Guide to Types of Horse Racing

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Horse Racing is complicated, our basic guide covers :

  • About Flat Racing
  • Conditions and Handicap Races
    • Types of Conditions Races
    • Types of Handicap Races
  • National Hunt Racing, Cheltenham Festival and the Grand National are the best known examples
    • Hurdle Races, we list the categories.
    • Steeple Chases, horses jump over fences, water jumps and ditches.
    • Other Races like Bumpers, Hunter Chases and Point to Point.
  • About The Horses, what makes a modern thoroughbred?
  • Further Reading including recommending you see our beginners guide to betting on a horse .

The sport of kings, horse racing is also one of the most popular events amongst those who are partial to placing the odd bet. Though anyone can go to a race and have a great time following the action, it’s even better if you know a bit more about what you’re watching. Sure you could get by on knowing simply that whichever horse makes it to the finish line first wins, but there’s a lot more to it. This guide will help you get your head around the sport.

Here in the UK and Ireland the most popular form of the sport is National Hunt Racing. However, we also have flat racing (which is the kind you’ll most often find in places such as America). We’ll start by looking at this format.

Flat Racing

As the name suggests one of the key features (or lack of features, depending on your outlook) of a flat race is that there are no jumps. It’s a simple case of getting around the track. The track is usually oval in shape, though sometimes, especially with a shorter races, there will be no corners to contend with. It’s simply a straight sprint. Other, longer flat races are aimed at ‘stayers’ and depend not just on speed, but on disciplined pacing and endurance. The Royal Ascot meeting, which features the most prestigious bumpers in the UK, hosts the Gold Cup, which at two miles and four furlongs long, is a perfect example of a race for stayers. (If you’re wondering just how long a furlong is, it’s 220 yards, which equates to one eight of a mile. The range a flat race can cover is between 5 furlongs and 2 miles 5 furlongs and 159 yards.

Conditions and Handicap Races

There are two main categories of flat race; conditions races and handicaps. Conditions races are the more prestigious of the two and all races of any renown are conditions races.

In these races horses carry weight according to predetermined criteria. Females carry less than males, and older horses carry less than younger ones. Horses that have won certain standards of race in their career will take more weight than horses that haven’t enjoyed much success. As you can see the idea is to handicap horses that have a natural advantage to try and level out the field. This may seem confusing seeing as they are distinct from ‘handicap’ races. The distinguishing factor is that they handicaps are preset according to the conditions attached to the race, where as in a handicap race it is down to an individual acting in the capacity of official handicapper to decide what weight each horse should carry.

Their aim in allocating their handicaps is to level out the field as much as possible, going beyond what you might see in a conditions race to make things harder for the best horses, creating a more exciting race and making it harder for punters to pick out a winner. As such, in a handicap race, as the weighting levels are tailored to each horses ability, it’s not so much a matter of horse vs horse, but more horse vs handicapper. This is part of the reason these races are much less prestigious – they aren’t geared toward allowing the best runners to shine. If anything they do just the opposite.

Types of Conditions Races

There are various types of flat conditions races you might come across.

  • Group Races: These attract the best horses and pay put the biggest sums in prize money. You can expect that the purse will be at least £50,000 for a group race. Of the group races there are further three sub categories. Group One races are the best in the world, Group Two are still of international importance, whereas Group Three are typically national races.
  • Listed Races: These races are slightly less important, but are still lucrative with a minimum purse of £28,000.
  • Rated Stakes: These races are slightly less important still and are defined by having an exclusive weight range of 10lb – 14lb.
  • Conditions Stakes: These are for horses that aren’t Class 1 level (there’s more on class and grades down the article).
  • Classified Stakes: This is the lowest form of conditions flat race. To enter a horse must have run at least three times before. The only exception is if they’ve won a race, in which they can enter having run only two before.

Types of Handicap Races

There are also a wide range of different levels of handicap race.

  • Nursery Races: For horses of two years of age.
  • Maiden Handicap Races: To enter a maiden race be at least three years old and have run in four previous races.
  • Maiden Races: These are for horses that are yet to register a win.
  • Rated Maiden Races: For horses that have run three times before.
  • Novice Races: These are for horses of two years of age that have won no more than two previous races.
  • Novice Auction Races: These are races of horses of two years of age who have been bought or sold at auction, have never won more than two races and never won a single race above Class 4.
  • Auction Maiden Races: These races for horses of two years who have never recorded a win and have been bought or sold at auction.
  • Selling Races: This is a race where the winner is put up for sale at auction and the other horses can also be bought at a claim price.
  • Apprentice Races: races for license holding apprentice jockeys.
  • Novelty Races: This is where the field is selected by invitation only.

National Hunt Racing

In the UK, this is the more popular form of racing. Britain and Ireland are the home of national hunt racing, as is evidenced every year at the Cheltenham Festival and the Grand National. National Hunt Racing will normally be in the form of a hurdle race or a steeplechase.

Hurdle Races

The titular obstacle featured in this form of race is three and a half feet tall and usually made of brush which has a fair bit of give, allowing horses to safely clip the top and still make it over OK. There will be at least eight of these though there can be many more. The minimum distance for a hurdle race is two miles. It’s very common for horses to move to hurdle races once they have gained experience in flat races.

There are a few different sub categories of hurdle race:

  • Juvenile: From October up until December of each year these races are limited to three year old horses. From January to April, they are for horses of four years of age.
  • Novice: These races are only for horses that, at the start of the jump season, have yet to win a jump race.
  • Open: Any horse can open an open race.
  • As well as being categorised by the experience of the horse running, hurdle races are also categorised by distance. There are three groups; two mile, two and half mile and three plus miles.
  • As with flat racing, a hurdle race can be conditions or handicapped, though a conditions hurdle race is more commonly referred to as being ‘graded’.


This is about as tough as horse racing gets. In a steeplechase horses are asked to jump over a whole host of different obstacles (this is controversial with animal rights activists as, some of these obstacles are less safe for horses than hurdles. Water jumps, ditches and fences can very often leave a horse fatally wounded if it goes down.)

The name derives from when riders would race across the countryside from one church to another. In a modern race the obstacles are:

  • Fences: These are at least four feet six inches high on the take of side but there can be an additional drop on the other side.
  • Water Jumps: These are fences that are at least three high. The horses land in water of three feet in depth.
  • Ditches: These are the same as fences, except that there is a ditch in front of the take off side.

Steeplechases are run over a fairly long distance. The Grand National, for instance, is 4 miles and 856 yards long. This means that horses need to have good staying power as well as endurance. Again there are different kinds of steeplechase that you might see.

  • Handicap Steeplechases: Weights are carried are prescribed by a handicapper.
  • Conditions Steeplechases: Weights are carried according to preset rules.
  • Novice Steeplechasers: For horses that start the season having never won a steeplechase.
  • Open Steeplechases: These are open to all horses.

Again, their also different categories of distance. These are two miles, two and a half miles, and three miles or more.

Other Types of Race

  • Bumpers: Bumpers are the same as flat races in that they are for usually for younger horses and don’t involve any obstacles. The difference is that they take place at National Hunt events under National Hunt regulations.
  • Hunter Chases: These races are popular with former steeplechasers, though rule changes are coming to try and ensure contests are not dominated by horses of such high pedigree. The horses involved in these races need to have experience of having run with a hunt. The jockeys are amateurs.
  • Point to Point: These races are essentially a training ground for future steeplechasers. The race format is essentially the same, but the riders are amateur. The horses running must have hunt experience. Unlike other races point to point races are often run on farmland or a piece of countryside as opposed to an actual racetrack.

Grades and Classes

All National Hunt races have a grade. The best are Grades one through to three. After this ‘listed’ races are the most prestigious followed by handicaps. Bumpers are at the bottom of the pile.

Grade one races are always conditions races, where as in grade two there can be a limited amount of handicapping beyond what you’d see in a conditions race. Grade three races are handicapped but, feature horses of much higher quality than a typical handicap race.

As well as grades, the calibre of a race is also defined by it’s class. There are seven classes. Any race that has a grade or is listed is class one. Below that level, class plays a more important role in distinguishing the quality of a race. The higher the class the bigger the prize money on offer and the more accomplished the runners.

The Horses

In horse racing thoroughbreds are used. These horses have all the attributes that allow them to take part in the sport and they were developed in England and France in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Interestingly all modern thoroughbreds can be traced back to just three stallions that were imported over from the middle east: the Byerley Turk, the Darley Arabian and the Godolphin Arabian.

Further Reading


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