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National hunt jumps or flat racing?

There are two types of horseracing discipline, National hunt and flat.

National hunt flat

National hunt flat racing is designed for three year old horses who have never raced over obstacles in their career. It is designed to give horses course experience without the hurdles and fences in place. This is usually the first of three stages in National hunt racing.



National hunt

National hunt racing, commonly referred to as ‘jumps’ racing, is a form of horseracing staged over obstacles. Thoroughbred racehorses are required to navigate a course of obstacles ranging from two miles to four and a half miles. National hunt racing is split into 2 main disciplines; Hurdles and Steeplechases. Racing over hurdles is traditionally for younger horses, with obstacles no bigger than three and a half feet tall. When a horse ages and matures, they are eligible to race over fences in Steeplechase races. Steeplechase racing is similar to that of hurdles racing, however, obstacles can be up to four and a half feet tall. The usual racing career of a horse will begin with a National Hunt Flat race before tackling hurdles, then progressing to steeplechases.




National hunt flat



Flat racing

Trainers and Jockeys


The correct choice of trainer is vital. Some trainers only train flat horses while others train only jumpers. Others train both. Some trainers are very good and some are very hopeless.

Some may find it attractive to have their horse educated by a member of the aristocracy, such as Sir Mark Prescott or Sir Michael Stoute, both fine trainers, based in Newmarket, the headquarters of British racing. Selecting them would offer the opportunity to remark, casually, ‘As I was saying to Sir Michael the other day,’ or ‘Sir Mark was telling me’ or even, ‘Evidently the Queen took a liking to my filly at Sir Michael’s.’

Differing stables

The size of ponds and fishes is worth bearing in mind. At leading Flat trainer Mark Johnston’s yard, at Middleham in North Yorkshire, you could be a small fish in a large pond. Much of it taken up by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed al Maktoum’s enormous collection of racehorses. Similarly at leading jumps trainer Nick Henderson’s yard, at Upper Lambourn in Berkshire. It’s likely that you would be a minnow swimming with sharks, or friendlier aquatics, with names such as JP McManus, Robert Waley-Cohen and Simon Munir.
On the other hand, McManus is a noted gambler and the bluffer could then find himself saying. ‘I was talking to JP at Nicky’s the other day. He was telling me about one they’ve laid out for a handicap at the Cheltenham Festival. I’ve taken 16-1. Love to bring you in on it, but mum’s the word, I’m afraid.’ At this point, a gentle tap on the site of your nose wouldn’t go amiss.


Jockeys are supposed to follow the instructions issued by the horse’s trainer. Sometimes there aren’t any instructions, sometimes they don’t make sense, sometimes they can’t be carried out, and sometimes the jockey just ignores them.
Opinions are influenced by outcomes. Winning a race is generally regarded as a good thing, reflecting well on the winning jockey, whereas losing a race is liable to provoke a search for riding errors.
Flat jockeys keep going for decades. Frankie Dettori is in his 40s while Piggot, a law unto himself, retired in 1985 when he was 50. He then returned to win the 1990s Breeders’ Cup Mile on Royal Academy. Then, aged 56, the 1992 2000 Guineas on Rodrigo De Triano. He finally retired at the age of 59.



On the flat, learner riders are known as apprentices and are given a weight allowance as an incentive to trainers to give them rides. As the number of winners they ride goes up, the weight allowance goes down. Capable apprentices can be in great demand and it is enjoyable and rewarding to try to spot promising young riders. Especially before their talent is widely noticed.

Jump Jockeys

Horses carry bigger weights in jump races so jockeys can be larger, without being fat. It is a dangerous sport, in which injuries are common. Jump jockeys are what is known as ‘the salt of the earth’. As they regularly displaying qualities such as courage, resilience, compassion, modesty and generally setting a fine example of what sportsmen should be like.

Conditional Riders

These are jump racing’s version of apprentices. They are probably called conditionals because, conditional on them being good enough and not complaining too much about broken bones, they will become proper jump jockeys.

Amateur Riders

They aren’t professional jockeys and don’t get paid for riding. They do it for fun.

Both on the flat and over jumps, there are some races restricted to amateur riders. Although over jumps, amateurs also ride regularly against professionals. The standard of riding has improved considerably over the last 30 years and amateurs now approach the sport in a more professional, less cavalier, way. If their weight permits, they sometimes turn professional.

Women Jockeys

It seems unimaginable now but in 1966, Florence Nagle had to take legal action to force the Jockey Club to end their practice of refusing to issue training licences to women. Until then, women trainers were obliged to ask a male assistant or head lad to apply for a licence, with the yard’s horses running in his name.



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Types of races

Types of racing

Handicap races

Well over half of all the horse races in Britain are handicaps. Horses carry different weights based on the official handicapper’s assessment of their past performances. It is a way of bringing horses of different abilities together.

In a handicap race, it is not always enough to work out which horse is best (in theory, the one allotted the highest weight), you have to work out which one is ‘best handicapped’. Is there a horse which you believe has a handicap rating that understates its likely level of performance in the race in question?

Perhaps today’s conditions – the state of the ground, the distance of the race, the conformation of the racecourse, the speed at which the race is likely to be run, the rider on board – will enable the horse to perform better than its its recent races. That sort of thing.

Since a horse’s handicap mark influences its prospects of winning, trainers are sometimes tempted to take steps to influence its rating. Some of the steps being within the rules of racing, others outside them.

There have always been trainers and jockeys who try to conceal a horse’s real ability by deliberately not trying to win a race. Usually this is with the aim of persuading the handicapper to reduce the horse’s handicap mark, thereby making it ‘well handicapped’. That is a serious breach of the rules, liable to result in severe penalty, if proven.

Improvements in technology, access to betting data and standards of stewarding have made it easier to detect ‘non-triers’. There are other, less crude methods of getting a horse well handicapped, such as running it over an unfavourable distance or on unfavourable going. For punters, this is either a fascinating aspect of the crossword puzzle or a tremendous irritation provoking moral outrage.

Non-handicap races

In these diagrams, the weight each horse carries is determined by the published conditions of the race. Horses contesting races confined to horses of the same age often carry the same weight and as a result, there’s a weight allowance for fillies and mares racing against colts and geldings. Previous winners may have to carry a weight penalty which may vary accordingly to the number and nature of the race or races previously won.

Where horses of different ages contest the same race, the weights they carry are based on the ‘weight-for-age’ scale. This is a refined version of a system invented by Admiral Rous in 1850 and reviewed by him in 1973. It makes allowance for the relative maturity of horses of different ages so that, depending on the time of year and distance of the race, a three-year-old will carry less weight than a four-year-old or older horse. Simple really.


Within the broad categories of handicap and non-handicap races are all sorts of sub-divisions, and all sorts of race distances. On the flat,  the shortest distance is five furlongs. The longest, the Queen Alexandra Stakes at Royal Ascot,  almost two and three-quarter miles. Over jumps, the shortest distance in both hurdle and chases is two miles. The longest hurdle race is almost three and a half miles and the longest chase, the Grand National, almost 4 and a half miles.

Other sub-divisions


Amateur riders races – Races for jockeys prepared to risk killing themselves without being paid for it.
Apprentice races An apprentice jockey is like an apprentice electrician, and similarly dangerous. Races confined to apprentices offer the sight of a small, inexperienced mammal sitting on a much larger one, travelling at over 30mph.
Bumper races The popular name for National Hunt Flat races. These are for horses not quick enough to race on the Flat but unable to jump properly.
Claiming races Horses are entered to be claimed for a range of prices. The claiming price determining the weight the horse carries. By choosing a low claiming price, the trainer can improve the horse’s chance of winning because it will carry a lower weight. For good or ill, it will also increase the likelihood of other people claiming the horse.
Hurdle races – Races supplied with obstacles to increase the chance that the one you have backed falls over.
Juvenile races Races for delinquents. On the flat, two-year-olds are regarded as juveniles. Over hurdles, juvenile races are for three-year-olds from October to December and for four-year-olds from January to April.
Maiden races Races for horses that have not yet won one, and are unlikely to.
Selling race Races in which the winner is offered for sale at a post race auction. Bidding will start at a sum specified in the race conditions. The current owner can bid for his own horse, thereby providing the opportunity to win the race yet lose money.
Steeplechases Races supplied with obstacles larger than hurdles for horses that have failed to fall over in hurdle races.


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Racehorses and their welfare


The age at which horses begin to race differs between the two codes; in the flat, they start as 2-year-olds, whilst in the jumps, as 3-year-olds. This is supposedly due to the development of the horse physically, as the strain put on their bodies is greater jumping obstacles. Flat racehorses, in general, have a much short racing career due to their value as stallions, sometimes stopping racing aged 3. Whilst even the most successful jump racers can go until they are over 10-years-old, such as Sprinter Sacre.

Male and female horses race against each other regularly, with many ‘fillies’ and ‘mares’ beating their male counterparts at the highest level. A filly is a young female horse, whilst a mare is what they are called when they become adults. A male is named a colt, which could change to a gelding if the owner decides to forgo any breeding opportunities in the future.

Due to the monumental importance of breeding in producing a successful racehorse, and the role of single stallions on the population of horses in training, you would be forgiven to assume that many racehorses are indistinguishable to one another. The most common colours are bay, chestnut and grey. The former of the three make up a much larger percentage than the other two. This can be attributed to the fact many great stallions over the years are bay; Galileo, Dansili, Dubawi, Sadler’s Wells, Danehill and Montjeu, to name but a few.



Owning a horse

Since – a rather alarming fact – most racehorses never win a race in their lives, watching their pre-race performances on the gallops has a lot to recommend it. They don’t get beaten as often there.

Visiting your trainer’s yard is one of the most enjoyable parts of racehorse ownership. However, it is not without its hazards. On your first visit, you will notice that most of the horses look the same. If the runners for this year’s Derby were secretly exchanged for a collection of humble selling platers, most of the crowd would not notice the difference. So there is no shame in asking, which one’s mine?

As your trainer introduces you to your horse, who will show no signs of either recognition, interest or gratitude. He will explain some of the fundamentals. Your horse will have had a virus, and probably ringworm. He will recently have been scoped. This involves sticking a tube down the horse’s throat to collect samples, to confirm that he has, indeed, got an infection. That is why he has yet to make his debut on the gallops. If he has managed a bit of exercise, he will have sore shins. Either way, a vet’s bill will be on its way shortly.


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Horse Racing Terms – Read the Glossary

Explained – Horse Racing Terms

The world of horseracing contains plenty of confusing words, some of which may mean very little. Here’s a handy guide to help you understand some of the horse racing terms;



Ability to bet on races in the weeks and months leading up to an event


A well-fancied runner, often a horse with short odds


Horse with the biggest odds in a race, also referred to as ‘unfancied’


The starting price; the odds of each horse when the race begins


The shortening of a horse’s odds near to race time; often seen as a positive


The lengthening of a horse’s odds near race time; often seen as a negative


Strong favourite; odds dictate that your stake will be greater than your return


Someone who bets on a races; usually the customer, also known as ‘punter’


Someone who takes bets; usually the bookmaker, also known as ‘bookie’


Races in which horses are weighted according to their past performance


Horse with the shortest odds in a race, also known as the favourite