Horse racing is a very old game indeed, and with that it still uses some older measurements which are important within the sport in terms of it keeping its identity.
Many, many people will have walked past their televisions over the years and overheard an excited commentator shout “they’re into the final furlong”, knowing instinctively that it means the race is almost over. But how almost? Actually, how long is a furlong?
What Is A Furlong?
The quick answer is that a furlong is 220 yards. There are eight furlongs in a mile. But a furlong, and a mile for that matter, is very old money and can even be broken down further.
Originating as far back as the 16th or 17th century, a unit of measurement known as a ‘chain’ was formed of 22 yards. This was important in agricultural practices at the time. The chain was used as a measurement for all cricket pitches, hence them being 22 yards long.
This was found to be such an accurate unit of measurement that at one stage during World War II, groundsmen were asked to keep cricket pitches clear and visible from the air so that their reliable length could be used to survey areas from the skies and judge distances on aerial photographs.
So, a furlong is made up of 10 chains. Given that there are 1760 yards in a mile and 220 yards in a furlong, as a racing pro it seeps into your head very early on that there are eight furlongs in a mile and that a mile-and-a-quarter is 10 furlongs etc.
Do All Racing Territories Use Furlongs?
Indeed not. Just as we’ve come to expect on our travels when ordering food, drinks or filling the car up with fuel, the metric system is employed in many countries and so the idea of a yard, a furlong or a mile is fairly alien.
The Americans, like us, use furlongs and miles however there is a difference in the colloquialisms. In the UK and Ireland, horses may be described when being 220 yards from home as “passing the furlong marker”, whereas in the States this will be announced as the field having “passed the eighth pole”.
Again, a 1m & 1 furlong race on these shores may be described as that or as a 9-furlong race, but in the States it would be called as a race over ‘a mile and an eighth’.
In France, most of mainland Europe, Australia and Japan, they use the metric system in horse racing. To them, races are measured out only in metres.
This may take some getting used to, but as a rule of thumb when the horses pass what we think of as a furlong to go, in these territories it is the final 200 metres which means it isn’t too dissimilar to yards and fairly easy to grasp.
Over in the UAE and especially in Dubai, both metres and miles/furlongs are used. A commentator, being perhaps Australian, may call the race in metres but in race cards furlongs and miles will be printed as well which is in line with many of the runners at the major Carnival races usually being British or American trained.
So, what are the main race distances in furlongs and miles? Well, in Britain and Ireland around 5 furlongs is the minimum distance on the flat with two miles being the minimum over the jumps.
Races can, albeit rarely, stretch to 2½ miles or even 2 miles 5 furlongs on the level, while any race over three miles in National Hunt will be considered a ‘staying’ race, with the Grand National stretching right up to over four-and-a-quarter miles. Here are the most popular distances:
- 5 furlongs – a ‘sprint’ race
- 6 furlongs – again considered a sprint
- 7 furlongs – rather an in between distance
- 1 mile – a popular distance, used in major classics such as the 1000 and 2000 Guineas
- 1 mile, 2 furlongs – some of the top-rated horses each year are mile-and-a-quarter horses
- 1 mile, 4 furlongs – popular in Europe but less so in America, mile-and-a-half races include The Derby
- 1 mile, 6 furlongs – reaching the realms of the ‘stayers’ now, the St Leger is run over this distance
- 2 miles – confirmed staying races, two-mile events are popular with punters but are decreasing in popularity with breeders
Within these popular distances, many races are run at trips in between with races at all measurements taking place regularly.
- 2 miles – essentially the minimum trip, many horses start off here but some remain at this trip and are aimed at the Champion Hurdle or the Champion Chase
- 2 miles, 4 furlongs – there are many major handicaps at this sort of distance, while in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham the trip provides those not quick enough for the Champion Chase and without the stamina and/or the class for the Gold Cup to win a big pot
- 3 miles+ – there are some major races staged over 3 miles and over, including the Gold Cup
4 miles+ – these races are rarer, but include events such as the fabled Grand National