A ‘void’ horse race is one that is, officially, judged not to have taken place; no official result is recorded, no prize money is awarded and all bets are cancelled. Perhaps the most famous void race of all time was 1993 Grand National, later dubbed ‘The Race That Never Was’, in which the majority of the jockeys failed to pull up after a second false start and seven horses completed the four-and-a-half mile race.
Generally speaking, any National Hunt race, over hurdles or fences, can be deemed void if all of the horses fail to finish; since November, 2009, the remounting of horses has been banned by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), increasing the likelihood of this scenario. A race can also be deemed void if the whole field takes the wrong course or in the event of a serious incident, such a stricken horse lying on the course in a position where it cannot be safely bypassed. In the latter case, ground staff display a yellow ‘stop-race’ flag, which indicates to jockeys that they must stop riding and the race must be declared void.
Historically, a race that started before its advertised time was declared void but, although this is no longer the case, modern horse racing is still subject to all kinds of imponderables which, while hardly run-of-the-mill, can cause a race to be deemed void. Examples include, but are by no means limited to, malfunctioning floodlights or stalls and spectator interference.
According to Guinness World Records, the longest horse race in the world is the Mongol Derby which, since 2009, has been staged annually each August in the Binder district of Khentii Province in eastern Mongolia. The Mongol Derby traces a 1,000-kilometre, or 621-mile, route across a vast expanse of grassland, known as the Mongolian Steppe, and attempts to recreate the messaging system established by Genghis Khan, Emperor of the Mongol Empire, in the early thirteenth century.The course is punctuated at regular intervals by a network of horse stations, or ‘urtuu’, as they are known locally, twenty or so miles apart. The stations are hosted by local families, employed by the race organisers, The Adventurists, to provide food, accommodation and support to participating riders.
The same families provide native Mongolian horses, 1,500 or so of which are trained, specifically, for the Mongol Derby each year. Mongolian horses are stocky, ranging between twelve and fourteen hands in height, but, although diminutive by Western standards, are deceptively strong. The vast majority live in semi-feral herds, outdoors, throughout the year, and largely fend for themselves, with human intervention. They must survive not only the short, warm summer, but also the long, dry and frigid winter – which can resul temperatures as low as -40°C – for which Mongolia is notorious. Mongolian horses are blessed with a calm, docile temperament and an abundance of stamina, making them the perfect partners for the Mongol Derby. Indeed, riders from all over the world are prepared to stump up the not insignificant entry fee – £11,375 at the last count – which also includes three days’ training.
The first race to be started from starting stalls in Britain was the Chesterfield Stakes at Newmarket on July 8, 1965. The winner, Track Spare, trained by Ron Mason and ridden by Lester Piggott, subsequently won the Group One Middle Park Stakes, also at Newmarket. Prior to the introduction of starting stalls, Flat races in Britain were started by means of the so-called starting gate, which was introduced in 1897 and made compulsory by the Jockey Club in 1902.
The starting gate was a labour-intensive affair, consisting of suspended cables, or wires, stretched across the racecourse and held in place by a series of springs, which could be released by pulling a lever to start the race. This mechanism improved the consistency and scrupulousness of the starting procedure, but was still far from perfect; the onus was still on the starter to keep the horses in line and, by interpreting the mannerisms of the starter, experienced jockeys could anticipate when the gate would rise and thereby steal a flying start.
By contrast, starting stalls are a much fairer way of starting Flat races, insofar as the front door of each stall is spring-loaded and held in place by an electromagnetic lock. To start the race, the starter simply presses a button, which disconnects the current from the locks and allows all the stalls to open simultaneously. Starting stalls were formally adopted by the Jockey Club in 1966 and, nowadays, are relied upon for starting around 4,000 Flat races annually in Britain.
Perhaps the best known virtual horse race is the Virtual Grand National, which was first introduced in 2017, but took centre stage in 2020 after the real-life Grand National was called off due to the coronavirus. Like all virtual horse races, the Virtual Grand National is a computer simulation; computer-generated imagery (CGI) is employed to create a faithful rendition of racecourse, runners and riders and the result is determined by a sophisticated, step-by-step list of rules, technically known as an algorithm.
As in a real-world race, the odds offered on each horse are inversely proportional to its theoretical chance of winning, but the outcome is determined by a regulated random number generator (RNG). As the name suggests, a RNG is designed to generate a sequence of numbers without any discernible pattern but, in a virtual horse race, the favourite has a higher ‘weighting’ in the RNG – and, therefore, more chance of winning – than the second favourite and so on throughout the field.
The Virtual Grand National may be the best known virtual horse race, but virtual horse racing is everyday occurrence with bookmakers, on the High Street and online, in Britain. In fact, virtual horse races, Flat or Jumps, typically take place every few minutes, with win, each-way, forecast and tricast betting available.