Does the start of flat races influence racehorse race performance?

Isobel Wells, H. Randle, J. M. Williams

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal Articlepeer-review


It is in the horse racing industry’s interest to understand all factors that impact performance to maintain the integrity of the sport. There is some evidence that the start of flat races can affect racehorse performance. However, limited research exists on the explicit effect that waiting at the start and inside starting stalls (also known as starting gates or barriers) has on racehorse finishing position. This study investigated how temporal, behaviour and loading related factors associated with the period before the start of the race influences racehorse performance. A cross-sectional design evaluated performance of 546 horses across eight flat race days at Chelmsford City Racecourse in November and December 2020, using televised racing coverage. Time horses spent inside starting stalls, the use of loading aids and jockey behaviours were recorded. Notational analysis was used to determine how much horses sweat and their behaviour before, during and after loading. Behaviour was categorised using an ethogram adapted from previous published research recording conflict behaviour in horses. Horses that spent under 50 seconds inside starting stalls were more likely to win (p<0.05) or finish in the top three (p<0.01). Those showing moderate adverse behaviour before loading (p<0.01) and no adverse behaviour inside stalls (p<0.05) were more likely to win and place first to third, respectively, although behaviour during loading had no significant effect. Horses sweating to the point of foaming (p<0.01) and requiring specialist loaders (p<0.05) were more likely to win, although the use of other loading aids did not significantly affect performance. Jockeys that pushed their bodyweight forwards in the saddle during loading were significantly more likely to place first to fourth (p<0.05). A horse’s chance of placing first to third was reduced by 15% for every increase in drawn order (p<0.01; CI:0.77-0.96) and by 59% when the horse spent over 50 seconds inside stalls (p<0.05; CI:0.19-0.92). A horse’s likelihood of placing decreased by 13% for every year of age (p<0.05; CI:0.78-0.97) and by a further 17% for each additional horse in the field (p<0.001; CI:0.00-0.83). Racehorses showing adverse behaviour inside stalls were 52% less likely to place (p<0.05; CI:0.00-0.48). This research demonstrates that the start of flat races can influence performance, highlighting the importance of warm-up protocols and starting gate training to optimise performance. With further longitudinal research, these findings could support adjustments to the rules of racing regarding the start to improve and maintain the integrity of horseracing in the UK.

Keywords: horseracing, starting stalls, behaviour, thoroughbred, loading aids, ethogram
Original languageEnglish
JournalApplied Animal Behaviour Science
Early online date18 Jun 2022
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 18 Jun 2022


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