Types of Horse Races

Racing in the UK is pretty much a 52-week a year sport, meaning there’s little rest for the wicked when it comes to trainers, jockeys, TV commentators, and the horses themselves! Not to mention bookies like LeoVegas, pricing up all betting markets and the punters trying to work out who’s a ‘good thing’ ahead of each race.

It’s worth noting that racing is a somewhat seasonal sport. By this, we mean that different times of year bring different types of horse racing. And within the two main types of horse racing - flat races and jump races- there are different levels of class, each with their own set of unique rules and quirks.

In this sense, horse racing is more like cricket, with three main formats: tests, ODIs and T20, plus a few others than say football, where rules are always exactly the same, irrespective of the league or standard in question.

So, without further ado, here’s your guide to the main types of horse races.

If variety is the spice of life, then horse racing is a pretty spicy dish indeed. Why? Because even though they both come under the category of horse racing, the Grand National is a very different kettle of fish to say, The Derby. Aside from being the biggest races in the sport, a slog through the mud over jumps at Exeter in February is a very different prospect to a six-furlong sprint on the all-weather of Chelmsford City on a warm July night. And on that note, let’s jump in.

Flat Races

Flat races, as the name suggests, are run without any obstacles for the horses to negotiate.

When looking at racing worldwide, flat racing is by far more common than jumps racing. Though most of the other big racing nations outside the UK and Ireland do have jumps racing, such as Japan, the USA or France, they don’t generate nearly enough attention and interest as flat races.

The shortest flat races are contested over just five furlongs (1km), while the longest are over 31 furlongs, 6.4 km, though the latter are extremely rare anywhere in the world. And in the case of UK and Ireland, it’s also uncommon to see races any longer than 15 furlongs, which is 3.2 km. Most races are therefore run between five and 12 furlongs.

Races at the shorter end of the scale are known as ‘sprints’ while slightly longer ones are known as ‘routes’ in the US or ‘staying races’ in the likes of the UK or France.

Tracks for flat horse racing tend to be oval-shaped, although Windsor is a good example of one that’s more of a figure eight. Epsom on the other hand is an example of a racetrack that has a severe gradient to it.

Flat racing in the UK generally takes place on turf with some of the most famous grass racecourses on the flat being Epsom, Windsor, Newmarket and York.

That said, to allow for flat racing to take place all year round, even when the weather is cold and damp, there are several all-weather courses (a mixture of silica sand, recycled synthetic fibres and recycled rubber) hosting UK flat racing, including Chelmsford City, Kempton Park and Lingfield Park. Although the latter two do also admittedly have a turf course, as well.

In the UK, the most prestigious flat races are the five Classics: the Derby, the Oaks, the One Thousand Guineas, Saint Leger and the Two Thousand Guineas.

Outside the UK, some of the biggest and richest flat races include: the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (France), the Japan Cup, the Kentucky Derby (US), the Melbourne Cup (Australia) and the Dubai World Cup.

Group Races

Group races are reserved for the best of the best of those taking part in flat horse racing.

In the UK there are 36 Group 1 contests held every year, which includes the five Classic listed above in addition to other well-known races such as the Goodwood Cup, the Diamond Jubilee Stakes and the Ascot Gold Cup.

Group 1 races are the most prestigious followed by Group 2 and then Group 3 races.

Unlike most other flat races, there are normally certain restrictions that limit what type of horses can enter a particular Group 1 race. For example, it might be restricted to horses of a particular age (from two-year-olds to four-year-olds or older) or to a specific gender; so, you might have one for fillies only. Group 1 races are nicely spread over the flat racing season and take place at lots of different courses so racing fans all over the country can get the chance to watch the very best in action.

In Group 1 races horses all run off level weights, but certain allowances are made to make the race even ‘fairer’ such as allowances given to 3-year old horses against older ones, and for fillies and mares against colts and geldings.

Group 2 and 3 races also have these restrictions, and the idea is also to make them a level playing field, but there are extra penalties that can come into force. So, a horse that has recently won at that level or higher will carry extra weight compared to its rivals.

Handicap Races

Sooner or later, any horse will be given an official rating.

A strong performance in a race - either courtesy of finishing high up and/or well-placed against strong horses - will mean the horse’s rating will go up. A poor performance means the horse’s rating will go down, with the exact calculations of their performance and revised rating done by a team of handicappers after each race they run.

The higher a horse’s rating, the more weight it will carry on a proportional basis, with each point representing 1lb.

So, a horse rated 90 will carry 9st 8lb and a horse rated 88 will carry two 2lb less, so 9st 6lb.

Following on from the theme of handicap races being geared towards horses of a similar standard racing against each other, handicap races are often only for those in a specific band. For example, 0-90.

To compete in a flat handicap, a horse’s rating must be 110 or lower. If a horse’s rating is higher than that, they can only compete in Group and Listed races.

Jump Races

As the name suggests, jump races involve horses having to jump over obstacles laid out over the track.

Jump racing is officially known as National Hunt racing, a reference to its history. Although it takes place year around, the biggest races tend to be in the autumn, winter, and spring with the summer reserved for the biggest flat races.

There are 40 courses in the UK that host jump racing and though there are plenty of high-profile jump races over the year, the Grand National at Aintree and the Gold Cup at Cheltenham are the two biggest and richest of them all.

As we’ll come to in a second, smaller obstacles that are easier to clear are known as hurdles while higher ones are known as fences.

Because jumps races tend to be much longer and often involve tough jumps, horses who take part in jump races require not only greater levels of stamina than in flat races but need to be bigger horses who have the power to clear those demanding jumps; meaning they’re heavier and stronger than horses bred for the flat.

They also tend to be older, with the minimum age for jumping being three, but most jump races horses are considerably older than that.

National Hunt racing can be divided into the five following categories:

National Hunt Flat events – Often termed 'bumpers', these cater to horses specifically bred for the jumping realm. In fact, horses who have previously run in flat races aren’t allowed to take part in bumpers. Despite being run under the rules of jump racing, they don't tackle any obstacles and serve as a sort of apprenticeship for horses who are going to move onto hurdles or fences by testing the horse’s stamina. Bumpers are generally run as the last race of the day and as per the rules of jump racing, starting stalls aren’t used.

Novice Hurdling – At the season's start, horses without a prior win in a hurdles race can participate in these novice races. This continues until they clinch their first hurdles victory by the season's end.

Hurdling – Horses test their mettle over hurdles with broader competition, choosing from Graded, Handicap, or Selling races.

Novice Chasing – Echoing the novice hurdling category, this section is reserved for horses that kick off the season without a fence victory. They're eligible for novice chase races up to the season's end when they achieve their inaugural win over fences, or up to another designated point.

Chasing – This category hosts horses challenging themselves over fences in a diverse field, with race options including Graded, Handicap, or Selling events.

Graded Races

Graded races are the jumps equivalent of (flat) Group races, in that they’re reserved for the very best horses over jumps.

Like with Group races, the highest level is Grade 1 and it’s also a case in Graded races that all horses carry the same weight, which is determined by age and sex only; the horse’s previous performances don’t have a bearing on the weight they carry. These are known as ‘weight-for-age’ races.

These are the races that feature the best-known, most prolific winners who are household names within the racing community.

There are 30 Graded races that take place in the UK every year. Among the best-known are: the Betfair Chase (Haydock), King George VI Chase (Kempton), the Champion Hurdle, World Hurdle and Gold Cup (Cheltenham) and the Aintree Hurdle.

Listed Races

Rounding off our summary of the types of horse races explained, are Listed races.

These are just one level below the Group level and make up three tiers of the highest-rated horse racing events.

Horses run off level weights with one exception: if they receive a weight allowance as a three-year-old competing against older horses. Or if they’re penalised for a previous win either at a higher grade or in a previous listed event.

Though a horse doesn’t need to have a minimum official rating in order to take part in a Listed race, they’re generally considered to be of a higher standard than premier Handicap races.

There’s an interesting quirk when it comes to a horse winning a Listed race: doing so means the horse earns black-type status. This means that they’ll have their names printed in bold, black type in sales catalogues, which carries a certain level of prestige as well as being a stamp of quality when it comes to actually selling the horse, if the owner is so inclined.

Listed races take place pretty much throughout the whole year, with the only month that doesn’t have one being January. These include the Churchill Stakes (Lingfield Park), the Newmarket Stakes and the Cheshire Oaks.


Unlike European football, which generally has a three-month break in the summer between the season just ending and the new one beginning, horse racing takes place just about every day of the year.

Further good news for the racing fan is that there’s a huge amount of variety in terms of racing on a daily basis. Though it’s somewhat seasonal with flat racing better suited to the summer and most jumps racing taking place in the other three seasons, there will be plenty of days when across five or six race meetings, there will be a combination of both.

And as we’ve just seen, there’s also lots of variety within the two main types when it comes to the quality of the horses in action. Outside the biggest festivals, racing during the week tends to feature lower-level horses with the crème de la crème saved for the best Graded races, Listed races and Group races at weekend events.

For the real racing aficionado, it all provides an excellent opportunity to follow the progress of horses not just over the course of one season, but over their career as a whole spanning several years, especially when it comes to jumps horses who can have long careers.

And the best news of all? All UK and Ireland races are offered by LeoVegas, meaning you can get involved in as many or as little as you wish, whilst benefiting from the Best Odds Guarantee promise, as well as other ongoing bonuses.