What is the Average Field Size in a Horse Race?
Fans of horse racing who are also fans of betting have an interesting clash of interests going on.
The greater the number of runners the more difficult it will be to pick a winner, so from a betting point of view you might want a field to be smaller.
However, when it comes to the makings of an exciting race a field of 4 is hardly going to get your pulse racing, so in terms of entertainment you will want a few more.
Of course, the odds you might be offered in a smaller field will probably even out any advantage you could get from having fewer horses to choose from, but picking a winner feels good even if the return is paltry.
This aside, average smaller field sizes are not good for the sport in general, and can be a warning sign that something is wrong at a structural level – if there is a trend for fewer horses being entered into races on average then there will be a very good reason for that somewhere.
Of course, the idea of a large or small field is relative, so there needs to be a data set to look at that we can establish an average from, and once we have that we can confidently say what counts as a small field and what counts as a big one.
Luckily, The British Horse Racing Authority have this sort of data, so we can dig into it.
That said, the average field size will change from one year to the next, so the answer to the question posed in the title of this article is fluid, but if we zoom out and look at the average field size over time, there is a story to tell.
Field Size in Horse Racing – How to Find the Average?
We have data going back to 1995 that tells us the average number of horses entered into a race between then and 2022 was 9.7; that’s 10.11 for flat racing, and 9.3 for jumps.
This is a very long time period, so that 9.7 figure is pretty strong as a barometer for what we might consider as average for field size.
If we take 2022 as a standalone year and compare it to that average, we will see that not only were field sizes smaller than average, but that year included some of the smallest field sizes in recent history.
We will talk about why this might be a little later in the article, but first let’s look at how the numbers have changed.
When looking at flat racing, the average field size in 2022 was just 8.9 horses per race .
If we switch to jumps we get 7.73 horses per race, and even though jumps racing does traditionally have a slightly smaller field size than flat racing, both of these figures are the lowest they have been for each discipline.
This gives us a total of 8.46 horses per race across both disciplines during the 2022 season; 1.24 horses and around 13% below average.
We only need to go back ten years though, and those figures were around a horse higher across the board at 9.6 for flat racing and 8.92 For jumps; and if we go back twenty years to 2002 it jumps again to 11.6 and 9.83.
The year 2001 was actually the busiest since the mid-90s with an average of 11.58 horses per race across the board, a huge 27% higher than the low point in 2022.
This shows a steady decline in field size over the past 20 years, with total numbers first dipping below the average in 2010 before recovering slightly, then plunging again from 2021.
Why are Field Sizes Becoming Smaller?
So we know that average field sizes are getting smaller and have been for some time now, but can we figure out why?
Firstly, it’s important to point out that this is very much a British problem.
In Ireland, the first 6 months of racing in 2022 saw a 12.23 horse average for jumps and an 11.9 average for flat racing, while in France it was 9.7 and 10.8 respectively, so even if numbers are dropping elsewhere, it isn’t to the extent that it is happening here.
Prize money has been an issue, with more than a few horses being taken to race in other countries where more money can be made out of them.
A lot more in some cases, such as Hong Kong where in 2018 the average prize pot per race was £155k, and Japan where it was £53k per race.
The average amount of prize money per race across both disciplines in the UK was less than £16k by comparison, lower also than Australia, the USA, Ireland, and Canada.
In 2022 things had improved though, with the UK’s average prize pot coming in at £17,574.35 the highest it has ever been and a good 25% increase on the year before.
That might not sound so bad then, but when you consider it was £11,696.56 per race on average back in 2003, which, accounting for inflation would be worth over £23.5k in 2023, prize money has actually gone down in real terms.
It’s not all about money though.
The drop in field size is more pronounced with jump racing than with flat, and the weather has had a good deal to do with this because it obviously impacts the going.
With the early 2020s having some of the driest periods on record since 1935, and a notable drop in runners for national hunt races when the going is good or faster, we might well ask if global warming is having an impact?
The number of races with 6 runners or less has shot up perfectly in line with these drier periods, with 19.07% of jump races falling into this category in 2021, and 28.03% in 2022 – the highest percentage on record.
Add bad scheduling to these other factors – there are far more jump races than there needs to be for the number of eligible horses in this country – and you have plenty of reasons for owners and trainers not to show up on race day, driving the average field size down in the process.