Although the premise of horse racing is the same wherever you are in the world, there are, in fact, quite a few differences. A popular form of entertainment in many countries, but have we ever stopped to consider just how much it differs overseas compared to here in the UK?
The country in question today is the USA. Horse racing events in America carry several differences compared to what we are used to. These differences include anything from the type of racing, the surface they run on, and even the prize money on offer. It’s worth recognising that some of the world’s most valuable races are run in the US despite it not being recognised as one of the “major sports” there! That said; it’s still a pretty big deal and something that many enjoy.
Now, let’s take a closer look at just how different racing is between the two!
Track Surface -
It’s common knowledge that British racing combines the use of both turf and synthetic all-weather surfaces, depending on the type of race. Flat racing sees the all-weather surfaces used all year round (Fibresand, Tapeta, and Polytrack), with increased emphasis during the winter, whilst turf races are run during the summer months to take advantage of the improved weather. It is over these months that the more valuable races take place, much like in the rest of Europe. National Hunt races are also run on the turf, mostly during the winter months when flat racing is limited but is typically found year-round. The flat season officially runs from May until October, whilst the bigger races of the NH season run from late October through to April. This means the two seasons run back-to-back, providing quality year round racing.
This isn’t the case in the US, though. Dirt is the primary racing surface, with all 3 Triple Crown races being contested on it. This is because dirt is more affordable and easier to maintain than a synthetic or turf surface. Turf gained popularity here through the '50s and '60s, though, with many tracks installing a grass course inside the main dirt track. These courses are now often used for races over 1 mile, but of course, are heavily affected by the weather. All-weather surfaces have seen a decline in recent years, however, with only a few remaining in the US despite attempts to convert dirt tracks to synthetic surfaces. As a result, most of the top-class US horses are dirt horses, whereas the top-class British horses are turf-based. The US provides flat action all year round, again with an increased number of turf races during the summer months. There is also jumps racing typically available between March and September, although flat racing is the primary focus here.
Track Direction -
Track direction is an interesting topic, too. Perhaps not something you would usually consider, but all horse races in the US see participants running left-handed (counter-clockwise) on an oval track, compared to the UK, where there are both left and right-handed courses available in many idiosyncratic shapes. Horses have a preference based on their preferred leading leg and their muscle structure, although it is believed they are naturally more suited to running counter-clockwise. The reason behind this dates back to the 18th century to a man named William Whitley, and his disapproval of the British tradition. He created the first circular left-handed track in Kentucky and insisted on doing so to demonstrate America's newly gained independence. The logic dates further back, though, and is not fully verified.
Race Distance -
In the UK, flat races are run over distances varying from 5f up to 2m 5f 143 yards (Queen Alexandra Stakes). This combines a variety of sprint races, middle distance races, and staying races, with all 5 of the ‘classic’ British races contested over middle distances. NH racing here is generally between 1m 7f and 3m, with races beyond that being less common and more specialised, but going up to 4m 3f with the Aintree Grand National.
In the US, flat races again start at 5f (unless it’s harness or quarter horse racing, which we will get on to later), but only reach a max distance of around 1m 4f (Belmont Stakes). Sprint races are most common here, but again, mid-to-long distance events are more prestigious. National Hunt racing is still a feature in the US but is regarded as ‘flat racing's poor relation’ as it carries far less authority and prize money. These contests are mostly between 2-3 miles in distance, with the US Grand National being considerably shorter (2 5/8 miles) than its counterpart in the UK.
Race Grading and Race Types -
The grading system highlighting the quality of a race is far more complex in the UK than in the US. Of course, we have the standard classes (7-1 on the flat and 6-1 over jumps) but there are lots of different classifications of these. Handicaps are the most common classification where horses are given a rating based on how well they run. They are then required to carry a certain weight, with the higher-rated horses carrying more. Each class has a rating boundary, to ensure that the entered horses are of similar quality, with horses that are running well seeing their rating increase, eventually moving up. On the flat, handicap races are contested in classes 7-2, whilst in NH racing they are contested in classes 5-2.
Class 1 events feature the highest-ranking horses split into 4 sub-categories: Listed, 3, 2, 1. On the flat, many Group 1, 2, and 3 races are restricted to certain age groups/genders, with Group 1 races seeing all horses running off equal weights, besides allowances. Group 2 and 3 races are very similar but contain penalties for horses who have won at an equal or higher grade in a certain timeframe. Jumps racing follows the same rules but is referred to as Graded races, with the major difference being that there are still handicap races at Grade 3 level. NH horses ratings will be higher (0-140 in flat racing, 0-170 in NH racing), and the class 6 events are mostly for Bumper races.
In the US, though, things are done slightly differently… One thing they do have the same is the grading from Listed up to Grade 1 for the top-level races with the same rules. Below this, though, are allowance races. They categorise these slightly differently from the classes we are used to. Instead, they are ranked:
N1X – Horses that have not won an allowance or graded race
N2X – Horses that have not won more than one allowance race
N3X – Horses that have not won more than two allowance races
N4X – Horses that have not won more than three allowance races
These races again have certain conditions, similar to our handicap races, determining the weight that a horse must carry. Below these are Claiming races whereby owners place a price on a horse before the race and any potential buyers can claim. There are also Maiden races for horses that are yet to win, as in the UK, but that is its own class. NH races are categorised similarly to Flat races in the US.
The US also has Harness and Quarter Horse racing, other codes that aren’t seen here in the UK. Harness racing involves the horse pulling a two-wheeled cart occupied by a driver at a specific trot or pace. These events use standardbred horses running over distances of around 1 mile on an oval track. Quarter Horse racing follows the same procedure as a standard horse race but involves horses running at high speeds (up to 55mph) over extremely short distances (1-2 furlongs). Much like drag racing, it takes place on a straight track and typically lasts only a few seconds. This is one of the most popular types of racing in the US, with over 3 million quarter horses registered to race.
Prize Money -
Despite the UK hosting events such as the Aintree Grand National and the QIPCO Champion Stakes, the US boasts more prize money in their top-level races. The Grand National has a prize fund of £1 million whilst the Champion Stakes has a purse of £1.2 million, but there is a host of American races that offer more! The Kentucky Derby has a purse worth $3 million, Breeders' Cup has a prize fund of $6 million with the turf event offering $4 million, and 7 of the build-up events offering $2 million+. The Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream also boasts a purse of $3 million. Despite the glitz and glam of British racing, the US takes it on prize money!
Mobile betting has become a big thing in the UK alongside using bookmakers on the high street. This makes it easy to bet from pretty much anywhere in the country with multiple different bookies, allowing you to shop around for the best odds. The US, though, is stricter. Most betting on horse racing takes place at the course because only 25 states in the US currently allow online sports betting. There has, however, been a marked movement since the US Supreme Court lifted the federal ban on sports betting, allowing each state to regulate its own sports markets and laws. This puts in place plans for 30 states to allow online betting by the end of the year.
It’s not just the ability to bet that is different, either. The US uses a pari-mutuel system (where bets are placed in a pool and the winners share the stakes) which is much like the Tote here, with bettors betting against other bettors. This system means the pay-out depends on two things, how many people placed a bet, and how many picked the winner. This makes it more difficult to apply a strategy like with fixed odds, as the odds are affected purely by the amount being bet on said horse. There are plans, however, to trial and attempt to implement fixed odds betting in certain areas soon.
Dress Code -
It is common knowledge that horse racing is referred to as “the sport of kings” in the UK, so naturally is surrounded by glitz and glamour at the top meetings. Royal Ascot is one of the biggest meetings of the year in which The Queen attends. Certain enclosures here, such as the Royal Enclosure, have strict dress codes enforced, where men are restricted to wearing top hats and specific shoe colours, amongst others. Other big meetings such as the Cheltenham Festival do not have an enforced dress code, but many dress in suits and other formal attire. Most standard meetings do not enforce specific dress codes, although many attend the races wearing smart casual as a minimum.
In the US, the dress codes are similar at the top meetings, but not as strict. The Kentucky Derby meeting, for example, allows punters to wear denim and other likenesses in certain lounges and terraces, but does not allow torn or frayed garments at all. It is commonly split into 3 codes: Business Casual, Smart Casual, and Track Casual, with the same advice being followed as the UK. Exclusive suites and enclosures at such meetings have a stricter dress code, requesting males to wear jackets, shirts with collars, and smart trousers for example, but not to the extent of the UK.
The BHA (British Horseracing Authority) is the singular governing body that oversees the running of all racing in the UK. They are the higher power that enforces rules, issues licenses, and runs each race through their racecourse officials. Pretty simple, huh? Well, not in the US…
They have the NSA (National Steeplechase Association) which oversees all steeplechase racing. They hand out licenses to participants, approve racecourses, coordinate race entries, enforce rules, and oversee the national marketing and public relations of the sport, providing info and services to participants and fans.
Government entities also deal with things such as licensing alongside race dates and restrictions (each state and track establishes their own rules).
The US Jockey Club is another major name that deals solely with the American Stud Book, approving names, racing colours, and any pedigree matters. They are the breed registry for thoroughbred horses in the US and Canada.
Whilst one authority oversees the UK, the US has several undertaking specific duties.
Illegal Substances and Doping -
The BHA clamps down hard on any attempts to use illegal substances and anabolic steroids in UK racing, as well as ensuring adequate time is given between veterinary treatment and a horse returning to the track. They impose harsh penalties and enforce rules on all kinds of criteria, such as the types and sizes of horseshoes that are permitted and whip laws, for example.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the US. Despite them having “rules”, there have been many instances where trainers have been fined for doping. Jorge Navarro is the most recent example, who pleaded guilty for his involvement in a scheme to administer performance-enhancing drugs to win more prize money.
Drugs such as phenylbutazone (an anti-inflammatory), and corticosteroids (for pain and inflammation) are administered to help a horse return to the track before it is physically ready, whilst other drugs are often administered to improve overall performance. Approximately 24 horses on average die every week on American racetracks, so it is of common opinion that the use of drugs and other substances no doubt contributes to this.
They have begun to crackdown on cases in the US, however, the stipulations in rules from state to state mean that it is much easier for these actions to go unpunished. Lasix is an anti-bleeding medication taken by an estimated 90% of horses in North America before a race. It is a drug that is legal there, with the US being one of the few places to still allow race-day medications. Lasix is claimed to help prevent horses from bleeding following a race, by lessening pulmonary blood pressure and increasing the PH of the blood to become less acidic. In administering Lasix, a horse will pass more urine than normal, meaning it will lose weight. This is why many consider Lasix to be a performance-enhancing drug, though there have been no comprehensive studies on the effects.
Professor Ken Hinchcliff, dean of veterinary and agricultural services at the University of Melbourne, said: “Lasix is remarkably safe for a drug administered so frequently in the short term. We don’t see problems at the racetrack that are clearly associated with its administration; rather less certain are the potential long-term health consequences.” Although progress has been made to prevent Lasix from being used in 2-year-old horses, and decrease its usage overall, more still needs to be done to “purify” racing in the US.
Although the UK is considered being the birthplace of horse racing, with the first event taking place as far back as 1519, racing here is a far cry from what you see across the pond. A few hundred years and evolution of rules has seen racing in the US ultimately "go in a different direction"… but why? Why does the racing differ so much? Which is the most sustainable? And what could each country learn from each other? I'd be interested to hear your thoughts!