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Are All Racehorses Thoroughbreds? The Horse Breeds that Race

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Going to the track is a fun outing, and while there, you’ll see horses of varying sizes and colors. But are all the racehorses Thoroughbreds or do other breeds also race?

Horses don’t have to be a Thoroughbred to race. Many different horse breeds compete in sanctioned horse races, including Quarter horses, Arabians, Paints, and Standardbreds.

Matching horses in a test of speed is an ancient competition that has basically remained unchanged since its inception. Horse racing varies by distance, surface, terrain, and breed.

Picture of a thoroughbred racehorse.


Horses other than Thoroughbred race

Although Thoroughbreds are the dominant racing breed, other breeds are frequently used in sanctioned races and often fare better than Thoroughbreds in their competition style.

The most popular flat races are between four furlongs and two miles. And at these distances Thoroughbred horses dominate. However, there are races run at many other lengths that Thoroughbreds don’t fare as well.

In a long contest over many miles, Arabian horses are the dominant breed, in short races, such as the quarter-mile sprints, Quarter horses with their compact bodies are the best.

Warmbloods such as the Dutch Warmblood, find success in races that include jumping obstacles. Distance, terrain, and obstacles factor into how a breed performs in a race.

Most flat track horse races restrict the entries by breed; Thoroughbreds compete against Thoroughbreds and Quarter horses against other Quarter horses. However, there are exceptions; match races may pit different breeds against each other.

For example, a Thoroughbred was matched against a Quarter horse, to settle a long-standing debate over which breed is the fastest. Let’s look at some horses, that aren’t Thoroughbreds that have found success racing.

Quarter Horses dominate quarter-mile races

Quarter Horses are strong, stout, and fast. The breed evolved in America during the 17th century through crossbreeding of Spanish mustangs and English Thoroughbreds.

Their racing history traces back to towns in the Carolinas and Virginia, where they were matched against each other in quarter-mile races. The Colonial farmers bred their horses for explosive speed.

The search for faster bloodlines led them to trade with the Chickasaw Indians and their fast Spanish horses. These horses were ridden by the conquistador into America and later claimed by the Native Americans.

In the mid-1700s, a Thoroughbred stud named Janus was imported to the United States. He was a grandson of The Godolphin, one of the three foundation sires of the Thoroughbred breed. Janus was bred to Colonial mares with a Chickasaw cross. Their offspring is the foundation of the modern American Quarter Horse.

The American Quarter Horse is a strong, fast, compact horse that can run a quarter of a mile faster than any horse in the world. To learn more about Quarterhorses, visit the American Quarter Horse Association website.

picture of a quarter horse on the race track,
Racing Quarterhorse.

Quarterhorse racing

Quarter horses race 11 distances from 220 yards to 870 yards. All races shorter than 550 yards are run on straightaways. The most prestigious Quarterhorse race is the All-American Futurity.

It’s a race for qualified two years olds run a distance of 440 yards. The All-American Futurity was the first horse race ever to have a million-dollar purse.

Today the purse has reached $3 million, making it the richest two-year-old horse race of any breed in North America. Quarter horses can reach 55 miles an hour in a race.

Arabian horses excel in long-distance races

Thousands of years ago, the Bedouins of the Middle East lived in a harsh desert environment. To survive, they domesticated horses’ that could survive on little water and forage.

The strongest of these horses survived and adapted to become the Arabian horse breed. They were selectively bred for strength, beauty, and stamina. They were the perfect horse to cover the many miles needed for survival.

An Arabian horse has perfect conformation for a long-distance runner. The horses are small-boned and have a long arching neck, a short back, and sloping shoulders. Their light frame travels efficiently over any terrain.

Arabians in horse racing

Endurance racing

Arabian horses are the most successful breed in endurance racing. Endurance racing is a long-distance race that covers a minimum of 25 miles. Some of the competitions are over 100 miles long.

It is common to see a variety of breeds in an endurance race. Endurance races are not restricted by breed or age, and any horse can enter. However, Arabians and Arabian crosses dominate the sport.

Flat track Arabian racing

Arabian horse racing started in North America in the 1950s. Like other flat-track racing, it is breed restrictive. Some of the major tracks have select races dedicated to Arabian horses.

The Arabian Jockey Club was established in the United States to promote the sport and help develop the breed’s permanence in flat-track racing. The top event in Arabian racing is the Arabian Cup Championships, which consist of six graded stakes races. To learn more about Arabian horse racing, you can visit the International Federation of Arabian Horse Racing website.

Picture of an American Paint horse.

The American Paint Horse competes in flat track racing.

The American Paint Horse is treasured for its durability and striking color patterns. For a horse to be registered as an American Paint horse requires adherence to strict bloodline rules to ensure a horse of superior conformation and ability.

The modern Paint Horse excels in pleasure riding, racing, ranching, showing, or rodeoing. The American Paint horse combines qualities drawn from quarter horses and thoroughbreds. They have conformation similar to quarterhorses, with muscular hindquarters, are of medium height, and have a robust, well-balanced body.

The American Paint Horse in horse racing

The American Paint Horse Association officially sanctioned Paint horse racing in the 1960s. Since that time, Paints have established themselves as one of the fastest breeds on the track.

They race short distances similar to the distance run in a Quarter horse race. Most of the top Paints in racing have champion Quarter horse bloodlines in their pedigree.

Standardbred’s are the best harness racing breed

The American Standardbred originated in New England during the late 19th century from horses that trotted, paced, and raced either under saddle in harness or both.

Many breeds were crossed to develop the conformation desirable for harness racing. The strains used to create the American Standardbred include Thoroughbreds, Morgans, Canadian Pacers, and some extinct pacing and trotting breeds.

The Standardbred has a well-muscled, long body, with solid legs, powerful shoulders, and hindquarter. They typically stand 15 hands and weigh about 1,000 lbs. and are commonly bay, brown, or black.

The Standardbred name originated from the ability of the horse to pace or trot a mile under a ‘Standard’ time to be registered in the official breed registry. The horse is bred to meet a timed standard, therefore the name Standardbred.

The American Standardbred in harness racing

Harness racing is a horse race in which the horses compete pulling a two-wheeled cart occupied by a driver. Standardbred horses are the world’s most successful harness racing horse breed.

Standardbreds race in two gaits, either pacing or trotting. Typically, a Standardbred is explicitly bred to be either a pacer or a trotter, but some horses can run at either pace.

Most harness races are one mile, the same distance initially used years ago. Harness Races start while moving. They line up behind a starting gate attached to a vehicle.

When the horses reach the starting pole, the vehicle pulls away, and the horses follow, the arms of the gate fold in, and the race begins. The horses’ average speed during a race ranges from 25-35 mph.

Why do Thoroughbred racehorses have the same birthday?

The birthdays of Thoroughbred racehorses are all on the same day, Jan. 1, to make it easier to keep up with their ages, especially for races.
For a more in-depth look at this issue check there is a lot of helpful information in this article: Why Do Thoroughbred Racehorses Have the Same Birthday?

Do Thoroughbred racehorses have to live cover a mare?

To register as a Thoroughbred, the foal must be the offspring that resulted from a “live cover.” Live cover is required for all Thoroughbreds, including racehorses.
To learn more about Thoroughbred breeding check out this article: Live Cover Horse Breeding: A Requirement for Thoroughbreds?

Why are racehorses’ tongues tied?

Racehorses’ tongues are tied to prevent the horse’s tongue from getting over the bit and to avoid breathing interference caused by the displacement of the soft palate.
For more information about tying racehorses’ tongues read this article: Why Are Racehorses’ Tongues Tied?

Why do racehorses have to pee so badly?

Racehorses often have to pee because they are given the drug Lasix before the race. It’s a diuretic that draws the fluid from their bladder.
Here is an article about racehorses that provides more information on the topic: Why Do Racehorses Have to Pee so Bad? Fact, Fiction & Causes