You may see or hear about ‘reserve’ horses in racing. These are not so common in the UK, owing to the large racetracks and big safety limits allied with decreasing field sizes.
Reserves are essentially substitutes. They are horses placed on standby in major, oversubscribed races who can enter the field should another horse be pulled out after declaration time.
Trainers may wish to withdraw from a race, even a major one, owing to ground concerns or injury.
When reserves are allowed, such as in the Grand National, the first on the list can in that case be added to the race to ensure the field doesn’t unnecessarily shrink, maintaining its integrity and offering a chance to more horses, trainers, jockeys and owners.
Do All Races Have Reserves?
The short answer is no, definitely not. Under British horse racing rules, trainers have only a very short window to declare any reserves. Trainers have to travel their horse and be prepared to step in before 9AM on the morning of the day before the race.
Currently, only certain major events feature reserves. Huge handicaps such as those at Royal Ascot, or others such as the Cambridgeshire or Cesarewitch can have reserves. The Grand National, it should go without saying, also features reserves.
This is done because in the case of such races, there are often dozens of runners that would have taken part if they had got into the race.
When this happens and there is no consolation race available on the card, such as with the Northumberland Plate which has the Northumberland Vase, or the Ayr Gold Cup which also has the Silver and Bronze Cups as compensation, then reserves are needed.
When races are hugely oversubscribed owing to their popularity and value, consolation races are now often added to race cards.
As mentioned above, many top betting handicaps now feature consolation races. So many trainers wish to enter the Ayr Gold Cup that it even has two consolation races.
These are great for punters as well as horsemen, as it offers more entertainment and betting opportunities as well as giving the horses a chance to run when they are primed.
For races such as the Grand National however, that can never be. True, the Grand National attracts 40 runners and could be run three times over with the number of horses ready to try to take part.
But, the idea of a ‘Silver’ Grand National, a ‘Not So Grand National’ if you will, would just undermine the event. In that case, the sport looks after the integrity of the race and keeps opportunities as high as possible by offering four ‘reserves’ who can be called in if there is a non-runner.
Smaller Safety Limits
In Britain, only the biggest races need reserves, and we mean big in every sense. Our racecourses tend to be wide and can accommodate 20, 30, even 40 runners meaning the need for reserves is lessened.
Over in the States however, there are usually only 12-14 runners allowed in major races such as those at the Breeders’ Cup in November.
With each race being worth between $1 million and $6 million, you can bet they are competitive but with a 12-runner safety limit not everyone will get a chance.
In this case, trainers are invited to nominate a first and second choice race for their horse. If they don’t make it into their first-choice race but are highly rated, they can be listed as a ‘reserve’. If, however after not getting in they choose to take up their second-choice engagement, they can simply switch to that race instead.
Reserves in the Grand National
It goes without saying that there will never be a shortage of horses ready to make the reserve list for the Grand National. Owing to the popularity of the race and the desperation for trainers and owners to take part however, it is surprisingly uncommon for them to be used.
Reserves were only introduced into the Grand National in 2000. Between then and 20021, only 10 have been added to the field.
More than one horse has been brought off the substitute’s bench in the National only twice in that time. This is when reserves have been needed between 2001-2021:
- 2001 – 1 horse
- 2003 – 1 horse
- 2004 – 2 horses
- 2005 – 1 horse
- 2008 – 1 horse
- 2010 – 1 horse
- 2018 – 3 reserves needed, 2 of them ran
So far, reserves don’t have the best record in the National. You may find a reserve replacing your initial sweepstake horse, but don’t hold out too much hope.
Of the three reserves needed in 2018, Walk In The Mill was himself withdrawn before the start, while both Thunder And Roses and Delusionofgrandeur were pulled up.
How Reserves Affect Betting
You would think this is standardised across the industry but shockingly, it’s not!
How your bets are affected by the inclusion of reserves may well depend on what bookmaker you bet with. The boring advice then is always check the terms and conditions of your bet.
In theory, there should be no problem and there won’t be as long as you are betting after a reserve has been introduced. When the reserve comes into the field, the runners are simply priced up as they are and the each-way terms reflect the number of runners and the race conditions.
Some bookmakers promise to settle any bets ‘without reserves’. This means that, for betting purposes at least, you can simply act as though the runner isn’t in the field at all. If your horse finishes second to a reserve, your bet will be treated as a winner.
Other firms go down a different route. Even if the reserve horse didn’t have a price attached to them prior to the race, they will still affect the result betting-wise.
This has both a good and a bad effect. Imagine losing out narrowly to the reserve. You would lose your bet against a horse that wasn’t meant to be in the line-up.
The silver lining is when the reserve means the each-way terms move in your favour, by making them pay four places or at 1/4 odds for example. You may just about sneak a place that would not have paid out had the reserve not been added to the field.