In the UK there are two main types of competitive horse racing. These are Flat and National Hunt. National Hunt racing can be further divided into several sub-categories including, confusingly, one flat racing category.
The different types of horse racing each offer different thrills and variations for the horses, riders, spectators and bettors alike.
As made clear from the name, flat racing takes place on courses where there are no obstacles to jump over. Flat races are run over distances that vary from a minimum of five furlongs to the 2 mile, 5 furlong Queen Alexandra Stakes, which takes place at the Royal Ascot Festival and is the longest flat race in the UK.
Generally, the more experienced the horse, the longer the races they will participate in. However, the most prestigious flat races on the calendar are typically those run over the middle distances, such as the five ‘Classic’ British races.
Shorter races are known as ‘sprints’, longer races as ‘stayers’.
National Hunt racing
National Hunt racing is usually defined as racing in which horses are required to jump over obstacles. There are races known as National Hunt Flat races, often called ‘bumpers’, but these are designed to provide experience to novice horses who have not yet raced.
The two main sub-divisions of National Hunt races are fences, otherwise known as Steeplechases, and hurdles. Hurdle obstacles are smaller but with a minimum height of one metre, and are designed to cause minimal falling or injury.
Steeplechases are much more challenging, with obstacles of at least 1.4m high. These obstacles are also more solid, as well as being varied, with features such as ditches and water jumps.
Grading for age and experience
In both flat and National Hunt racing, each particular race is graded according to factors, such as the age and experience of the horses that can compete. Flat races are divided into Classics races, handicaps, and Conditions races.
Within Condition races, the weight a horse must carry depends on how many wins it has achieved. Horse who have won under 20 races, for example, will carry significantly less weight than those who have won between 40 and 75.
There are two subcategories within Conditions races: Listed and Patterns, the latter of which is split into three groups – 1, 2, and 3.
Handicap races involve horses being given different weights according to their ability: better horses carry heavier weights, and less experienced or able horses carry lighter ones.
There are five Classic races per season and only three-year-olds are allowed to compete. In Class 1 racing each race has certain conditions about the weight a horse must carry, hence these also being often referred to as Conditions races. Classes 2-7 descend in order of importance and the official handicap of the horse determines which class he or she can race in.
National Hunt races are also graded into Classes, and just as in flat racing, Classes 2-7 are divided by horse quality as according to handicap. Class 1 races, however, of which all the major NH races are, are further divided into three Grades.
There are just 30 Grade 1 races each season, and these include the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the King George VI Chase.
The various types of horse races offer different experiences for horses and spectators alike. However, whether flat races are more your cup of tea or you prefer a hurdle jump, each race offers the opportunity to get you on the edge of your seat as the horses make their way towards the finishing post.