Types of Horse Racing

Horse racing stands as one of the longest-running pastimes for spectators, a sport that has literally sustained through the ages. Even today, with so much competition for the attention of the public, the sport draws an incredible amount of interest. That interest ranges from local events to the kinds of races that capture the imagination of entire nations and even beyond that.

Many people might be acquainted with a certain style of horse racing, something that they grew up watching at a local track or on television. They might not realize the scope of horse racing, how it ranges to several different styles and even sub-categories within those narrower groups. Each style is exciting in its own way, as proponents debate on which types of horse racing are among the best.

One thing that is a similarity between just about every style of horse racing is the fact that betting acts as a major part of the lure for people watching. Whereas the legality of betting on other sports has been an open question in some jurisdictions, horse racing betting has generally been accepted throughout history. People can bet on the races and perhaps walk away from an afternoon or night at the races with a bankroll significantly larger than when they came to the track.

Horse racing has evolved in many ways since the earliest days of chariot races and the like. But in many ways, it hasn't changed, as it still comes down to the athletic prowess of the horses and the savvy and skill of the men and women in charge of riding or driving them. That ageless allure, coupled with the betting aspects of the sport, should ensure that all types of horse racing thrive into the foreseeable future.

Separate Styles

Types of Horse Racing

As history has proven, there are many ways to conduct a horse race. Over time, certain characteristics have come to distinguish certain styles from others. In addition, certain styles have managed to sustain popularity and betting interest, while others have become obscure. For the sake of this article, we're going to concentrate on the most popular styles, with both spectators and horse racing bettors, still in play today.

Thoroughbred Racing

Thoroughbred racing stands as the most popular type of horse racing over its competitors by a significant margin. The biggest races in each particular region are cultural events, hot topics in the news, and the focus of intense betting interest. For hundreds of years, Thoroughbreds have been a marvel to the sport's enthusiasts on account of their speed, grace, and power.

What sets a Thoroughbred apart is the breeding, as they can all be traced back to a small group of horses from the 17th and 18th century. The horses are then trained in racing on flat, mostly round tracks. They generally begin racing as two-year-olds and can sometimes race until they are nearing double digits in age, although owners can often retire them before that to take advantage of their ability to breed other race horses.

Extreme fan interest in the Thoroughbreds generally heightens as they reach age three and beyond, as this is the point where they tend to hit their full peak of physical maturity. It is at this point when they are eligible for the most expensive and prestigious races in the various countries around the world that host the sport.

While racing, Thoroughbreds are controlled by jockeys, who sit atop a saddle on their backs. Other important human figures in the sport of Thoroughbred racing include trainers, who are in charge of the horses' exercise, feeding, and training regimens to prepare them for the actual races. The owners are in charge of footing the bill for the horses' upkeep (and they also get a large share of the winnings), while breeders do the job of matching studs and mares so that more race horses can be born and brought into the racing pipeline.

The finest horses can bring their handlers great winnings because of the ability to earn purse money. Those successful horses also can garner large fees for the privilege to breed them. Purses can range from a relatively small amount to huge sums for the biggest races.

Some of the most lucrative and famous Thoroughbred races include the Kentucky Derby in the United States, the Epsom Derby in Great Britain, and the Melbourne Cup in Australia. Many countries also host a so-called Triple Crown, which is a trio of designated races for a certain age group (usually three-year-olds) that is extremely difficult for one horse to sweep.

Distinctions in Thoroughbred Races

Thoroughbred racing is not just a free-for-all where any horse can enter any race they want. There are ways in which they are classified. In addition, certain horses are specialists that perform certain races better than others. Horse racing bettors have a firm handle on these distinctions, which helps them to determine how to bet.


Most people think of Thoroughbred racing as being contested on dirt because that is the surface which is featured on the vast majority of races. Yet in certain parts of the world, racing on grass surfaces is extremely popular. As a matter of fact, many famous race tracks feature both dirt and grass, or turf, tracks in the same location.

In addition, as more and more attention is paid to keeping horses healthy, a new class of synthetic surfaces has risen in popularity. These surfaces mimic traditional surfaces but are created with the intention of providing a much smoother ride for the animals, creating less stress on their bodies. Such surfaces go by a variety of names, and some tracks even have their own proprietary type of surface.


In the case of Thoroughbred racing, you can generally break the races into two distinct distances: sprints and distance races. Sprints are generally shorter than a mile and usually require one turn or less. Distance races are longer than a mile and usually require two or more turns. (This is not to be confused with endurance racing, which is a specialized type of race conducted at great distances that can range up to 100 miles or more.)

In general, most horses have bloodlines which favor one distance over another. This is not to say that a horse can't break from their pedigree, nor is it impossible for a horse to be skilled at both sprints and distance races.


Many race tracks host specific races for horses based on their gender and age. For example, there might be a race conducted which only two-year-old fillies can enter. The idea is to promote fairness in racing and also to ensure excellent opportunities for bettors with fewer mismatches.

Along those lines, track officials also try to classify horses with the races that they include on their programs. The three main types of races are claimers, allowances, and stakes races.

Claimers are races in which every horse is essentially up for sale. In allowance races, the field is usually limited to horses who have won a certain amount of money or number of races over a specified period of time. Finally, stakes races are those which require owners to pay a portion of the purse beforehand for their horses to participate, knowing that the rewards for winning are greater than any other race.

Another way that race officials try to keep fields even is with handicap racing. This usually means that the horses considered the best in the field are asked to carry more weight than the lesser horses. This ideally gives every horse in the field a legitimate chance to win, encouraging bettors.

Harness Racing

Although it might not garner the prestige of Thoroughbred racing, harness racing can boast of impressive history, spectator interest, and betting money of its own. The sport is mainly distinguished by the fact that horses pull drivers, not jockeys, behind them on a bike-like cart called a sulky. In addition, the breed of horses that competes in harness racing is the Standardbred.

The ancestry of harness racing can be traced back to Roman chariot racing. The sport as we know it today began to percolate in various parts of the world in the 18th and 19th century. Sometimes known as trotting because of one of the distinct gaits used by the horses in the sport, harness racing has grown into a worldwide phenomenon.

It may not have quite the following of its Thoroughbred counterpart, but harness racing makes for an exciting spectacle. In addition, you can bet on harness racing, whether you're at the track or doing some online horse betting, with the same kind of fervor. Here are some of the ways that it mimics Thoroughbred racing, along with how it distinguishes itself.


The basic ways in which the horses are classified for harness races are similar to Thoroughbred races. There are claimers, allowances (which, in harness racing, are usually called conditions), and stakes races.

You can even occasionally find handicap races, although in harness racing, the handicap comes in the form of a more difficult post position, not extra weight to carry. In addition, Standardbreds are often separated by their age and gender for certain races.

Another main way that harness racing is similar to Thoroughbred racing is the way that the races are bet. You can bet simply by picking horses to finish first, second, or third (win, place, and show bets). Or you can try for exotic wagers (such as exacta, trifecta, and Daily Doubles), which include multiple horses. These bets are harder to win, and as a result, they generally pay more if you do come up with a winner.

In addition, the human involvement is very similar between the two styles of horse racing. There are owners, breeders, and trainers involved in harness racing as well. The driver in harness racing is analogous to the jockey in Thoroughbred racing.


In addition to the way that the drivers are pulled along by the horses instead of sitting on their backs, there are several major differences between harness and Thoroughbred racing. Thoroughbreds are allowed to gallop and basically use any running style they can to get to the finish line ahead of their competitors. Standardbreds must conform to a certain gait.

The two distinct gaits are known as pacing and trotting. Pacers must have their front and back foot on the same side of their body hit at the same time each step. Trotters must have the opposite feet (front left/back right, front right/back left) hit in tandem throughout the race.

If a horse breaks the required gait, it must retreat and lose ground to the other horses until it retains the proper steps, or gets back "on stride." In general, pacers are faster than trotters because trotting is a much more difficult stride to maintain throughout the race.

What that ultimately means is that harness races tend to be slower than Thoroughbred races. But because of the sulkies and the general similarities in speed levels, harness races tend to be contested very tightly. That means the closing portion, or stretch run, of a harness race often is an extremely close battle with less decisive winners than in the Thoroughbred game.

Other differences include the fact that harness races are generally conducted over at least a mile or sometimes more, meaning that there really aren't harness racing sprints. Also, a Thoroughbred race usually generates from a stationery starting gate. Because the harness bikes need some momentum to reach top speed, harness races are generally started by a moving gate attached to a car or other vehicle.


Steeplechasing can sometimes be referred to as jump racing or, in the United Kingdom, national hunt racing (although nothing is being hunted except the finish line). It is not nearly as widespread as Thoroughbred or harness racing, although there are some areas of the world, such as the UK, where it still possesses undoubtedly impressive popularity. The basic distinguishing characteristic of this sport is that horses must, at various points during the race, jump over obstacles on their way to the finish line.

The Grand National in Liverpool, England, is an example of a steeplechase that continues to draw spectator and betting interest that matches the likes of any major Thoroughbred or harness race. In many areas of the world, concerns about horses being injured during the jumps have curtailed the popularity of this style. Steeplechase horses can sometimes be bred specifically for that purpose, while, in some cases, they can also be Thoroughbreds simply trained for the jumps.

Other Breeds

There are other breeds of horses that ride with jockeys on their backs but are not Thoroughbreds. Arabians are horses that are better for longer distances such as endurance, but they sometimes race at Thoroughbred venues as well. Quarter Horses are bred for speed races, which often are contested at a quarter of a mile or less at tracks designed specifically for these races.

Betting on the Various Types of Horse Racing

Although there might be subtle differences in terms of types of bets surrounding the various styles of horse races and the regions in which they are held, the mechanisms for betting are pretty similar throughout the entire realm. The easiest way to bet is to go to a horse racing track. At most tracks, you can bet not only on the races held there but also at tracks elsewhere in the country and world.

There are off-track betting facilities that can help you place bets, or, in some areas, licensed bookmakers, if you are not at the track in question. But these days, with the advent of the internet, horse racing betting sites are easily accessible. Considering that many areas of the world might not be near a horse racing track but still have internet access, this is the perfect method of wagering for horse racing enthusiasts regardless of their address.


Horse racing spans many different styles. You might have several of those taking place at a track near you. Failing that, you can always view and bet on them with modern technology such as internet horse betting. In any case, you'll likely find out why this sport has been so enticing to so many for so long.

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