If a horse is not ready and willing to enter the stalls with only reasonable encouragement it should be taken away and withdrawn. Once in the stalls all horses need to be ready to race as soon as their rivals are.

If they fail to emerge from the stalls when the starter releases the gate, then once again that’s tough luck.

Being ready to run, ready to jump off and compete is a crucial part of any race, be it equine or human. If a competitor is deficient in that regard than he, his connections and his backers must pay the price for that.

There is no reason on earth why either bookmakers, or other punters should be expected to pick up the tab for the shortcomings of horses and trainers in this regard.

That some bookies were willing to refund on these two horses is a great credit to them but it is absolutely ridiculous to expect all bookmakers to do likewise. Why should a bookmaker return a substantial chunk of his take on a race and also pay out on the winner and placed horses too?

As for withdrawing horses and adding a rule four, all that means is that other punters pay the price for our misfortune and/or our incompetence and once again there’s no reason why that should be the case.

In the example of Twist Magic his temperament was fully factored into his price. He was 6/4 before the start at Sandown and was 4/5 within seconds of starting the race. You pay your money and you take your choice.

If you are unlucky enough to back a horse who, having previously showing no such foibles, refuses to race that’s just bad luck. It happens. Deal with it. It’s no different to being brought down through no fault of your own, or impeded through the manoeuvre of another horse in a flat race. It’s racing, it’s sport and we file it under s**t happens. You are just as likely to be the beneficiary of such incidents over time as to be a victim of them.

We seem to live in an age where some people want protection from and insurance against every misfortune that may befall them. God save us from such a life. The sport of racing and the pastime of gambling both relish risk. They are built upon uncertainty. They are also the preserve of grown-ups and all those who wail and gnash their teeth every time a horse fails to succeed in the first part of a race – the start – need to do exactly that; grow up.

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11 Responses to “Where to Start?”

  1. Halfway To Nowhere Says:

    The problem I have, Sean, is the apparent lack of cohesion between flat and National Hunt racing in the treatment of troublesome starters.

    I agree entirely that remaining calm in the starting stalls and breaking effectively from them is very much an integral part of racing on the flat, in much the same way that obtaining and maintaining an ‘appropriate’ position on the walk in to the tape is over jumps.

    But the rules, such as they are, don’t seem to attempt to align the two (admittedly very different) procedures. A horse can dig its feet in all of two yards behind the stalls and be withdrawn, with a Rule 4 deduction, after a period of negligible co-operation, yet a horse planting itself ten yards behind the field on the approach to the tape is declared a runner and there’s absolutely no recourse for punters. In the case of Bellvano the horse need not even be pointing in the right direction and backers are left feeling, for want of a better word, shafted.

    Now, there’ll inevitably be people who will complain no matter what the rules say, but these will also be the people who (in the main) can regularly be heard dressing down computer-generated jockeys at Makemeskint Park for not putting in enough effort. The childish reactions of the few are no reason not to offer clear and concise clarification to the many – and that’s all we really want.

    I think one of the major stumbling blocks is bookmakers and the time they have to react to unwilling starters over jumps. It’s not at all uncommon to see the price of a flat horse that is playing up, or has bolted, contract rapidly in order to maximise the effect of a seemingly likely Rule 4 on winning punters. With the period between horses circling and walking in being much shorter than that associated with the loading of the stalls, bookmakers have little chance to tighten their margins sufficiently to make the Rule 4 work (markedly) in their favour.

    All the BHA need do – I’m sure even they could implement something this simple – is introduce an area or zone at the start of a National Hunt race which equates to the starting stalls on the flat. When the call to approach the tape is made, any horse that enters that zone immediately becomes a runner. If they refuse before the entry point the field can either take a turn to give them every chance of participating, or the starter can choose to commence the race and the horse in question is withdrawn with the usual Rule 4 deduction. If they start to walk in and then plant themselves as the tape is released then it is, as you say, simply a case of sh*t happens.

    It’s a difficult subject to tackle as there will always be someone who feels hard done by, but a firm, well structured set of (broadly fair) rules certainly isn’t hard to think up.

  2. Patrick Says:

    I agree entirely with the above comments from Halfway to Nowhere.

    “Day in day out throughout the summer months we will see examples of horses who have been well trained and patiently prepared for their races, standing in starting stalls for several minutes at a time waiting for less well trained, less well prepared rivals to join them in the stalls. Again, that’s wrong.”

    Sean how do you define what trainers horses are not properly stalled trained?.
    I’m sure you noticed a certain horse been positively mulish at the start of a race at Yarmouth today?, this horse wasn’t trained by Joe Blogg but by one Henry Cecil.
    I think stall training is not top of the priorty list of trainers on these shores, of course some horses are just downright stubborn anyway, but its noticeable that the horses in the states are far better stall trained, the nature of their racing requires this as its mostly about speed.

  3. DenLon Says:

    I avoid horses that are mullish at the start like the plague. This mullishness is often factored into bookmakers’ prices though, as was the case with Twist Magic at Sandown (13/8 giving 4lb to horses it was rated 18lb+ superior to). If you have a bet knowing a horse has a history of such behaviour, then that’s the risk you take.

    There is an aspect of this debate though that does annoy me though…..when horses are withdrawn at the start, whatever the reason (particularly on the flat)in races with 5/8 runners or 16 runner handicaps.

    By the time these events occur, most bets have been placed. If you are a win only punter, then whether one is withdrawn just evokes the thought ‘one less to beat’, I’ve done it myself. But if you’re an each-way or placepot punter like I usually am, then the evoked thoughts are different.

    As such a punter, I consider the price of a horse as an each-way bet to the number of places available. I might consider a 20/1 shot each way value in a 16 runner handicap where there are 4 places. We’ve all seen it, a horse gets one last chance to go into the stalls before being withdrawn, 5 seconds later the race is off and there’s now only 3 places. Obviously it depends on the price of the horse withdrawn, and I have no problem with there being a rule 4 deduction. My problem is when bookmakers not only take a rule 4 deduction but also only pay out on 3 places, saving any payouts on 4th place. Surely the ruling should be changed, they shouldn’t be able to do both. If a horse is deemed a non-runner in the morning, then that’s fine, but there needs to be a cut off point, maybe when they arrive at the start, when the number of places available in a race shouldn’t be changed.

    Anyone else have a solution?


  4. Halfway To Nowhere Says:

    So what about horses who refuse to race but don’t have a history of playing up at the start, DenLon? Should they be treated differently to perennial troublemakers of the likes of Twist Magic and Don’t Panic?

    The issue can’t simply be dismissed as ‘that’s the risk you take’ when the rules determining what constitutes ‘a start’ are either vague or non-existent. Flat racing has its mind made up for it in that starting stalls provide an unequivocal measure of whether a horse has consented to race or not – if you come out of the stalls, with your entry having signified your intent to race, you’re a runner – but there is no such luxury over jumps.

    There needs to be a quanitifiable symmetry between the two codes of racing and I don’t think writing ‘tough sh*t’ in to the rules is necessarily the way to go.

    As for reducing the number of places for each-way betting, I agree to a large extent. But why should someone who bets at 8am, only to have the field reduced to 15 an hour later, not be afforded the same luxuries as someone who bets 10 minutes before the off and sees a horse withdrawn during loading?

  5. seanboyce Says:

    Excellent! Lots of different talking points. You’re right of course HtN that flat and jumps create different issues and I was wrong to lump them toghether here as I have.
    They are different codes though so a difference is not in itself an issue. To take them separately, I really don’t see a need to change the current starting systems in NH racing. Huge progress has been made in starting jumps races, courtesy of a zero tolerance approach to jockeys ignoring starters instructions. It’s amazing how big the impact has been of simply telling jockeys to do as they’re bloody well told at the start or face punishment. Horses gather at the start and walk in, or are led in, and jump off. Simple. If the horse doesn’t jump off, you’ve done your dough. Simple. There is no reason to alter that as far as I can see and that’s my main point really. There is no need for us to beat ourselves up over a non issue. Nobody out there in the real world feels fleeced if they backed King John’s Castle and he didn’t start. It’s the same as a driver stalling his car on an F1 grid, or an athlete making two false starts.
    The flat issues are different becuase they apply to what happens when you’re in the stalls and what happens before you’re in. If you’re in the stalls and you fail to jump, exactly the same as the NH example for me. No need for lines drawn on the turf, 20 yards past the stalls or flags or posts or other nonsense. The start -as the US sprinters at Ascot last year demonstrated – is a vital part of the race. Blow it and you lose.
    What happens prior to stall entry is a different matter, and with hindisght, shouldn’t have been included in my initial rant. :-)
    But since it’s there…you’re right of course Patrick that horses fail to load for all sorts of reasons and not always because of any shortcomings on behalf of trainers. But I bet you the loading procedures would be quicker and more efficient if trainers and owners knew that a failure to load after two attempts at presenting the horse would result in the horse immediately being withdrawn, entry forfeited and a mandatory stalls test required. If you speak to trainers whose horses rarely give trouble plenty of them think other trainers are not preparing their horses properly.
    Denis, I’ve often highlighted on ATR incidents where horses prices shorten as their participation looks more and more doubtful. Sometimes this is driven by on course activity and some times I think it might be more reduction factor fun and games on the exchanges being mirrored by on course books slavishly following the machine. Either way, it’s pretty rotten. What we do about it is difficult though and no one seems to have a perfect solution.
    Good points raised all round though.

  6. Patrick Says:

    On the point Denis brought up as I’m similar to Denis as regards most of my bets are each-way and I like to do placepot combinations.
    When you place your ew punt be it in the morning or in the shop before withdrawal you are placing that bet in the knowledge that you have 4 places or 3 places depending on the race type. We see time after time 16 runners plus h/caps been reduced to 15 and 8 runner races reduced to 7, and as happens a lot of the time many of these nr’s require a rule 4 reduction. Take the 8 runner race that becomes 7 ok your place odds are now better ie you now have 1/4 odds a place but only 2 places instead of the original 3, would not bookmakers bring in a rule where your original place bet stands but with reduced place odds, ie 1/5th for the 8 reduced to 7, and 1/5th instead of the 1/4th for the 16 runner h/cap reduced to 15.
    Most ew punters would be quite happy to take reduced place odds instead of watching your horse finish 3rd or 4th and be denied your place money because some 50/1 no hoper is taken out and withdrawn.
    I’m not sure what the solution would be as regards placepots and the Tote, its not as straight forward, but what I would like to see brought in as regards the British Tote is have 4 places for every race with 16 or more runners not just the h/caps as they do in Ireland, in fact it might even have the desired affect and swell the pool?.

  7. Patrick Says:

    oh and of course I missed one vital point, this is not in the Bookmakers best interests so they will retain the status quo because they can?, for some reason people who can do something about it seem to ignore mostof these pressing issues as regards betting and the bookmakers.

  8. seanboyce Says:

    Interesting suggestion there Patrick which would bring bookmakers practise closer to the exchange model where the places don’t change but a reduction factor is applied.
    Win and place markets on exchanges are of course separate.
    Tote suggestion is certainly doable though given no exposure for the operator there of course.

  9. Patrick Says:

    Just to add one more thing incase a few are a little confused? the reduced place odds would only apply as regards the 4th place [16 runner reduced to 15 h/cap] or third placed horse [8 runner race reduced to 7] , the original place odds standing for the other places.

  10. DenLon Says:


    Any horse that refuses to race, whether they’ve done it before or not are rightly deemed to having run. Starting is part of the racing process. You say there is no cohesion between the two codes, pointing out that a horse can plant itself in a jumps race and is deemed to having run, yet a horse that plants itself behind the stalls is withdrawn as a non-runner. There’s one fundamental difference though, one has come under starter’s orders,the other hasn’t.
    I backed Don’t Panic the first time it refused to race, obviously I was disappointed, but the horse came under starter’s orders and I accepted my loss. I haven’t backed the horse since, and won’t.
    Maybe you’re right, maybe the rules should be changed, but where do you draw the line? Does a horse need to go past the start line or come out of the stalls? A horse at Punchestown last week went 2 yards and his jockey fell off, should people have got their money back? I backed a Wragg horse at Royal Ascot a couple of seasons ago, the horse went calmly into the stalls, came out, went no more than 20 yards and the jockey fell off, should I have gotten my money back?
    At the moment the “line” is coming under starter’s orders, which I think is reasonable.

    Where do you want the line to be drawn?

  11. Patrick Says:

    The point “halfway to nowhere” is trying to get across is that at least on the flat you have a fail-safe, a horse is given a certain amount of chances to go into the stall, if the horse doesn’t he’s declared a NR and anyone who backed that horse their money is safe.For pig iron say that particular horse was 5/1 morning tissue, 4/1 SP, all other punters suffer a rule 4 deduction on all bets, this was an argument that was put across by the tough sh*t brigade that if a horse refuses to race during the start of a national hunt race why should other punters suffer a rule 4 deduction.
    Anyone notice the contradiction here?.

    There is no fail-safe for the start of a national hunt race, example an otherwise well behaved horse decides to turn the opposite direction just as the starter is about to spring the tape the starter fails to notice and lets the field go by the time the jockey gets the horse back facing the right direction the rest of the field is out of sight, who’s fault is that?, no recourse for the hapless punters who backed the beast.
    I believe that there should be no tape just post markers either side of the rails and if your horse passes that point and plants itself after then its declared a runner, something similar to when on a rare occasion a horse plants itself in the stalls in flat racing.

    The moral of the story why can you have recourse for mulish horses on the flat but no such recourse for just such behaviour for national hunt racing?.
    Another contradiction!.

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