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, behavior 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 behaviors were recorded. Notational analysis was used to determine how much horses sweat and their behavior before, during and after loading. Behavior was categorized using an ethogram adapted from previous published research recording conflict behavior in horses. Horses that spent under 50 s inside starting stalls were more likely to win (p < 0.05) or finish in the top three (p < 0.01). Those showing moderate adverse behavior before loading (p < 0.01) and no adverse behavior inside stalls (p < 0.05) were more likely to win and place first to third, respectively, although behavior 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 s 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 behavior 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.
- Loading aids
- Starting stalls