Horseracing is one of the most common sports worldwide. From the earliest days of human competition, audiences have been thrilled by the athletics achieved by a horse and rider. Today, horse racing of all stripes can be found from Macau to Buenos Aires, while multiple sportsbooks offer special deals on events like Cheltenham Festival or the Kentucky Derby.
But not many people understand the differences between various types of horseracing—most imagine horses traveling at a dead sprint across a short distance. And while this is the most common type of race (more on this below), there’s incredible nuance and variety when it comes to competitions.
The most famous races, including the US Triple Crown races (Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, Preakness Stakes) and the Breeders’ Cup, regularly attract millions of viewers around the world. In the case of the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs racetrack also welcomes around 150,000 visitors for the big race each year.
Meanwhile, events like Cheltenham Festival in England, which receives less coverage than the Kentucky Derby, will welcome over 250,000 for the festival weekend alone, according to Statista. The festival sees massive interest from locals, while top sportsbooks roll out special offers catered to the event’s 25 separate contests.
Despite the differences in coverage internationally, Cheltenham sees added engagement from fans due to its list of event types. For first-time horse racing fans, the range of competition can be a little confusing. Keep reading for more information on the most common types of horse races today.
The oldest and most common form of horseracing is the flat race. Flat racing covers a distance between 440 yards and four kilometers. Typically, flat races are contested on a distance between five and twelve furlongs; five furlongs is one kilometer, while twelve is closer to two and a half).
As mentioned above, races like the US Triple Crown races (including the Kentucky Derby) are flat races. Horses are divided up by size and type, which helps make the competition closer for horses and jockeys.
Keep in mind that the most ‘prestigious’ races, which include the highest prize purses and the most global coverage, are contested between Thoroughbred horses. For example, the US Triple Crown can only be contested by three-year-old Thoroughbreds.
The second-most common type of horserace, which is just as popular as flat racing, is the steeplechase. A steeplechase includes extra obstacles for the horse and jockey to navigate, including fences and ditches, which require horses to jump.
While the flat race tests a horse’s speed and endurance, a steeplechase adds to these demands by requiring more connection and trust between horse and jockey, as well as the ability to concentrate for a longer stretch of time.
The Grand National and Cheltenham Festival are both renowned for their steeplechase events. The Grand National, held at Aintree in Liverpool each year, has the largest hurdles in terms of steeplechases, while Cheltenham hosts the Gold Cup event, which is a steeplechase, along with other Grade 1 chases.
Harness & Endurance Racing
The other common forms of horseracing include harness and endurance racing. Harness racing involves a device called a ‘sulky’, which is a type of two-wheeled carriage designed to be lightweight and versatile. The horse pulls the sulky and, rather than a jockey, a ‘driver’.
Typically, harness racing involves more emphasis on control. In addition to speed, a driver must make sure the horse maintains a specific ‘gait’, or way of moving its legs. Harness racing outdates steeplechases; the earliest evidence comes from the very first Olympic games held in 680 BC.
Some might say that endurance racing is actually an older art. Though archaeologists have no proof of ancient endurance racing, ancient humans relied on horses to help them travel great distances. Today, modern competitions require a horse and rider to run between 65 to 240 kilometers. Oftentimes, they face difficult t, such as plains, river passings, and rocky inclines.
Given the incredible distances logged, some races will take days to complete, and some even require skills like navigation and terrain-reading. Typically, competitions are divided not by horse size, but by experience level.