What are the British Classic races?

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There are five British Classic races, held annually. The five races are: The 2,000 Guineas (colts and fillies), 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.


The five Classic races have a very specific age limit: only three-year-old horses are eligible to enter these races. Obviously a horse will only be three years old for one year of its life, so it’s literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a horse to win one or more of these races. If the horse is not able to run that day for some reason, there will never be another chance for it to try again – these races are only held once a year and the following year the horse will be too old to be eligible.

In addition to the age limit, these are the top races for the fastest horses in flat racing, when they are at their physical best. This makes the races highly prestigious and globally famed.

Consequently owners and trainers will go to great lengths to have a horse that is of the right quality at the right age and with the right preparation, to be in with a chance of winning one or more of these races. It is not simply a case of training a talented horse and racing it in some preparation contests – or ‘trials’; the planning will go right the way back to history and the gene pool where a specific mare and stallion will have been selected based on their bloodlines and their own track records, to see if the combination of their genes might just be the perfect match to create a foal that will become a winner.

Then the right trainer will be chosen – usually someone with a good track record in these races themselves (for example you might hear them described as a ‘Derby specialist’), but also, bearing in mind that horses are individuals with their own preferences and quirks, it needs to be someone who knows how to get the best out of that particular horse. And finally the right jockey – again with the right experience for the race, as well as a result-producing connection with the horse.

So when you see these horses lining up at the start of a Classic, remember the research and planning, hopes and prayers, and patience and effort that have gone into putting that horse at that starting line on that day.


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.

It is not possible for one horse to win all five of the British Classics, as not all of the races can be entered by both colts and fillies – some are just for girls (fillies).

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. The Fillies’ Triple Crown is winning the 1000 Guineas, The Oaks and the St Leger.

Because the St Leger is longer than the other races, it is not common for a single horse to be superior over both distances – usually one horse has slightly more speed (for shorter distances) while another has slightly more stamina (for longer distances). Therefore in recent years it has become popular for British Classic horses to run in the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe – held at Longchamp in Paris – which is of a shorter distance than the St Leger, and which is run at around the same time of year (October).

So it may be a while before we again see a British Classic Triple Crown winner – but who knows, this could be the year – another great reason to follow the British Classics this summer!

Pictured top: Camelot wins the Epsom Derby 2012, ridden by Joseph O’Brien. He is the most recent horse to have contended for the Triple Crown after winning the 2,000 Guineas and the Derby, but was unable to clinch the third race, the St Leger. Photograph by Ian Yates, www.eyewhy.co.uk



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