Guide to Racing

The Rookies Guide to Racing – The Flat

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Guide to Racing: Flat Racing – Fast and furious

Flat racing, or ‘the Flat’, refers to racing where the horses do not have to jump any obstacles. In sprint races, the horses are bred for speed, while for longer distances stamina is the focus. Horses tend to be bred for one or the other (compare with 100m sprinters and marathon runners in human athletics, for example).

The races are run on ‘turf’ (natural grass) or ‘all-weather’ (synthetic) tracks.

Flat racing jockeys tend to be smaller and lighter than their Jump jockey counterparts. Jumping fences requires more energy than travelling along a flat surface, and therefore Jump horses are not expected to go so fast. This is why a Jump horse will be bred for greater stamina.

Think of a rally car racing compared with Formula 1

…the latter requires light and slick while the former requires robustness and strength, though both require great power. For some Flat racing, horses are raced when very young and therefore need lighter riders as they are not yet at mature strength.

Though Flat racing may at first glance appear quite dull in comparison with Jump racing, it is not as simple as ‘go as fast as you can’. Flat racing requires a great sense of timing and degree of skill from the jockeys to get the best from the horse and ensure that they achieve a flying win.

Some horses prefer to run in front of the others, and so the jockey must time the pace so that they stay in the front without his horse running out of energy, but still making sure they can win.

However, some horses prefer to run mid-field or at the back, and so it’s up to the jockey to decide when he should push the horse forward. He should give the horse enough time to make up some ground, but not too much otherwise someone else might outrun him, and not too soon in case the horse runs out of energy before the finish. Every horse is different and so the jockey has to understand their horse in order to get the best outcome.

The horses have to negotiate their way through the others, who are all jostling for the best position for the finish. They’re moving at a great speed, so one miscalculation of space or timing could end in a crashing fall. Split-second judgement and great courage for both horse and rider are essential.

Top-quality Flat racing is generally accompanied by high fashion stakes amongst the racegoers. Prepare to dazzle and be dazzled, particularly in the top Flat meetings such as Royal Ascot, Glorious Goodwood, Chester May Races and the York Ebor. (For a full list of top races see Chapter 14.)

Flat racing is split into three groups: ‘Classics’, ‘Conditions Races’ and ‘Handicaps’.


There are five British Classic races, held annually. Only three-year-old horses are eligible to enter these races, so it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a horse to win one or more of these races. Because these are the top races for the fastest horses in Flat racing, they are highly prestigious and globally famed.

If a horse wins three of the races, it is awarded the Triple Crown. This is an extremely rare achievement but each year there is the thrill of following the series to see if a horse can win it – this has not been achieved by any colt since Nijinsky in 1970, while the Fillies’ Triple Crown was last won by Oh So Sharp in 1985.

The five races are: The 2,000 Guineas (colts), The 1,000 Guineas (fillies) – both run at Newmarket in May; The Oaks (fillies), The Derby (colts and fillies) – both run at Epsom Downs in June; and The St. Leger (colts and fillies) run at Doncaster in September. To win the Triple Crown a horse must win one of The Guineas races, plus either The Derby or the Oaks, plus The St Leger.

Conditions races 

These are so-called because a set of conditions is created to assess what weight the horse should carry while racing. The weight will be determined by the sex and age of the horse, and its track-record in previous races (i.e. how good it is!).

Conditions races consist of Pattern races and Listed races:

Pattern races

These are the big races (See Chapter 14 –The UK’s top races) that attract top-quality horses.

Group 1 – these races are of major international importance

Group 2 – less important international races

Group 3 – high quality domestic races

Listed races

These are important Flat races for horses that have failed to qualify for Pattern races but are better than Handicappers.

Handicap races 

Horses racing in Handicaps are graded to their ability. The handicap refers to extra lead weights the horses have to carry to level out their racing abilities. Horses that have performed well in previous races will be given more weight to carry (to slow them down a bit), to give lesser-performing horses an equal chance of winning. Horses are ‘rated’ by an official handicapper to show what weight they should carry. Ratings are reviewed after each race.

To make things fairer, horses with similar ratings are raced against each other, so Handicaps are divided into Classes 2–7.

Class 2 – Heritage Handicaps, for horses with a rating of 86–100, 91–105 and 96–110

Class 3 – for horses with a rating of 76–90, and 81–95

Class 4 – for horses with a rating of 66–80, and 71–85

Class 5 – for horses with a rating of 56–70, and 61–75

Class 6 – for horses with a rating of 46–60, and 51–65

Class 7 – for horses with a rating of 46–50

As a horse improves, its rating increases and so it can move up through the classes.


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