Why are there false starts in horse races like the Grand National?

A lot of horse races in the UK begin without stalls – and this can lead to plenty of false starts

Grand National false start Raz De Maree

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When betting on the Grand National this spring there is a reasonable possibility that the race won’t go off quite as smoothly as you’d expect. That’s because false starts can be common at the Grand National – as with many other jumps races taking place in the UK and Ireland during the National Hunt season.

Why false starts happen in horse racing and the reasons why authorities haven’t eradicated goes to the heart of the sport. And Paddy Power is here to explain what happens during a false start in our latest Demystifying Racing guide.

So, read on to learn what a false start in horse racing is all about – and why they’re particularly common at the Grand National…

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Horse racing false starts explained

A false start in horse racing is when the steward responsible for getting the race underway calls horses back to ‘begin’ again. Much like in athletics, when an athlete sets off before the gun, in horse racing a false start happens if the steward believes one or more horses have gained an early advantage from the off.

False starts are most common during the National Hunt season because gates are rarely used in jumps races such as a steeplechase or over hurdles. Instead, horses bunch together at the start of the course and simply set off when given the go-ahead.

Unfortunately, herding horses into a ‘fair’ position to start the race without anyone being disadvantaged is difficult. If a race begins but three horses are dwindling at the back, then the steward may call a false start and bring everyone back to the beginning again.

There aren’t many false starts in horse racing when there are, say, five or six horses running. But when it comes to 40 horses at the Grand National, it becomes incredibly difficult to get each runner to face in the right direction, let alone be ready to race.

Grand National false start

The Grand National is one of the most coveted prizes in sport, so ensuring there isn’t a false start is paramount (GETTY)

Why don’t they just use gates?

The solution, one might think, is to just use horse racing gates or stalls at the beginning of races. And indeed, many short-from flat races in the UK and Ireland, and the majority of racetrack races in the US, Australia, Japan and Middle East, use gates.

However, there are a few reasons why National Hunt races – and the Grand National in particular – don’t use gates. The first is time. It takes a good while to get each horse in the gates, and if you have a field of 40 horses at the Grand National, it would be a monumental challenge to have every horse ready on time. What’s more, there isn’t really a position at Aintree where you could place a 40-stall gate on the course.

The second reason is that gates are used to alleviate the advantage one horse might have over another, which would be evident if short-form sprints were to begin from a ‘standing start’. Yet in jumps races, the fences or hurdles horses are required to vault effectively alleviate any small advantage gained at the start of the race. So the time spent setting out the stalls, getting the horses in the gates and then beginning the race just isn’t worth the marginal gains to fairness that gates provide.

Will there be a false start at the Grand National?

Quite possibly, yes. False starts are common at the Grand National because there are so many horses to shepherd before sending them off. And there’s no real way of avoiding them.

Back in 2017 there were two false starts and 31 jockeys were referred to the BHA for approaching the rape too early. Yet Aintree chief John Baker said there’s little that can be done to alleviate false starts.

“There are 40 horses and jockeys in that tremendous atmosphere on the biggest day of the year – of course it’s frustrating for everybody, but it’s understandable. Tension is high and people want to get a good start and good position,” Baker said.

“We’ve moved the start to try to get the horses away from the cauldron, but there are 70,000 people and they’re still making a noise. We try to get the horses as calm as possible, we don’t get them into racecard order for the parade now.

“We’ll have a look at it, as we always do, but I’m not sure there’s much more we could do.”

1993 Grand National false start

False starts are usually frustrating for horse racing betting fans but they are nothing more than a nuisance. Eventually the race gets underway and we enjoy the competition.

However, the 1993 Grand National went down in history as being voided after the race because 30 of the 39 horses false started but carried on the race. Some even completed the course. Esha Ness won in what would have been one of the fastest Grand National times in history – but the Jockey Club decided it was void.

What’s more, the race wasn’t re-run and bookmakers had to pay millions of bets back to racing betting punters.

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