The aging of thoroughbred race horses can be confusing at times.
Just like humans, they can be born at different times but all of those foaled in the same year are considered, essentially, to be the same age.
We’ll take you through why that is and how it all works below.
How Ages are Determined in Horse Racing
In the northern hemisphere, the advertised age of a horse will go up by a year on January 1st for all, regardless of when they were actually foaled. The universal birth date for those in the southern hemisphere, such as those bred in Australia, is August 1st.
This is done because breeders, owners and trainers will deal with their horses within particular age groups, such as yearlings and two-year-olds etc. There are also many races limited to horses of the ‘same’ age.
Those considered to be of the same generation will often race together and/or be given weight concessions in races based on that age.
So, when horses begin racing at the very start of their careers, some may be considered to be a little more forward if they were an early foal, while some of the later foals can be considered to be a little further behind and may take time to strengthen up and mature.
That said, the breeding season is short and so all of those foaled and sent to race will have been born within a few months of each other. The gesticulation period for a thoroughbred mare is roughly a year, so the breeding season ties nicely with when foals are to be expected.
The season runs from February onwards, with most race horses foaled from around mid-February (early foals), to May (later foals). Any thoroughbred born from, for example, February to May 2019 will be considered a two-year-old on January 1st 2021.
At the later point of their careers this will matter very little, but when they are in their first year of racing and especially on their debut, it’s up to punters to take in this information and consider whether or not they believe a juvenile will be far enough ‘forward’ to put in a solid performance on the track.
What Are the Different Age Groups in Racing?
It’s good to know, at a glance, what the various age groups are considered to be in horse racing. Here’s a snapshot:
Flat Age Groups
- Yearlings – those aged one year. They will not be racing at this stage, but may already be on the radar of some people given their natural ability and can already be part of a racing stable. Many of these are registered, but unnamed.
- Two-year-olds – also known as juveniles. This is their first racing season during which they’ll compete exclusively against their own generation with the exception of very rare events, such as the Nunthorpe Stakes at York in which they can take on their elders with a very heavy weight concession.
- Three-year-olds – the ‘classic’ generation. Again, they race mostly against those their own age for half a season or so, before taking on the older horses.
- Older horses – anything older than three will not be given a weight concession in races and is considered to have fully strengthened and matured. Slightly confusingly however, a filly is given that title up to and including her four-year-old year, and becomes a mare at 5.
Jumps Age Groups
- 3-4-year-olds – National Hunt’s juveniles, though given the season begins midway through the year, the juveniles will turn four during the same season in January.
- 4-5-year-olds – previously, those turning five during the season were considered weaker chasers and received a weight concession in major races such as the Arkle. This is no longer the case. As soon as a horse is considered strong enough, they can race against others on the same terms. In certain races however, such as the Grand National, there is a minimum age (8) for safety reasons as experience is required.
What Age Do Horses Start Racing?
Horses can enter a stable and be in pre-training as yearlings, but they don’t hit the track until they are two years old at least.
Two-year-old races, including maidens and novice races, begin around March. Only those considered to be very forward types will be racing at this time. More and more two-year-olds appear as the flat season goes on, with some major Group 1 races being held for them in the second half of the campaign.
Some of those considered a little ‘backward’ may not race at all as two-year-olds, but that doesn’t necessarily have a long-term bearing on their ability.
2018 Triple Crown winner Justify in fact didn’t make his racecourse bow until February of that year, but quickly got the hang of the job and went on to land four Grade 1 races as a three-year-old before retiring.
When flat horses hit three years old, they are considered to be part of the ‘classic’ generation. The classics of course are the 2000 Guineas, 1000 Guineas, The Oaks, The Derby and the St Leger, all exclusively run for three-year-olds.
The same horses are known as sophomores in the States, with their Triple Crown of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes also only for this generation.
In the first half of the season, three-year-olds tend to run only against their own age group. After Royal Ascot in June, the generations tend to mix a little more with the three-year-olds receiving a weight concession when going against the older horses.
In terms of their peak, some forward types peak at three or even two and don’t really “train on”. This often happens when they are physically smaller examples. Those with a bigger frame to fill will often go on to improve further for quite some time.
Most top-class flat horses run at four, some at five, and are considered to have peaked at that stage. Those racing at extreme distances, such as five-furlong sprinters like Battaash or staying types like Stradivarius, are allowed to carry on into their six and seven-year-old seasons as their form seems not to dip.
Of course, this often happens when they have been gelded and no longer have a breeding value. The main criticism of flat racing from many quarters, is that the best horses are simply retired too early to head to the breeding sheds.
At the lower levels, flat horses can retain their peak form or even reach new heights at pretty much any age up to around 10 years old, though more common is still peak form at 4-7 years old.
While the term ‘juvenile’ in flat racing means horses are two years old, in jumps racing these are the three-year-olds when the season begins, turning four in January before events like the Cheltenham Festival and the Grand National meeting.
Races do exist for these types, though they are rarer than in flat racing. Many novice hurdlers for example don’t start until later in their four-year-old careers, or even when they are five.
Jumps horses really can peak at more disparate times and often more than once. While that sounds strange, it’s often because jumps horses can kind of have two or even three careers in one.
Some come from the flat and will have reached peak form there, while they then go on to race over hurdles where again they reach a certain level.
Once they are sent chasing over the larger obstacles, again their situation is different and so whatever they achieve in their first couple of runs is bound to be improved upon.
Peak form in jumps racing however can depend on the type of horse and the sort of races they are involved in. Many Champion Hurdle contenders, racing over two miles, may reach their best level as young as 5 or 6, while in the Grand National those younger than eight will have zero chance. At nine they may be ready to win races such as the National.
Jumps horses retire at different rates too, but within a bell curve you may say. Not many are left racing at 12 or 13, and yet at 10 they are still considered to be at their best in some of the top races at Cheltenham.
Top Age-Restricted Races
Restricting horse races to certain age groups does not detract from the quality. Indeed, the most prestigious races on the flat are exclusively for three-year-olds.
Here’s a precis of some of the top events confined to specific generations in Great Britain:
- Cheveley Park Stakes – 6 furlongs, Group 1, Newmarket, September, fillies
- Middle Park Stakes – 6 furlongs, Group 1, Newmarket, September, colts
- Dewhurst Stakes – 7 furlongs, Group 1, Newmarket, October, colts and fillies
- Futurity Trophy – 1 mile, Group 1, Doncaster, October, colts and fillies
- 2000 Guineas – 1 mile, Group 1 (classic), Newmarket, May, colts and fillies
- 1000 Guineas – 1 mile, Group 1 (classic), Newmarket, May, fillies
- The Oaks – 1 mile, 4 furlongs, Group 1 (classic), Epsom, June, fillies
- The Derby – 1 mile, 4 furlongs, Group 1 (classic), Epsom, June, fillies
- Coronation Stakes – 1 mile, Group 1, Ascot, June, fillies
- St James’s Palace Stakes – 1 mile, Group 1, Ascot, June, colts
- St Leger – 1 mile, 6 furlongs, Group 1 (classic), Doncaster, September, colts and fillies
Three & Four-Year-Old (juvenile) Races
- Finale Juvenile Hurdle – 2 miles, Grade 1, Chepstow, December
- Triumph Hurdle – 2 miles, 1 furlong, Grade 1, Cheltenham, March
- 4-Y-O Novices’ Hurdle – 2 miles, 1 furlong, Grade 1, Aintree, April