Not all sports can withstand a spot of bad weather. Even a slight bit of drizzle can bring a halt to a game of cricket or an outdoor tennis match. Other sports can deal with a lot of rain, but there becomes a point where it becomes too much. The 2021 Belgian Grand Prix for instance was effectively called off due to torrential downpours while you will occasionally see football matches abandoned if the ball keeps getting stuck in puddles and the referee deems the surface unplayable.
As for where horse racing ranks among other outdoor sports in terms of resilience to rain, it would probably be somewhere near the middle. Rain does inevitably prevent some race meetings from taking place every year but as we will find out, cancellations are not overly common, especially during the flat racing season.
How Much Rain Is Too Much?
There is not a set amount of rain that forces the cancellation of a horse racing meeting as the actual quantity of rain does not matter per se. Rain only becomes an issue when it leads to waterlogging on parts of the course, or floods it entirely. At some courses, it does not take much rain to create large puddles whereas others, specifically those with better draining soil and improved drainage systems, can withstand much more rain without issue. Height above sea level can factor into this as elevated courses; for instance, Bath (230 metres above sea level) sees water given plenty of room to run away from the course, downstream. Lower courses, especially those that sit inside a bowl or at the bottom of a hill, like Cheltenham, suffer much more from waterlogging issues as water tends to collect here.
Obviously, any course that sits next to a body of water is also at greater risk from the rain, in an indirect fashion. Although a course may be able to deal with the water from the sky, an overflowing river can easily produce too much water to handle. There are several British courses that run very close to a river or small lake, such as Chester and Bangor-on-Dee, which sit beside the banks of the River Dee, while the Ripon’s track encircles a sizeable lake.
If rainfall has occurred overnight but the forecast for the day is dry, it may be that ground staff can remove the surface level water if there is not too much of it. Sometimes there is simply too much water that needs moving though, in which case it will not be safe for horses and jockeys to compete. The last thing a racecourse wants to risk is a horse getting a foot stuck in the mud as this could potentially be fatal.
If the state of the turf is a little more borderline but more rain is forecast during the time of the meeting (or earlier) then organisers will call off the meeting to be on the safe side. When the rain starts coming, there is little they can do to improve the state of the turf in-between races. Additionally, it is generally seen as better practice to call off an entire meeting a few hours in advance than to call it off after three races given all the effort punters have to make to get there.
Rain Outside the Course
The other thing you have to consider with heavy rain is not just the impact on the course itself, but the impact it has on the local area. It is feasible (albeit unlikely) that you have a course that is in a condition that allows racing to take place but there is flooding on nearby roads, or a local flood warning, meaning it may be dangerous for people to arrive at the racecourse. You will find that this happens more often in the case of stormy conditions, as opposed to just heavy rain without high-speed winds though.
What Time Are Meetings Cancelled?
When the course is already suffering from some flooding and there is a strong chance of more rain following, a meeting can be abandoned a couple of days in advance. This is what happened to Cheltenham’s New Year’s Day event in 2021 with the clerk of the course Simon Claisse deciding first thing on Wednesday morning to cancel the Friday meeting. Two days is about as much notice as you will get for any rain-related abandonments though, and it is quite rare to see such an early call. This is because in the space of two days even a substantially waterlogged track can see significant improvements, providing there is no further rain to come.
Usually the Day Before or the Same Morning
It is much more common to see a meeting abandoned the day before the scheduled start or, even more so, on the morning of the meeting. On the day of any meeting, there will always be an early morning inspection to assess the ground. Should the track fail this inspection then the meeting will be called off as there is too little time for the situation to markedly improve. If the course is given the green light, then you should expect it to proceed as normal although there is no guarantee that rain may not spoil the occasion mid-way through.
Sometimes They Have to Abandon a Race Half Way Through
Should the heavens truly open up while a meeting is ongoing, there will also be a danger that it needs abandoning halfway through the card. This happened at Cartmel in 2017 when one inch of rain fell between the third and fourth races, making it too dangerous to continue. In 2020, Ayr was also forced to cut short an August meeting after jockeys reported the middle of the track had some deep holes full of water. Due to their central position, it could not simply be bypassed either so there was no possibility of having a safe race.
On a related point, rainfall is not an issue because it makes the grass slippy. Horses have good grip and having four legs means you won’t catch them sliding about on grass like you might see footballers sliding around on a wet pitch. This is also partly because they are largely running in a straight line or a gradual curve, rather than rapidly changing direction frequently. The real issue with water on the track is that it can create what is known as ‘false ground’; in other words, ground that does not act like the rest of the course, usually because horses sink in twice as deep. Not knowing where these patches are, combined with their sheer bogginess, means false ground poses a massive risk to horses should they race over these areas at full pace.
Are All-Weather Courses More Rain Resistant?
Although all-weather race meetings can sometimes end up being cancelled, it is not typically for reasons to do with the track itself. There is only so much rainfall even an all-weather course can withstand though, so they are not completely immune to waterlogging. Southwell, for example, had to cancel an eight-race card in November 2016 after a whopping 49mm of rain fell over a 36-hour period. To give you some idea of how much this is, typically in the whole month of November, Southwell would ordinarily see around 60mm of rain.
It is also worth mentioning that back then Southwell operated with a fibresand course but they have since moved to Tapeta which does appear even more rain resistant. No material on the planet though could do much about a full-on flood in the area. Massive flooding in Southwell four years earlier put the racecourse out of action for months as it was submerged under nine inches of water.
Barring any full-on local flooding though, all-weather racecourses can pretty much deal with any rainfall thrown at them. Extremely occasionally, the rain will win but it is really not a point of concern at an all-weather course, even in the winter months. For turf courses, it is another matter with the vast majority having had at least one meeting cancelled in the past due to heavy rain. Traditional grass and soil courses are always the main targets for waterlogging and do prove to be something of an issue every year.
How Often Are Meetings Cancelled Due to Rain?
Heavy rainfall and subsequent waterlogging or flooding is the most common reason why a meeting is cancelled. Although more of a problem in the winter, during National Hunt meetings, summer flat meetings have been cancelled in the past too due to rain. The first two days of the prestigious Ebor Festival at York were called off due to a waterlogged track in 2008. This came just a year after York was forced to call off a June meeting for the same reason. It would therefore be wrong to assume rain is only an issue that impacts National Hunt courses.
That said, jump meetings are cancelled far more often, in part because there is more rain during the winter months. A look at total cancellations below shows this, with National Hunt meetings called off much more frequently. Note that the figures below include all cancellations not just those relating to rain. Snow/frost is also quite often a problem for National Hunt courses so this does form a considerable portion of their numbers.
Race Meeting Cancellations (Any Reason)
|Year||Flat Turf||All-Weather Turf||Jump Turf|
|2017||16 in total|
In 2016, there were 1,482 scheduled fixtures so with 58 called off, this gives us a cancellation rate of 3.9%. The year before saw 1,471 fixtures so a lower cancellation rate of 2.5%. A fair assumption would be that around half of these were due to rainfall so in any given year you might expect around 1.5% to 2.5% of meetings called off because of downpours.
What Happens If You Bet on a Cancelled Meeting?
If you have decided to place your bets on an upcoming race meeting which is then called off due to rain (or any other reason), what happens to your bets? The important thing to know is that you can never lose money if this happens. Instead, the bookie will usually void all bets on the meeting and return all stakes placed, typically very soon after the meeting is officially abandoned. This is standard protocol whenever you have placed a bet after the final declarations have been made.
You are also likely to be refunded any ante-post posts providing the meeting is outright cancelled, or moved to a different course, as opposed to just being postponed. Only if the meeting is rescheduled at the same venue at a later day, are ante-post bets are likely to stand. Always check the rule of your chosen bookmaker though because policies do vary when it comes to postponed/cancelled events. None of them, however, are allowed to simply keep your stake on a race that never ends up taking place due to cancellation, unless it is a free bet.