Updated: Sep 9, 2021
Flat racing and Jumps racing, punters love them all the same. From marvellous milers to courageous cross-country horses, there is a race out there for everyone. But there is always the argument of which is better… Some say flat racing is better because there is less risk of injury and the idea of a more level playing field appeals to them, whilst others vouch for jumps racing in watching a gutsy horse fend off all challengers in an all-out slog to the line. There are pros and cons to each type of racing, and I enjoy the thrill of both! But I believe flat racing has more to offer, and I’m about to tell you why…
The “going” and the weather
First off I’d like to reiterate that I appreciate both types of racing in their own right, but I feel flat racing has a bit more to give. It incorporates both the use of turf and the all-weather (a type of synthetic surface composed of sand and other components) which means when the weather is unpredictable and other racecourses are unable to host a meeting due to the going, there are the AW tracks (Lingfield, Wolverhampton, Newcastle, Southwell, Kempton and Chelmsford) who 9 times out of 10 will still be able to run races. There is the very rare occasion that these meetings will also be called off due to the weather, but this surface is more adept in coping with rain, frost, and snow, so although the ground will be slower, it is still useable. Jumps racing does not have this luxury and relies on races being run on the turf, therefore causing a lot of meetings to be cancelled or deemed unsuitable for many horses that have been entered resulting in them being pulled out. This often leaves races with few runners and the conditions mean many horses will not complete. During winter for example, races also have to begin earlier in order to get the meeting finished before dark. The AW tracks are floodlit, meaning racing can continue when other meetings have finished. This allows for a broader spread of races throughout the day and is particularly pleasing throughout the year as it means there is some form of racing available from early afternoon through to night time. Again, this is a luxury that jumps racing cannot offer due to the danger of jumping fences in low visibility.
Less risk of injury
It’s no secret that injuries are common within horse racing, more so over jumps than on the flat. Injuries can include anything from a slight cut and bruising to something more dangerous and sometimes fatal. From 60,514 flat runners in 2019, only 35 horses suffered fatal injuries, whilst in the same year, 138 jumps horses from just 31,423 runners suffered fatalities. There is no guarantee that these fatalities in either code were a direct result of the race, it could have been a heart attack or the horse slipping for example that could have happened at any time even when cantering at home. The removal of hurdles from a race however clearly shows a marked improvement in the number of injuries sustained, with flat races in 2019 having a rate of 0.06% (1 in every 2,000 starts) as opposed to 0.44% (1 in every 250 starts roughly) in jumps races. The idea that the number of unfortunate fatalities could be reduced is further reason as to why I believe that flat racing offers more.
The speed of the race
Flat races are typically run over a much shorter distance than that of jumps races. Sprint races in particular tend to be 5-6 furlongs, the idea of which is more appealing to many including myself because it is essentially a straight dash for home. The horse jumps out the gate and then it’s an all-out battle to see which horse has the most speed. This provides you with a quicker thrill, although not lasting as long as a jumps race, you get all the excitement of the closing stages but throughout the entire race. Due to this, races are typically more competitive than over jumps because there is less time for the horses to get strung out and it gives you that bit more excitement. This also means that because the races are shorter the horses can be turned around much more quickly. On occasions, horses have run a race and then turned out in another race the day after because the recuperation time needed is reduced. This is ideal if you follow a particular horse and also shows the wide variety of races available which a horse is eligible for. Many trainers in jumps racing however have to wait to enter the horse in a specific type of race, and also require sufficient time for the horse to recover having run over a much further distance.
The use of starting gates
This idea of a more competitive race can also be linked to the use of starting gates. Jumps races are started by the horses walking forward in a group and being let go when the starter is happy with their positions, whilst flat races use starting gates so that all horses start in a line. True, some horses start slower/faster than others, but the use of starting gates prevents one horse from starting in front and bolting off into a 10-15 length lead creating a more even playing field. It is also worth noting that in jumps racing where starting stalls aren’t used, false starts are more common which delays the race, and if a horse runs too far and is not pulled up quickly it could be forced to withdraw which then reduces the size of the field potentially affecting the number of places that pay money on a bet, and also if it’s one of the market leaders that is withdrawn it affects the dynamic of the race. Starting gates lead towards a more even break and thus create a more thrilling contest throughout.
Bigger races more often throughout the year
Moving away from what is and isn’t included in the different types of racing, there is an abundance of big handicaps and top-level races on the flat throughout the season. With the number of races available to flat trainers, a horse can be entered in several big handicaps and high-class races at different points, as opposed to jumps racing where a horse's other races are essentially just a build-up of fitness and experience whilst focussing on one specific festival such as Cheltenham. This again goes hand in hand with recuperation time meaning a jumps horse typically runs much less per season compared to a flat horse, especially in higher-rated contests. The idea that the top class flat races are available all year round (maybe barring winter when the jumps season takes over) also appeals more, because there is always a top race to look forward to i.e. The Coral Winter Derby at Kempton in February, Dubai Duty Free Stakes and bet365 Mile in April, The Guineas Festival at Newmarket in May, The Epsom Derby Festival in June alongside Royal Ascot, Goodwood Festival in late July/Early August and the York Ebor Festival in August to name a few. Flat racing runs all year round and is more prominent for the majority of the year from January through to August/September, whereas the major jumps festivals besides the Grand National tend to be more towards winter and are more sparse throughout the rest of the year.
There are generally more flat horses than jumps horses
Overall, there is generally a larger pool of flat horses than there are jumps horses. This is because they are typically used for breeding later in life and also tend to retire at a younger age, whereas jumps horses are often gelded early meaning they cannot reproduce. A horse can acquire a thing called “black type” by winning or placing in a listed or group race, making them more in demand when it comes to the breeding process. The top sires for example will all have been successful in top-class races, and so horse breeders will look to them to breed with their horses in the hopes of creating another successful racehorse. One horse could create several offspring, which due to its pedigree, is deemed to be potentially useful on the racecourse. The number of horses that can be bred from just one racehorse means the pool of flat horses is therefore much larger than that of jumps. This also means it is much easier to follow a horse's family, as the process of watching a horse run, retire, breed and then one of its offspring run is much quicker too. The opportunities within flat racing in this sense are much broader.
The Championship is more competitive too
Not only are the races often more competitive, but the jockey and trainers championships are too. Looking back from 1988 until now, there have been only 4 different champion jumps trainers compared to 9 different champion trainers on the flat. The same can be said for the jockeys, there again have only been 4 different champion jumps jockeys since 1988 compared to 12 different champion flat jockeys. This just shows that the way flat racing is set up and run is indeed more competitive, which goes hand in hand with the larger pool of horses, because it means there are many more opportunities for jockeys and trainers in different types of races. Certain jockeys and trainers could excel more in certain types of flat races (based on the ground, distance, handicaps, age of horses, etc), thus creating an overall more competitive race style and championship, which is part of the thrill of horse racing.
More worldwide opportunities
Jumps racing is more common in the UK/Ireland and France; many other countries don’t take an interest in this sort of racing. Flat racing however is popular all over the world from the UK to Australia to the US to the UAE. This opens up more opportunities for people to get involved in horse racing worldwide as well as more opportunities for horses to travel to other countries to take part in these more prestigious races. Some of the most popular races and meetings outside of the UK include The Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, USA (with a prize pot of $3,000,000), The Dubai World Cup at Meydan, UAE (with a prize purse of $12,000,000), The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp, France (with a prize purse of $5,600,000), The Breeders’ Cup Classic in North America (with a prize purse of $6,000,000) and The Japan Cup at Tokyo, Japan (with a prize purse of $5,800,000) to name a few. Races consisting of top-class horses are available all over the world with lots of money on offer too! With regards to jumps racing, as previously mentioned, this is restricted mostly to what is on offer in the UK and Ireland, just another reason in my opinion that flat racing could be considered "superior". The idea of racing in different parts of the world and having top horses from all over also presents a different spectacle than what you get in jumps racing.
So, for me, flat racing is the superior of the two. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but as a punter myself, I must say I get much more of a thrill with a shorter, faster-paced flat race than I generally do with jumps races. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the brilliance of horses such as Sprinter Sacre, Kauto Star, or Denman… I just get more of a buzz from flat racing and think it offers just that bit more for the casual viewer. What are your thoughts on this debate? I’d love to know!!