Rules of Horse Racing

Like in any sport, the rules of horse racing frame the race you are betting on and, therefore, can have a major impact on your bet. Just as a footballer would get sent off for receiving two yellow cards, there are certain rules horses, jockeys and trainers have to follow.

At the same time, there are a number of rules to do with horse racing betting itself – and these are certainly worth knowing, especially when contentious race issues or disputes are involved. Below, we look at some of the main rules it will be beneficial to be familiar with, as you look further into how to bet on horse racing.

Generally, horse races are separated into two categories;

  1. Flat racing – where horses race on a straight or oval track
  2. Jump racing – where horses run around a track but are also faced with hurdles and fences.

Races can have large fields – the Grand National has 40 runners – or fields as small as a handful of horses. The aim is to cross the line first, with longer races lasting around 10 minutes and the average race taking one minute.

If several riders cross the finish line together, a photo finish is declared, where race stewards use a camera image to declare which horse won the race. Alternatively, a race can be settled as a dead heat. We will discuss the betting implications of a dead heat later on.

While rules vary across countries, some basic rules tend to apply to horse racing across the board. For example, all flat races must be started from starting stalls or a starting gate, while all steeple chases, hurdle races, and jump races must be started with a starting gate or a flag.

Just like in athletics, a false start is declared if a horse is considered to have broken away before the race has started.

1. Post Time

The time a race is supposed to begin is called the post time. Bets are taken until horses are released from the gate, with all bets being off in most cases once the horses have started running.

Intervals vary between post times but it is not uncommon for there to be a race to bet on every 5, 10 or 15 minutes, with bookmakers offering bets on races around the world. At a single course, intervals are generally 30 minutes between each race.

2. Ante-post Betting

When betting on horse racing, one route available is to place an ante-post bet, which means betting before a market has opened. This is usually done when the current price is expected to be more favourable than when a course’s market opens.

Generally, this involves bets placed before the day of a race, although an ante-post bet will be forfeited rather than refunded, if a horse fails to run.
Ante-post betting is less frequent, with odds far more varied in this type of betting as bookmakers compete on price.

3. Starting Price Betting

Away from ante-post betting, there are two available pricing options: the price at the time of placement or the starting price. If you choose to bet on a horse’s starting price, you are wagering based on that horse’s odds at the start of a race.

This means if there are any fluctuations after you place your bet – for better or worse – they will be taken into account and your price adapted to the last available price before betting is off. This is rather different in nature to ante-post betting.

4. Rule 4

A term you may see a lot in horse race betting is another rule to be familiar with. Rule 4 is an agreed industry strategy that governs all racing: it involves the deduction of winnings in the case of other horses being non-runners.

For example, if one or more horses are declared non-horses, the original odds will no longer fairly reflect your selection’s chances of winning the race. If your horse then wins, you will still receive your returns but at a reduced rate.

This depends, however, as long-odds horses will still be paid out at full price. If your horse became the race favourite after several horses became non-runners, though, you would likely see a more significant reduction in winnings.

5. Scratches

In horse racing, it is possible for a horse that was meant to run to be withdrawn from a race before the event starts. This is called a scratch and it will naturally impact your bet if a scratch has occurred with your selection.

An owner or trainer can, at any time, decide to scratch a horse, while a track veterinarian can also do so for health reasons. Your bet will be refunded in the case of a scratch if you have placed a single.

However, if your horse is part of an accumulator, you may receive a refund, consolation payout, or your bet can shift to the race favourite when the gates open. Always be sure to check the terms and conditions, and house rules, with the bookmaker you are betting with before you place your bet. This is the only way to be sure of how that bookmaker would deal with such a situation.

6. Dead Heats

As mentioned earlier, draws are possible in horse racing in the form of a dead heat – where more than one horse has crossed the line at exactly the same time. However, it is not possible to bet on a draw because the outcome is not settled by bookmakers in such fashion.

Indeed, in the case of a dead heat, all tied horses are declared winners. But the payout becomes proportionately divided based on the odds, with more winnings being handed out to those who bet on the longer-odds horse. In essence, a dead heat means you could end up with a higher return or a lower return than originally.


If there is £1,000 in winnings to pay out and two horses won the race, £500 goes to those who backed the shorter-odds horse (2/1, 3.0) and £500 goes to those who backed the longer-odds horse (10/1, 11.0). Yet, as there are five times as many bettors who backed the shorter-odds horse, they get a smaller share of the £500 each and those who bet on the 10/1 shot get a five-times larger payout.

To learn more about betting on the horses, see our guide on how to bet on horse racing, as well as our list of the different horse racing bet types and the biggest horse racing events of 2020.

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