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Common Types of Horse Racing Explained

Common Types of Horse Racing Explained

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Ever since humans first set their eyes on horses, they have been enthralled by their incredible power, speed, and beauty.

For thousands of years, humans have raced horses, making it one of the oldest sports. But what are the main types of horse racing?

The four main types of horse racing are flat, steeplechase, harness, and endurance. Flat racing takes place on a track with no obstacles, while steeplechasing consists of various obstacles. Harness racing also takes on a track with horses pulling harnesses, and endurance racing covers long distances.

Though many people are most familiar with Thoroughbred racehorses, the world of horse racing goes much further beyond that.

There are plenty of other breeds that compete in different types of racing, including Arabians, Quarter Horses, and Standardbreds, among others.

Each type of racing is unique and designed to test a horse’s endurance, power, and speed.

Here are the main types of horse racing explained in detail.

Flat Racing

Flat racing horse racing track
northallertonman /

The origins of horse racing can be traced back to 4500 BC with the nomadic tribespeople of Central Asia. However, the origins of modern horse racing began in the 12th century, when English knights brought back Arabian horses from the Crusades.

Across four centuries, the English bred the swift Arabians with English mares to produce fast horses with great endurance for racing. Eventually, the Thoroughbred breed was born, and in the 1700s horse racing became a professional sport in England.

Racing became a form of entertainment and gambling, quickly growing in popularity in England and worldwide. Thoroughbred racing became so popular among aristocrats and royalty that it earned the title “Sport of Kings.”

Today, flat races range in length from 400 meters to 2 ½ miles, though most flat races are around one mile in length. Most racecourses are oval and consist of dirt, grass, or turf footing. However, there are some old racetracks in England and Ireland with variations in shape, including figure-eight shapes or changes of camber.

Flat races can be split into different divisions: maiden, claiming, allowance, and stakes races. Within stakes races, there are Graded Stakes: Grade I, Grade II, and Grade III. Grade I is the highest level among all the types of flat races.

Maiden Races

Maiden races are explicitly reserved for horses that have never won a race. As soon as a horse wins a maiden race, they are no longer eligible to compete in them.

There are different maiden races, such as maiden claiming and maiden particular weight, depending on a horse’s ability.

Allowance Races

After maiden races come allowance races, which tend to be the middle ground of flat races. Allowance races offer the most variety and may require a horse to carry weight to designate an even playing field. Based on a horse’s ability, there are different levels of allowance races.

Claiming Races

In claiming races, the horses in the race are for sale and will only race against other horses at the same price point. People can purchase the horse for the price listed on the race after watching the horse compete.

Claiming races are a good option for sellers and buyers. It allows people to find a horse in their budget and watch the horse in action before purchasing. Claiming races can run for as little as $1,000 to $100,000.

Stakes Races

The highest level of flat racing is stakes races. These are reserved for the best horses and have the largest purses. Most horses begin at Grade III and then work their way up to Grade I.

Horses with multiple Grade I wins under their belt will often sell for $100,000 and upwards. The biggest horse races in the world are Grade I races.

Triple Crown

The finish line at the Churchill Downs horse racing track
Alexey Stiop /

The Triple Crown consists of three races: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes.

The Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown, takes place in Louisville, Kentucky, and is 1 ¼ miles long. Next comes the Preakness Stakes, which takes place in Baltimore, Maryland, and is 1 3/16 miles long. Last is the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, New York, which is 1 ½ miles long.

So far, in over 140 years of events, only 13 horses have claimed the title of Triple Crown Champion. The races are among the most-watched sporting events in America.

Also read: 10 Best Racehorses in History

English Classics

Great Britain has a long, rich history of horse racing. Among the oldest and most famous horse races globally are the English Classics. The English Classics are the Derby, the Oaks, the One Thousand Guineas, the Saint Leger, and the Two Thousand Guineas.

These five races are the oldest of all the classic races. In fact, they were founded before any other country had a single one.

Steeplechase Racing

Steeplechase grass horse racing track
Dziurek /

Steeplechase racing has a long and exciting history. This exhilarating sport dates back to the 1700s in Ireland.

Steeplechase races include obstacles such as plain fences, water jumps, or open ditches. The fences must be at least 4 ½ feet tall and are made of birch and spruce. Typically, steeplechase races are between two to 4 ½ miles long.

The first steeplechases were contested cross-country rather than a racetrack, where they mostly take place now. Thoroughbred racehorses are used for steeplechasing, with the sport being popular in England, Ireland, America, Australia, Canada, Japan, and France.


Horse jumping over a fence hurdle in a horse race
Mick Atkins /

A hurdle race is a type of obstacle race where horses jump over fences called hurdles. The hurdles are smaller than typical obstacles, as they only have to be a minimum of 3 ½ feet high.

Generally, the hurdles consist of a series of panels that are made of brush and are flexible. Hurdle races have a minimum of eight hurdles and are a minimum distance of two miles. They are typically more fast-paced than steeplechase races are.


Described as “America’s version of the steeplechase,” timber racing uses solid wooden fences as jumps. The races tend to be around three to four miles in a cross-country setting rather than on a track.

Timber jumps can be tall, up to five feet tall in some cases. It is a grueling test of speed and athleticism that takes a brave horse and jockey.

Grand National

Aintree Racecourse, Grand National horse race

Though steeplechase races are held all throughout the world, the most prestigious steeplechase is the Grand National. The Grand National, one of the oldest horse races, takes place in Liverpool, England.

The momentous race is four miles and 2½ furlongs long and consists of horses jumping 30 fences over two laps. In its more than 180-year-long history, only nine horses have managed to win this coveted race more than once.

Also read: 10 Most Famous Jockeys in History

Harness Racing

Horses during a horse harness race
Pieter Sorber WorldRC /

Harness racing is a type of racing where a horse pulls a cart with a driver at a trot or pace. The cart they pull is called a sulky, and it is a lightweight two-wheeled vehicle. Though racing horses under harness has been around for a long time, harness racing rose to popularity in the 1800s.

In North America, harness racing is strictly done with Standardbreds. However, throughout Europe, breeds such as French Trotters, Russian Trotters, and Orlov Trotters also compete in harness racing.

In continental Europe, harness racing is exclusively done at the trot. However, America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom hold races for both trotting and pacing. Pacing tends to be faster than trotting, and horses are less likely to break gait.

Harness races are generally one mile in length on an oval dirt track. Many pacers will wear specialty hobbles to help keep them in gait while racing. In addition, some trotters will also wear trotting hobbles so they will only trot.

In some cases, jockeys will also race, trotting horses under saddle at a trot or a pace. These types of horse races are gaining popularity worldwide but are most common in Sweden, Norway, and New Zealand.

Also read: 10 Most Memorable Horse Races in History

Endurance Racing

Endurance type of horse racing in Malaysia
Lens Hitam /

Endurance racing has a long, fascinating history. However, modern-day endurance racing is relatively new, as it first occurred in the 1900s.

Endurance races are timed events that test a horse and rider’s stamina. Races typically last anywhere from 10 miles to 100 miles. Horses and riders traverse cross-country trails over natural terrain.

Throughout endurance races, horses must complete veterinary checkpoints to ensure they are in good health. To pass the veterinary check and continue with the race, horses must be sound, hydrated, and achieve a heart rate of a certain point (usually around 64 bpm).

Though any breed can compete in endurance races, Arabians dominate the sport. Arabian horses have won just about every Tevis Cup race, one of the most prestigious endurance races. Other breeds to excel at the sport include Akhal-Tekes, Morgans, Mustangs, and Quarter horses.

Mongol Derby

The longest endurance race in the world is the Mongol Derby, which began in 2009. This grueling race spans 621 miles across the unforgiving Mongolian wilderness.

The race route is modeled after the postal route Genghis Khan established in 1224. Riders worldwide come to test their riding and survival skills in this ultimate test of endurance.

Competitors ride on local Mongol horses and must change horses every 40 kilometers. The competitors have never ridden these horses before, and some of the horses are semi-wild.

Throughout the race, there are 25 horse stations and rest stops. Horses must pass veterinary checkpoints to keep racing.


What is the Highest Paying Horse Race?

The current richest horse race in the world is the Saudi Cup, with a purse of $20 million. The winner of this race receives a whopping $10 million, with second place taking home a cool $3.5 million.

How is the Highest-Earning Racehorse of All Time?

The highest-earning racehorse of all time in North America is currently Arrogate, with an incredible $17,422,600 in earnings. Arrogate is an American-born Thoroughbred who Bob Baffert trained. He won such races as the Travers Stakes, Breeders’ Cup Classic, Pegasus World Cup, and Dubai World Cup.