A Guide to Horse Racing Distances for Beginners

Understanding horse racing distances can be difficult for beginners, but it doesn’t have to be…

The distance run in each race will be a key element to each horse’s chance, and it’s important to understand the impact of a change in distance.

We’ve all heard of the Triple Crown in horse racing, this is completing a famous hat-trick of the Guineas, Derby and St Leger. Three Classic races, all over different distances. Horses that can win over different types of distances are more likely to go down as legends of the game. They are more memorable and capture the public more.

What is Distance In Horse Racing? How Far is a Furlong?

Every horse race is over a different distance. In the UK, the minimum distance is a 5 furlong race on the flat and the largest is the Grand National over jumps at 4 miles, 2 and 1/2 furlongs. Races range from average handicaps to Group 1 races. The biggest question from beginners is usually; “what is a furlong?”

A furlong is equivalent to 1/8 of a mile or 220 yards (201.168 meters). This traditional British unit of measurement has been used in horse racing for many years. In horse races, distances are often expressed in miles and furlongs. For instance, a race might be described as being “one mile and two furlongs” long, which would be equivalent to 1.25 miles or 10 furlongs. The use of furlongs as a unit of distance in horse racing is a nod to the sport’s historical roots and traditions.

I mentioned the Triple Crown above. This is so impressive because the Guineas is over one mile, the Derby is one mile and four furlongs and then the St Leger is one mile and six furlongs. It takes speed to win the Guineas, and staying power to win the St Leger. In between, it takes all the talent and class to win the Derby.

Flat distances start at five furlongs; this is the shortest race, and they go up to 2 miles and five furlongs which is the Queen Alexandra Stakes at Royal Ascot (the longest race on the flat). Obviously, we have different race lengths for different horses. Some horses thrive on speed over five furlongs, and some horses are stayers – they usually target one mile and six furlongs up. Horses can be aimed at all sorts of ground conditions too; Good, Soft or Heavy. Even All Weather racing too.

On the jumps, the shortest race is usually 2 miles – but we can have National Hunt Flat races (or Bumpers as they are usually called) over one mile and seven furlongs, just a furlong shorter than two miles. As I said above, the longest jumps race is the Grand National at Aintree at four miles, two and a half furlongs. That is a true test of stamina!

Much like the flat, to win over two miles on the jumps takes speed and to win over three miles plus takes staying ability. Few horses can win over these distances close together, however Kauto Star was able to do it in his prime. Usually, jump horses start over two miles and then progress to longer distances over time. Jump horses have a lot more scope for moving up in distances compared to flat horses, who usually stay within a certain range their whole career. For example, the great Frankel never tried one mile and four furlongs. He didn’t run in a Derby or the Arc in Longchamp at the end of his career, his trainer and owner opted to keep him at a mix of one mile and two furlongs. We generally remember the all-time greats for winning at multiple distances – Kauto Star the prime example on the jumps! To go down as an all-time great, you have to win against the best – different sexes and different ages, giving away weight is always an admiral win too.

What is a Length in Horse Racing?

So, we know what a furlong is and what distance means in horse racing. How is winning distance measured? The winning distance is measured in lengths. You will see “won by four lengths” for example usually wrote down as 4L in the racing results. A length is easy to understand – it is essentially a length of a horse.

Of course, horses can win by less than a length. We also have the following distances of races won;

  • Nose (nse)
  • Short Head (sh)
  • Head (hd)
  • Short Neck (snk)
  • Neck (nk)
  • Half a Length (1/2L)
  • Three-quarters Length (3/4L)

Then of course we have one length (1L), two lengths (2L) etc etc. These days we usually get the exact distances but a general rule has been the max distance won by a flat horse is 12 lengths and in jumps it’s 30 lengths. This is then referred to as ‘won by a distance (dst).’ A lot can impact the winning distance, the draw has a huge impact for example, especially over shorter distances.

Most bookmakers usually offer betting on how far a race will be won by, and it’s usually a popular bet when you have a big favourite in a big race. For example, Champion Hurdler Constitution Hill is so far ahead of his rivals, he’s usually long odds on, and you get better odds on what distance he will win by rather than will he actually win.

Related: Guide to Draw Bias in Horse Racing Explained

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *