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The Different Kinds of Horse Races Explained

Last updated: August 1, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

With as many as 300 horse breeds worldwide, there are many different types of horse races, and they all have unique histories and cultures behind them. But let’s look at some common types of horse races you might see on TV or read about in books.

There are four primary kinds of horse races, flat racing, steeplechasing, harness racing, and endurance racing. Flat racing competes over a course without obstacles, while steeplechasing includes jumps over obstacles, horses pull a cart in harness races, and endurance races cover extreme distances.

Many people are familiar with flat-course horse racing, but there is a whole slew of other types of races to learn about. I cover the four primary ones in detail so you can absorb each and maybe pick a racing event for you to follow or become involved in.

Kinds of Horse Racing

Horses have been a part of human culture for thousands of years, and they haven’t always just pulled buggies or carriages; they were actually used as warhorses at one point! And to prove their steeds’ superiority, warriors pitted them against each other in races.

Thus began the ancient sport of horse racing which is still one of the world’s most popular sports. There are many different kinds of horse races, from flat and steeplechase races to harness races or endurance racers- each providing a new challenge with its own set of rules!

Picture of courses for both steeplechase and flat track horse racing.
Picture of horse racing courses.

Flat Racing is a race for horses that commonly takes place over a distance of 1 mile or more at speeds approaching 40 miles per hour (64 km/h) and sometimes faster. A steeplechase race is an equestrian event where riders have to jump fences and other obstacles while still maintaining control of their horses.

Harness Racing is a type of horse racing where the horses trot or pace while pulling a driver in a cart called a “sulky.” Endurance Riding is an equestrian sport that tests both rider’s and the horse’s stamina to travel over long distances without stopping for an extended time.

One thing the different types of horse racing events have in common is athletic horses and great champions. Many factors go into the making of a champion racehorse. Genetics, training, diet, and environment all play an essential role in determining whether your horse will succeed on the track.

Of the four primary kinds of horse races, steeplechase and flat track are the most popular. It is a common misconception that steeplechase horse racing and flat track horse racing are the same, but they couldn’t be more different.

Picture of racehorses.
Flat track racing

Flat Track Horse Racing

The first documented history of horse racing occurred in various ancient cultures. Records from Ancient Rome show that horse racing events were a widespread phenomenon and often held in conjunction with other sporting events. It has been speculated that the betting aspect of these races allowed for entertainment and gambling to occur.

Flat course horse racing is a popular sport in which horses bred for their speed, strength, and stamina race on either turf or dirt oval tracks. The distances range from 5 furlongs to 1½ miles, with the most common being around 8-1/2 furlongs (about 3 km).

Have you ever wondered what the different types and classes of horse races are? There are many different types; they range from the most popular, like the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, to less well-known events, like the American Oaks and Santa Anita Handicap.

Horse races are divided into categories, claiming, allowance, and stakes races. These categories make the races exciting and competitive.

What is a claiming race?

A claiming race is a type of horse racing in which the horses entered in the race can be bought (claimed) for a specified price regardless of what happens in the race. That means that if you put a claim on a horse, you own it after the race, irrespective of where it finishes.

Claiming races is one way to get into Thoroughbred racing without having to pay an exorbitant purchase price or wait years for your horse’s value to rise. They’re also fun because you never know for sure what kind of horse you bought. Seabiscuit ran in claiming races, as well as many other great runners.

The rules vary depending on where you live, but generally speaking, anyone with a license may claim a winning horse in any claiming race except those restricted only to certain people (like trainers).

If someone else claims the horse you wanted, don’t worry – there will be another chance; claiming races are the most popular horse races in the U.S. Most racetracks have multiple claiming races each per week, so there are plenty of opportunities every month.

But be careful when claiming a horse because some trainers use claiming races to get rid of horses that developed physical problems. If you want to find out more about these types of races, check out this article I wrote: What Is a Claiming Race? The Rules and Its Definition.

What is an allowance horse race?

An allowance horse race is a type of horse racing where the horses must meet specific standards to enter the race, and unlike a claiming race, these aren’t for sale. They have to meet particular requirements, such as not having won so many races or earned too much prize money.

A typical allowance race has conditions like this “non-winner of two races since December other than a claiming race.” This race, it’s open to any age or gender racehorse that hasn’t won two races since December.

Conditions like that aren’t common; most will have gender and age restrictions. Here is a much more common example, “non-winners of two races, for 3-4-year-old fillies and mares.”

The horses that compete in allowance races are often seen as better than those in claiming races but not as good as the horses that run in stakes races. If you want to find out more about these types of races, keep reading below!

What is a maiden horse race?

A maiden horse race is a type of horse racing event where horses that have never won a race before compete against each other. These races are typically reserved for young horses, including two-year-olds and three-year-olds, and provide them with the opportunity to gain valuable experience on the track.

Maiden races can be divided into two categories: maiden special weight races and maiden claiming races. Maiden special weight races are typically reserved for higher caliber horses and offer a larger purse, while maiden claiming races are less restrictive and offer horses for sale at a designated claiming price.

What is a stakes horse race?

A stakes race, also known as a grade 1 or grade 2 horse race, is an American term for the top level of Thoroughbred horse racing. The horses in these races are typically 3-year-olds and up.

These races are often run at major racetracks such as Belmont Park, Saratoga Race Course, Churchill Downs, and Santa Anita Park.

A stakes race, or “stakes,” is a type of horse racing that offers the highest purse money for the top finishing horses. The term “stake” refers to the sum of money put up by owners or trainers as part of an agreement with other owners who have entered their horses in the same race.

Most tracks host at least two stake races per season; however, some of the major tracks have featured stakes races weekly. If you want to learn more about stakes races, I suggest your read this article: What’s a Stakes Race In Horse Racing? How Horses Qualify. You’ll find everything you need to know about this type of high-class racing event.

Major stakes races

There are many important stakes races, but none more than the Triple Crown and Breeders Cup. The Triple Crown includes three races of varying distances for three-year-old horses, the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont Stakes, and the Preakness Stakes.

The Kentucky Derby is the world’s most famous and prestigious horse race. It was first run in 1875 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. The distance of this race is 1 1/4 mile, and it’s the first leg of the Triple Crown. The 2021 winning purse was 2 million dollars.

For the most demanding of equine athletes, there is no more challenging test than The Belmont Stakes. This grueling race consists of a 1 ½ mile-long horse race. Among notable winners are American Pharoah (2015), Tampico (1951), and Arrogate (2016). The Belmont is typically the last leg of the Triple Crown and is the longest race in the series. The 2021 Belmont purse was 1.5 million dollars.

The Preakness is a Grade I stakes race. It is a little shorter than the Kentucky Derby; its distance is 1 3/16 of a mile, and it is the Triple Crown’s second race. The winning purse in the Preakness stakes was 1.5 million in 2021.

The Breeder Cup is a group of Grade I stakes races run over two days. Unlike the horses running in the Triple Crown, horses in the Breeders Cup come in all ages. During the two days of Breeder Cup races in 2021, the series paid out over 30 million in purse money.

What are the 5 English Classic Horse races?

The 5 English Classic races are more competitive and harder to win than any other race. All of these traditional horse races have been running for over a century, so that alone sets them apart from many other thoroughbred racing events in the world.

The 5 English Classic horse races are the Derby, the Oaks, the One Thousand Guineas, Saint Leger, and the Two Thousand Guineas. These are the most important and prestigious horse races in England. They are also the oldest of all classic horse races, having been founded before any other country had a single one.

The problem, though, is that these races are not very well known outside of Europe, and if you do know about them, it’s hard to keep track of when they happen or how often they occur. Each race has developed its special flair and unique history.

They are held at different times of the year and on differing courses throughout England. The list of winners includes some of the best horses ever to grace a racetrack.

Picture of horses in a steeplechase race.

Steeplechase Horse Racing

A steeplechase is a kind of horse race in which the horses jump fences, and water jumps. It’s one of the oldest forms of racing, with records dating back to 1776. The first recorded event was held at Smithfield Market in London on March 26, 1838.

Steeplechase horse racing is the original form of horse racing. It originated in Ireland with races across open fields that often contained deep gullies and ditches, hence the name steeplechase (steeple meaning a church spire). There are many different types of steeple horse races that you can bet on and watch.

The Grand National is the most famous and prestigious steeplechase in the world. It is a 4-mile and 2½ furlong race with 30 fences to jump over. It’s one of the oldest horseraces in England, and it’s been run every year since 1839, with only one exception.

Endurance Horse Racing

Endurance riding comes from a long history where riders highly valued certain types of horses primarily due to their ability to endure the most grueling rides across vast distances without being slowed by any obstacle, such as mountains or rivers alike.

The popularity doesn’t come close to its overseas counterpart, flat-track racing, yet people are still taking a chance on this fast-paced game that requires both rider and horse to be in top form at all times with an incredibly high level of fitness. But what makes this increasingly popular sport so exciting?

Typically endurance horse races range from 40 to over 150 miles and often take multiple days to finish depending on the race length. Races are broken into groups based on the horse and rider’s experience and fitness level. Some endurance races are classified as non-competitive and are usually 25 miles.

Competitive endurance races kick up the distance and difficulty, with Progressive Trail Riding being around the 50-mile point where riders need skills like map reading and navigation for success–all while enduring some of the most challenging terrain imaginable!

The Tevis Cup is one of the most prestigious endurance races. The race originated in California in 1955 and is held annually, and covers 100 miles. Other popular endurance races are the Tom Quilty Gold Cup and the Shahzada, both held in Australia.

The Tom Quilty Gold Cup is a 100-mile race, and the Shahzada is one of the world’s longest endurance races at 250 miles, which can take five days to complete. Interestingly the competition is open and often draws over 2000 competitors.

What is the longest horse race?

Horses are known for their ability to run far, but these races take it to a new level. The world’s longest endurance horse race is a 621-mile contest across the Mongolian steppe. It’s appropriately named the Mongol Derby and traces the path of Genghis Khan’s horseback messenger system. It’s acknowledged as the world’s longest and toughest horse race by the Guinness Book of World Record.

In 2019 a 70-year-old American named Bob Long, from Boise, Idaho, became the oldest person to complete the race, and he also won it. It took him eight days and twenty-eight horses to accomplish his impressive feat.

Picture of a harness race.

Harness Racing

Harness racing is a form of horseracing where the horses race at a trot or pace while pulling a driver in a sulky. A sulky is a lightweight two-wheeled carriage built for one person. In harness racing, the person guiding the horse isn’t called a jockey but instead is referred to as a driver.

Drivers are integral to the success of harness racing. They must be athletic, intelligent, and strategic in how they maneuver their horse and sulky during a race. It’s not always the fastest or most athletic team that wins; it’s often the one with the best skill set.

Harness races compete in either trot or pace gaits. The trotting gait is when a horse moves its legs forward in diagonal pairs. Pace horses move their front legs in unison with the hind legs on the same side. If a horse breaks its gait during a race, it is disqualified.

The only horse breed I’m aware of that’s used in harness racing is the Standardbred. Standardbreds have the ideal conformation and temperament for harness racing; they are muscular yet have long bodies. And they are calm, intelligent, and social animals.

Harness racing is ancient and evolved from chariots initially used in war. During the early Greek games, the four-horse chariot race was the most popular and prestigious event. The two-horse harness races were first introduced in the Olympics in 408 BC and again competed in 264 BC. The races were eight laps in the hippodrome, which is about six miles.

Below is a YouTube video that explains the types of horse racing groups and classifications.


What is the highest-paying horse race?

The Saudi Cup is the highest-paying horse race in the world. In 2021 the prize money was $20 million. The winner Mishriff, a four-year-old colt, received $10 million, and the second-place finisher, Charlatan, earned $3.5 million.

What type of horse race is the Melbourne Cup?

The Melbourne Cup is a Thoroughbred horse race held over a distance of slightly under two miles (1.988). It’s the biggest race in Australia and is referred to as “the race that stops a nation” because most of the population takes a day off from work to watch the race.