A Win for Punters as BHA Changes ‘Fair Start’ Non-Runner Rules

In a rare rule change that actually benefits the betting community, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) has confirmed that they will be changing their definition of a ‘fair start’ in racing.

And it could mean that punters will see bets ruined by an unfair start to a race settled as a non-runner – and therefore have their stakes refunded, rather than lose them altogether.

From May 1, 2024, a steward will be handed the power to declare a horse a non-runner in races using starting stalls if they are unable to get away fairly.

Fair and Proper

Up until now, if a horse was loaded into the stalls for the start of a race then they are declared a ‘live’ runner – regardless of whether they were impeded leaving the stalls, or if another runner enjoyed an unfair advantage over them.

But that will become a thing of the past thanks to the BHA’s rule change, which will come into play in time for the meat of the British Flat racing season.

The new rule, which will be deployed in races where a horse has been ‘prevented from starting on equal terms’, and where its ‘chances in a race have been materially affected as a consequence’, will bring British racing into line with other major nations around the world.

Just some of the scenarios that the new fair start rules apply to include:

  • A horse cannot start on equal terms to the rest of the field due to a fault in their starting stall.
  • A horse has become ‘rider-less’ at the start for any reason.
  • A handler is still holding onto a horse as the starting stalls open
  • Equipment, such as a rug or hood, is not removed in adequate time before the off
  • Any other horse in the field has gained an unfair advantage at the off

According to Brant Dunshea, the BHA’s chief regulatory officer, the new regulations “….seek to provide greater clarity and consistency for all involved and provides a regulatory solution in scenarios where it is deemed that a horse has been denied a fair start, due to a situation beyond its own control or that of its rider, not previously covered by the rules.”

Dashing for the Exit

On course stewards will be given full discretion to use their new powers as they see fit, and they almost certainly would have acted to avoid the catastrophic start to the Epsom Dash in 2023 – a debacle that ultimately forced the BHA’s hand in updating their rulebook.

The handicap renewal at Epsom Downs, which boasts a handsome £50,000 top prize for the winner, descended into farce last year when the high-numbered stalls were subject to a technical malfunction – seeing them open at a snail’s pace compared to the lower numbered draw.

The race went on anyway and 25/1 outsider Navello took the spoils, with a number of horses – including bookies’ favourite Live in the Moment – materially disadvantaged by how slowly their stalls opened.

The outcome was a source of much embarrassment for Epsom officials over its flagship Derby weekend, while punters were left apoplectic that their bets were settled as a loss despite the clear and obvious unfairness.

Under the new rules, all losing bets for those in the high-numbered stalls would have been refunded – as confirmed by Dunshea. “In the event of the Dash for example, it would empower the stewards under those circumstances to declare the four horses that were unable to start on equal terms with the other runners as non-runners and ensure those who had bet on those runners could receive a refund,” he said.

There was a similarly chaotic – albeit in lower-key circumstances – start at a meeting at Wolverhampton in April.

Some of the stalls malfunctioned and did not open smoothly, causing the starter to flag for a false start. However, nine of the eleven jockeys were unaware of the call or unable to halt their horses, who ran on until the finish line. They were disqualified, leaving just two ‘legal’ horses to contest the re-started race.

In such circumstances, a bookmaker could issue a good faith refund to their punters that had been affected. Naturally, few took the opportunity to do so, so the new BHA ruling is very much a victory for the betting community.