Flat Racing v National Hunt: What's The Difference?

The fundamental difference between Flat and National Hunt racing is simply that Flat races are run on a level racecourse, while National Hunt or simply ‘jumps’ racing takes place on courses with hurdles or fences for the runners to get over.

Although most horses have their specialist distances and favoured conditions, they are allowed to run on the flat or over the jumps as their owners and trainers see fit. Below is a guide to the different races you can encounter over the two different codes:

Flat Racing

Races run over five or six furlongs are considered to be ‘sprint’ races. Seven furlongs and one mile (eight furlongs) horses are rather specialist with those running over a mile and a quarter (ten furlongs) to a mile and a half being classed as middle distance runners. ‘Stayers’ as they are known run generally over a mile and three quarters to two miles. Some longer races than this do take place on the flat, but are rather rare.

Juveniles (those racing at two years old) generally start racing at five or six furlongs, with some staying as far as a mile by the end of their first season. Once a horse has run three times (or has won a race) it will qualify for a handicap mark. This is a rating set by the official handicapper and determines what level the horse can race at. Should it win, its handicap mark may go up and should it run badly, the mark may go down.

Non-handicap races on the flat are known as ‘conditions races’, which means that the weight a horse carries is determined by the conditions of the race rather than by its handicap mark. Weights are allocated according to a horse’s sex, age and experience, for example older horses carrying more than a young and inexperienced horse in what it known as ‘weight-for-age’.

Male horses will always give weight away to female horses too. These races can vary from low grade Selling races right up to the world’s most prestigious championship races, known as Group 1 races.

Flat racing is seen as primarily a summer sport and takes place mostly on turf tracks, though there has been a sharp increase in synthetic tracks being installed in the UK. The synthetic surfaces are generally referred to as All-Weather tracks due to their durability and infrequent weather related postponements and are made up of varying materials which create slow running or fast running tracks, similar to those used for most big US races.

Some horses, especially those that have been ‘gelded’ and have no breeding value, may race on at 6, 7 or 8 years old or even more. For the better flat horses however, many are retired quickly at three or four years of age and send to stud where they can earn a lot more money than they would on the track.

National Hunt

As well as having obstacles to jump in almost all races, National Hunt horses tend to be older with more of a staying ability. Over hurdles – which are the smaller obstacles – the minimum distance tends to be two miles with the maximum being three miles.

Steeplechase races, known simply as chases, are run from two miles right up to four and half miles. National Hunt Flat Races, known colloquially as ‘bumpers’, are run usually over two miles with no obstacles and are for National Hunt horses which are aged seven and under and may need some racecourse experience before going on to jump hurdles.

National Hunt racing is seen mostly as a winter sport and so dovetails nicely with the flat. Unlike on the level which has huge festivals at several points in the year, jumps racing’s season reaches a crescendo towards then end when the Cheltenham Festival takes place in March, just preceding the Aintree Festival including the Grand National in April.

Breeding is rather mixed in National Hunt racing, with many former flat horses finding a new calling over obstacles while others are bred purely for the jumps. Many top chasers start out in ‘point-to-point’ racing in Britain and Ireland. Point-to-points are three-mile chase races for amateur jockeys and not under official racing rules. Horses winning in point-to-points are often snapped up by top training yards and moved into National Hunt racing.

Despite the most valuable brood mares, the most valuable studs, the most valuable races and the quickest horses all belonging to the flat, the biggest betting events in the UK are the two major festivals which finish the jumps racing season.