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Why Are Racehorses Scratched? Secrets At The Starting Gates?

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At a table to our right, a man had his nose buried in racing forms for hours. Suddenly, he raised his head and exclaimed, “I found a long-shot horse that’s gonna win big.” However, seconds before the race, his horse was scratched. The scratching of his horse made me wonder, why do racehorses get scratched?

Racehorses get scratched from races because of injuries or sickness, changes in track conditions, and even starting position. Additionally, trainers or owners might scratch a horse because they don’t like the competition or feel their horse may get claimed.

There are many reasons to scratch a racehorse from a race. Some are understandable, and others not so much. This article will look at the many reasons horses are scratched.

Picture of horse racing starting gates.

Horses get scratched when they’re lame.

A horse entered in a race but deemed unfit to run must be removed, i.e., scratched from the competition. The most common scratches occur because a horse shows signs of lameness or an unsound condition.

The removal of a racehorse from a race is called scratching the horse. The term “scratching a horse” came about because gamblers would take their pens and pencils and strike a mark through the horse’s name.

The track vet can scratch a horse from a race.

Not only can a trainer scratch a racehorse, but also so can a track veterinarian. State or track veterinarians conduct checks of horses to ensure the racehorses are in proper condition to race. If you have ever been to the races, you’ve likely seen them walking around the horses holding a tablet.

The tablet holds valuable information on the racehorses. Past scratches and medical conditions are kept in a program accessible from the tablet. If a veterinarian is concerned about a horse, he can pull up the horse’s history.

Picture of a bowed tendon

The veterinarian could learn about a horse’s chronic condition. When a recurring problem is indicated, the veterinarian checks that issue to ensure it is fully healed.

The track or state racing commission hires racing veterinarians. Their job is to keep a keen eye out for racehorses with signs of injury or illness. For popular races like the Kentucky Derby, the track veterinarians examine the entries throughout the week leading up to the day of the race.

Vets watch horses during workouts

They watch the horses during workouts and go into their stalls and examine the horses. Most of the racehorses running in the Derby are shipped in, and the veterinarians want to ensure they are in proper condition to race.

Big money’s bet on these racehorses, so the track commissioners want veterinarians to make a thorough exam of each horse before race day. The veterinarians perform an overall assessment of the horse, watching its demeanor, checking his eyes, and confirming the racehorse with its tattoo.

After the general assessment, the racehorse’s legs are checked, and the horses are observed while hand jogged. If everything is acceptable, the vets move on to the next horse. If an issue is found, a more in-depth examination takes place.

A horse can be scratched for having heat in its leg.

Reasons which may call for a more thorough exam are signs of inflammation such as heat, swelling, pain on palpation, and limited mobility.

Head bobs and limps are tale-tale signs of lameness. You can learn more about lameness in our article. The post includes videos of horses traveling when lame and provides warning signals.

If a racehorse is lame, the veterinarian will scratch the horse. However, they can call in for a second opinion if they aren’t sure. The decision to vet scratch a racehorse entered in the Kentucky Derby would go through a rigorous process.

On race day track, veterinarians watch the racehorses walk over to the paddock from the backside barns. They keep the horses under observation the entire time they are on the track.

Track vets watch horses at the starting gates.

They are even present at the starting gates and can declare a horse unfit to start right until the gates open and the race begins. Veterinarians continue their observations after the race noting any post-race lameness.

Racehorses vet scratched get entered into the veterinarian’s tablet list. Vet-scratched racehorses will not be eligible to race until it’s proven that their disqualifying condition has been addressed and they are sound to race.

To prove he is sound commonly requires proof from the racehorses’ private veterinarian and workouts in addition to follow-up exams by the track vet to confirm soundness.

Picture of horse leaving the gates from their post position.

What is a “Late Scratch?”

I had my horse picked and was walking to lay my wager when I heard my chosen horse was a “late scratch.” So, what happened to the horse? I needed to find out about late scratches.

Late scratches are the removal of a horse from a race shortly before the race is scheduled to start. The withdrawal can be because of a vet scratch or by the request of the horse’s trainer. If the trainer scratches a horse late, he could face negative repercussions from the racing commission.

Each track has scratch rules. Generally, trainers have a specific period in which they can scratch a horse. If a trainer or owner does not notify the commissioner within the designated window to scratch their horse, they are obligated to start their horse.

All horse racing tracks have rules governing the procedure to scratch a horse from a race. The following are some standard scratch rules:

  • Scratches have to be made in writing to the steward;
  • If the race is an overnight the steward must approve the horses’ removal from the competition;
  • Scratch designation is irrevocable;
  • In stakes races horses must be scratched 45 minutes before race time;

Sometimes late scratches can’t be avoided. Why might a horse be a late scratch:

  • Runaways: A horse breaks away from the pony jockey and sprints down the track;
  • Late injury: While being saddled, he kicks a wall in the paddock and sustains an injury,
  • Starting gate problems: During the loading into the starting gate, he gets nervous and injures himself; or he won’t load in the gates
  • Bad weather: Rain causes turf races to be moved to the dirt track. If a trainer believes his horse is doesn’t run well on dirt we will likely scratch his horse. There also are horses that don’t run well in the mud and are scratched late.
  • Starting position: Horses with an outside position are at a disadvantage on tracks with a short distance to the first turn. A trainer may decide at the last minute to not run their horse from this spot.

Scratching a horse for one of the above reasons is in the best interest of the horse and the betting public. Try to imagine; you place a large bet on a horse.

Would you want to have your money on a horse that broke away from the pony horse and was chased for a mile around the track? Your horse would be in no shape to race, and everyone who bet the horse just wasted their money.

Sometimes trainers “late scratch” a horse for reasons not approved by the racing commission. For example, a trainer enters a horse into a claiming race to “steal a purse.” You can read about claiming races here.

To “steal a purse” occurs when an owner or trainer hopes to sneak a fast horse into a claiming race with inferior horses to win some easy money. But, in this instance, the trainer hears a rumor shortly before the race that someone trainer intends to put a claim on the horse.

The risk of losing his horse causes him to “late scratch” his horse.What Happens to Your Bet if the Horse is Scratched?

What would have happened to my bet if I had made my bet before the horse was a late scratch?

Each horse racing jurisdiction has its own rules. This section provides the general rules most commonly followed. Check with the authority for particular regulations at your track.

If a horse you have bet on is scratched, you get a full refund in the following instances:

Win – Place – Show: The money will be refunded after the race is official if your horse is scratched.
Exacta: If any of your horses are scratched, you will receive a refund for the wager.
Trifecta: If any of your horses are scratched, you receive a refund for the wager.
Superfecta: If your selected horses are scratched, you will receive a refund for the wager.
Super Hi-5: If your selected horses are scratched, you will receive a refund for the wager.

If you bet on a horse in one of the following more complicated races, then these rules apply:

  • Daily Double: If you selected the winner of the first leg and the selected horse in the second leg is scratched, you will receive a double consolation payout.
  • Pick 3: At most tracks, a horse is scratched BEFORE the first leg is run, and you receive a refund. If your wager is still live going into the second or third leg and your horse is scratched, most likely you receive a consolation payoff.  However, some tracks give you the favorite for your scratched horse.  

Below is a YouTube video about horse racing you may find interesting.