Flat racing traditionally takes place during the summer and involves racing horses along flat tracks without any obstacles. Flat racing is all about speed and is much more prestigious than National Hunt racing.
Flat racing originally started at Newmarket in the England, but nowadays some of the most important events take place across Europe (in Britain, France, Ireland, Italy and Germany) as well as Australia, the United States, the Middle East and the Far East.
The type of flat race and the rules and regulations used vary between countries.
Types of Flat Races
The two main types of flat races in Europe are conditions races and handicap races.
In conditions races, horses carry additional weight depending on certain conditions that have been decided by the race organisation. The conditions relate to the age, sex and ability of the horse. For example, a young female horse who has not won any races will carry less weight than an older male horse who has won many races.
There are different types of Condition Races which are ranked according to The Pattern, a system introduced in 1971 for European racing events:
- Group 1 races: These are events of significant international importance, as well as more classical events.
- Group 2 races: Naturally not as important as Group 1 races.
- Group 3 races: These are domestic races.
Handicap races are the most common type of flat racing and are usually less prestigious than condition races. They are, however, important races for gamblers. In a handicap race, an official handicapper decides how much additional weight the horse should carry so as to equalise the differences in ability between competing horses.
In the rest of the world, racing events are largely classified according to the grading system found in North America, rather than the European conditions system. In the graded system, races are known as graded stakes races, meaning the grading relates to the stake or entry fee paid by the owners to enter their horse in the race. The entry fee is also proportional to the amount of prize money paid out at the end. There are three different grades rating from Grade 1 down to Grade 3, with grade 1 races offering higher prize money. Horses may also be classified in a race according to certain criteria such as sex, age and ability.
Flat Racing Horses
Horses can start flat racing when they are two years old, and three years is the most important age for flat racing. Many flat races, including the five classic English races, are for three year olds and horses that win one of these races are more likely to be used for breeding later on. The most successful three year olds often retire when they reach four to make the maximum use of their stud value. Some horses continue to race until they are five, when they are seen to have reached their peak, and some horses continue racing until they are much older.
Some of the most famous flat racing horses include Brigadier Gerard, Cigar, Dubai Millenium, Mill Reef, Nashwan, Nijinsky, Oh So Sharp, Rock of Gibraltar, Sea Bird II and Shergar.
Flat Racing Jockeys
There is much speculation about the health of flat racing jockeys, many of whom appear to starve themselves in order to reach the minimum weight allowed for their sport. Flat racing jockeys have a minimum weight is 7st 12lb and they have to be much stricter with their weight than National Hunt jockeys, who have a minimum weight requirement of 10st.
Jockeys are paid per race and they also get a share of the prize money. This means that they need to win lots of races if they want to earn a good salary. National hunt jockeys generally earn more per race than flat racing jockeys because races are longer and generally more dangerous. However, the prize money for National Hunt races is usually much lower than for flat races. Trainers and owners may also pay a jockey a retainer fee so as to give them the option of first refusal for a race.
Most of the top jockeys in the world are from Ireland, with the notable exception being the Italian Frankie Dettori, as well as the English jockeys Kevin Darley and George Duffield. Few women have been highly successful flat racing, apart from Alex Greaves, who is the only women to have won a Group 1 race.
World famous jockeys
Frankie Dettori, an Italian jockey who became world famous at Ascot in 1996 where he rode a ‘Magnificent Seven’. This means that he rode every winner on a seven-race card.
Kieran Fallon, a highly successful Irish jockey who has won many major races.
Pat Eddery is a top Irish flat racing jockey who was champion jockey 11 times between 1974 and 1996. He retired in 2003.
Other notable names are Kevin Darley (England), George Duffield (England), Richard Hughes (Ireland), Johnny Murtagh (Ireland), Mike Kinane (Ireland), Jamie Spencer (Ireland).
Important Flat Racing events in the UK
The five classic English races are the most important flat racing events in the UK. They are:
- The One Thousands Guinea Stakes – Takes place at Newmarket racecourse around the beginning of May. The race was first run in 1812.
- The Two Thousands Guinea Stakes – Takes place at the Newmarket racecourse at the start of May. This race is for three year old colts (young male horses) and fillies (young female horses) and it was first run in 1809. The race is named after the original prize money for the race, which was two thousand guineas.
- The Epsom Oaks – Run at Epsom Downs racecourse and classified a Group 1 race for three year old fillies. Epsom Oaks was first run in 1779.
- The Epsom Derby – An extremely important international event, which takes place in June. It is also run at Epsom Downs racecourse and classified a Group 1 race for fillies and colts.
- The St. Leger Stakes – Takes place at Doncaster racecourse in September, and is also a Group 1 race for thoroughbred colts and fillies. The race first took place in 1776 and it is the world’s oldest classic horserace.
Flat Horse Racing around the World
The most important flat racing events in Europe take place in England, Ireland, France, Germany and Italy.
The majority of racing events in North America are held on dirt surfaces rather than on turf or all weather tracks as in Europe. Most of the tracks are the same shape. Important racing events in the US include the extremely popular Breeders’ Cup and the US Triple Crown. The US Triple Crown is made up of three different races that take place over a six week period – The Belmont Stakes, The Kentucky Derby and The Preakness Stakes.
The Far East
Flat racing is popular in Japan and Hong Kong.
In Australia the major flat racing event is The Melbourne Cup held every November.
The United Arab Emirates
Flat racing is very popular in the Emirates, and the world’s most affluent race, the Dubai World Cup, is held there every year. The Cup is one of the most prestigious and glamorous events in horse racing. It started in 1996 and is held in Dubai at the Nad Al Sheba Racecourse under the regulations of the Emirates Horse Racing Authority. The race is 2km long and takes place every March. For more information visit the Dubai Cup official website.
Flat racing is also popular in parts of South America. Argentina was famous for its thoroughbreds for much of the last century and many racing events take place at the main racecourse in Buenos Aires.
World Series Racing Championship
The World Series Racing Championship was set up in 1999 by Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai to help internationalise horse racing. The intention was to create a thoroughbred world championship, but support for the event has developed slowly.
The World Series Racing Championship is run every year between March and December. It is made up of twelve races, which are run in nine different countries and across four different continents. The countries which host the races are Hong Kong, England, the US, Ireland, Germany, France, Canada, Australia and Japan. At the end of each race, the first six horses are given points and, at the end of the whole event, the horse with the highest points wins.