Top 13 Horse Racing Facts You Might Not Know

Features | 31st January 2022

Horse racing is one of the most historic sports with evidence it even took place in Britain during the Roman occupation as long as two millenniums ago.

It’s now the second‐most popular spectator sport only behind football and has become big business. The horseracing industry is worth more than £4billion to the British economy.

Here’s 13 interesting facts you might not know about the ‘sport of kings’.

1. There are two main types of racing in Britain – Flat and jumps

The Flat racing mainly takes place in the summer. Jumps races – run over fences and hurdles – take place all year but the main season is from October to the end of April.

The exception is all‐weather Flat racing. That is held all year round on artificial surfaces designed to combat bad weather. The first meeting in Britain was held at Lingfield in 1989.

2. All thoroughbred horses can be traced back to just three stallions

The bloodlines of all modern racehorses go back to the Darley Arabian, the Godolphin Arabian and the Byerley Turk. These Arabian horses were imported into Britain in the late 17th century and early 18th century by wealthy men intent on breeding faster, stronger and more athletic horses.

3. All racehorses have their official birthdays on New Year’s Day

Few horses are actually born on 1 January but that’s when another year is added to their age. A lot of Flat races have age restrictions. Two‐year‐olds – the youngest horses to race – rarely come up against older horses and the five ‘Classics’ are only contested by horses age three.

4. There are five ‘Classic’ races run each year on The Flat

The St Leger, run over 1m6f at Doncaster every September, is the oldest of the Classics having been established in 1776.

The 1000 Guineas and Oaks are both for fillies only whilst the 2000 Guineas is largely contested by colts, although fillies are eligible. The final classic is the Derby which is for 3-year-old colts only. The Triple Crown – last won by Nijinsky in 1970 – consists of the 2000 Guineas, Derby and St Leger. Oh So Sharp won the 1000 Guineas, Oaks and St Leger to land the Fillies’ Triple Crown in 1985.

5. The Derby – Britain’s most famous Flat race – takes its name from the 12th Earl of Derby

The naming of the Epsom prize was decided at a party thrown by the Earl. Legend says the host and one of his guests, Sir Charles Bunbury, tossed a coin with the winner lending his name to the new race. 

Accepted reality is that Sir Charles graciously conceded to his host. The Bunbury Cup, run at Newmarket’s July Meeting, was named in his honour instead.

7 Racing and royalty has gone hand‐in‐hand for hundreds of years

Queen Anne established Ascot Racecourse in 1711 and the track’s association with the Royal Family continues to this day. The Queen is a huge supporter of British Flat racing. She has owned horses for more than 70 years having inherited breeding and racing stock from her father, King George VI.

In 2013, Estimate carried her famous colours to victory in the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot – a prize she traditionally presents to the winning owner herself.

8. The oldest British race is over 400 years old

The oldest race run under the British Horseracing Authority’s rules of racing is the Carlisle Bell. It was first run in 1599 and now takes place over just short of a mile in June each year.

The bells that were given as the original trophy are on display in the Carlisle Guildhall Museum.

9. Chester Racecourse is the world’s oldest track still in operation

It was established in 1539 and it remains an important course in British racing. The popular May meeting hosts three Classic trials as well as the historic Chester Cup. 

The first race fixture was arranged by Chester’s mayor Henry Gee. Gee still has an impact on racing all these years later as it was his name that is used as slang for horseracing when people say ‘gee gees’.

11. The Need For Speed

Stone Of Folca holds the British record for the fastest racehorse over racing’s minimum distance of five furlongs. He clocked a time of 53.69 seconds when winning the ‘Dash’ at Epsom on Derby Day in 2012.

That equates to an average speed of 41.9mph.

10. Jumps races run over fences are called ‘steeplechases’

This phrase, still used today, originates from the early days of the sport in Ireland. Races were often run between church steeples with the riders forced to jump fences, hedges, ditches and anything else that was in their way.

The first steeplechase is believed to have taken place over four miles in Cork, Ireland in 1752 between Cornelius O’Callaghan and Edmund Blake,

12. The British Horseracing Authority vet the name of every racehorse

Names must be no longer than 18 characters, including spaces, and cannot contain any punctuation.

The winners of big races go on a restricted list so they can’t be repeated. They’ll never be another Frankel or Red Rum. Among the others rules is that a horse’s name cannot contain suggestive, vulgar and obscene words.

Even with an extensive vetting process some rather risqué names to slip through the net much to the amusement of their owners but the BHA takes a dim view of this.

13. Racing has its own dedicated newspaper and TV channels

The Racing Post has extensively been covering the sport since it launched in 1986. It has been the only dedicated British racing newspaper since the Sporting Life closed in 1998.

Racing is screened on ITV throughout the year. The terrestrial channel is expected to cover more than 100 days of racing in 2022. Every race in Britain in Ireland is also covered by either of the sport’s two dedicated TV channels – Racing TV and Sky Racing.