For those only familiar with horse racing in the UK and Ireland, events in the United States seem almost alien because there are quite a number of differences. Below, I investigate racing in the U.S. and outline some of the ways in which it differs to the racing closer to home.
Fewer Jumps in America
In the UK we have separate National Hunt and Flat racing seasons so race lovers get the best of both worlds. In the U.S. however, jump racing (steeplechasing) only occurs in 11 of the 50 states and there are two types of fences:
- Hurdles: These are standardized plastic and steel fences for the most part with live hedges and packed pine fences only used at a few courses. The ‘standard’ hurdles are 52 inches high.
- Timber: These are solid wooden fences that are occasionally up to 60 inches high. As these fences are not portable no major American track hosts timber fence races.
In contrast, the UK has a love affair with jumps. Indeed, it’s estimated that Ireland and Britain account for approximately half of all global races over fences. Races over jumps are huge events in the UK and the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Aintree Grand National are two of the biggest events in the world let alone the UK.
This is a form of racing where horses race at a specific gait (also known as a pace or a trot). The horse pulls a two-wheeled cart (sulky). Major events include the Triple Crown of Harness Racing for Pacers and the Triple Crown of Racing for Trotters. Harness racing is not well known in the UK or Ireland.
Track surface has been the subject of a great deal of debate in the United States as an increasing number of fatalities have caused the relevant authorities to take a closer look at the surfaces used.
Back in 2006, the California Racing Board tried to change matters by installing artificial surfaces on most of the state’s tracks. At Santa Anita in 2007, a so-called Cushion Track was installed; this is a combination of artificial and natural materials. A Pro-Ride synthetic track was installed the following year because of drainage issues but after a rise in fatalities, it had to be changed once again.
Although a few U.S tracks still use artificial surfaces such as Polytrack, dirt is the main surface of choice in the United States with big events such as the Kentucky Derby and most of the Breeder’s Cup events taking place on dirt.
In contrast, the vast majority of UK racecourses host events on turf; the All-Weather courses (Chelmsford City, Kempton, Lingfield, Southwell and Wolverhampton) are the exceptions. Surfaces such as Fibresand, Tapeta and Polytrack are used on these courses.
Left or Right Handed?
If you watch American racing you’ll probably notice that the tracks are left-handed. The few racecourses that tried to subvert this trend in the past quickly failed. In the UK, there are left and right-handed courses.
As the majority of American racing takes place on the flat, there tend to be few longer distance races. For example, the famed Triple Crown races are all less than 1.5 miles; Kentucky Derby (1m 2f), Preakness Stakes (1m 1.5f) and the Belmont Stakes (1m 4f).
That’s not to say there are no long distance races in the U.S; the Virginia Gold Cup was a 4 mile race until recently.
However, National Hunt races of 3+ miles are far more common in the UK; add in the fences and muddy ground and you have immense tests of stamina.
There are certainly plenty of similarities between U.S and UK racing in terms of how horses are classified but a few differences too. For example, there are Maidens and Claiming races on both sides of the pond. There are also Non-Selling races; as the name suggests, these races feature horses that can’t be claimed. They are ideal for trainers who have horses with a lot of potential and have broken their Maiden. Here are the 3 types of Non-Sellers in order of importance (most to least):
- Optional Claiming
- Starter Allowance
While the UK has multiples grades and classes which you can read about on the Race Advisor website, there are fewer levels in U.S racing. There are typically Grade 1, 2 and 3 Stakes with Grade 1 races including the Triple Crown events. Races outside these 3 grades are generally referred to as Non-Graded Stakes.
There are also Restricted Stakes; only horses born in specific states are allowed to enter. These races are commonplace in states such as California, Florida, Maryland and West Virginia.
There are also Overnight Stakes races which often don’t require nomination, entry and start fees. Race secretaries take nominations for these events less than a week before the race; this is in contrast to high grade events where nominations must be made weeks or even months before the race. These events can provide excellent purses though they are admittedly not as lucrative as the top Stakes races.
UK racing’s biggest events offer handsome prize money; the Grand National at Aintree offered £561,300 to the winner from a prize fund of £1 million in 2015. This is the highest prize money on offer in any European race.
However, there are a host of American races with this level of prize money and more. The Kentucky Derby offers a $2 million purse and the first prize is $1.425 million. The Breeder’s Cup events are astonishingly lucrative too; 7 of the races have purses of $2 million+ while the Breeder’s Cup Classic has an incredible $5 million purse.
The organisational structure of horse racing in the UK is pretty simple; the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) is in charge of making & enforcing rules, issuing licenses & permits and it runs the races via their racecourse officials. In essence, the entire sport is overseen by one authority which simplifies matters.
Things are a bit more complicated in the U.S. First you have the National Steeplechase Association of America which sanctions steeplechase racing in the country. Then you have the U.S Jockey Club which approves thoroughbred names, registers racing colours, deals with pedigree matters and maintains the American Stud Book.
Finally you have state government entities in the country that deal with licensing, trainers, racing dates, drug restrictions etc.
American horseracing is rife with controversy over the use of anabolic steroids and other illegal substances. In the U.S, Lasix (also known as Salix) is an anti-bleeding medication taken by an estimated 90% of horses before competition on North American race tracks. Some estimates claim that up to 24 horses die every week on American racetracks.
The stance on drug use is far stricter in UK horseracing; the BHA reminds trainers that ‘adequate time’ must be taken between the end of legitimate veterinary treatment and the horse’s next race. It recommends a minimum of 8 day’s rest between the completion of a prescription medication course and a race.
As you can plainly see, there are quite a few differences between horse racing in the U.S and UK. While the racing classifications may be similar in some ways, the UK has more classes overall. The UK has a love affair with jumps races whereas the U.S prefers its racing to be flat and fast on left-handed courses. Additionally, UK horses typically run on turf while U.S horses generally find themselves running through dirt surfaces and finally, U.S racing is more fragmented in terms of how it is organised and governed.