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Why Are Racehorses Scratched? Secrets At The Starting Gates?

Last updated: December 30, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

Have you ever wondered why a racehorse, seemingly fit and ready, is suddenly withdrawn from a race just moments before the start? The world of horse racing is replete with split-second decisions and unexpected turns, and the scratching of horses from races is a prime example of this unpredictability.

With over 25 years of involvement in the horse racing industry, I’ve witnessed a myriad of reasons for horses being scratched. In this article, I delve into the often misunderstood reasons behind these last-minute withdrawals.

From injuries and health concerns to strategic decisions influenced by track conditions and starting positions, I aim to unveil the secrets that unfold at the starting gates. Join me as I navigate the intricate decision-making process that can alter the fate of a racehorse and the outcome of the race in just a blink of an eye.

Picture of horse racing starting gates.
Empty starting gates at a race track.

Horses get scratched when they’re lame.

A horse that entered a race but was 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
Our horse has a swollen 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, 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, 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 is bet on these racehorses, so the track commissioners want veterinarians to thoroughly examine each horse before race day. The veterinarians assess the horse, watching its demeanor, checking his eyes, and confirming the racehorse with its tattoo.

Most race tracks require all horses to be available for a vet check at least three hours before racing. We recently had a horse scratched because we got caught in bad traffic and missed the cut-off time by thirty minutes. We asked for an exception from the racing stewards, but they denied it.

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 that 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 that are 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. Our horse didn’t have to go through this procedure because the vet didn’t scratch him; rather, it was a steward’s decision.

To prove he is sound commonly requires proof from the racehorse’s private veterinarian, official workouts, and a follow-up exam by the track vet to confirm the horse is sound.

Picture of horse leaving the gates from their post position.
Our horse leaving the starting gates at the New Orleans Fairgrounds racecourse.

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. Some horses 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 not to run their horse from this spot at the last minute.

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 wastes 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.

Picture of a horse race on turf.
Horse race on turf.

What Happens to Your Bet if the Horse is Scratched?

In most instances, your bet is refunded if the horse is scratched. This means that your original bet is returned to you, and you do not receive any winnings.

However, 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 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 select 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, you most likely 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.

YouTube video


the decision to scratch a racehorse is never taken lightly. It involves a complex interplay of factors ranging from health and safety concerns to strategic considerations based on the race environment. Through my 25 years in the horse racing industry, I’ve learned that each scratch tells its own story, reflecting the dynamic and often unpredictable nature of this sport.

As we’ve explored, scratches can be as much about protecting the horse and riders as they are about the integrity of the race. Whether due to injuries, track conditions, or tactical choices, these decisions are integral to the ethical and fair conduct of horse racing.

Call to Action

I invite you to share your thoughts and experiences on this topic. Have you witnessed a racehorse being scratched under unusual circumstances? Do you have insights or questions about the process? Join the conversation in the comments section below or on our social media channels. Let’s continue to learn from each other and deepen our understanding of the fascinating world of horse racing.

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