To an outsider, a casual sports fan or a newcomer to the sport, it would be easy to group the whole world of horse racing into one simple pot.
However, racing is separated into two, very distinct, disciplines; Flat racing and National Hunt (or Jumps) racing.
As bettors, the aim of the game remains the same, to make as much of a profit on any bets struck on our equine heroes, and for the participants, getting past the post in front, but there are a multitude of variants between the two disciplines.
These differences come in all shapes and sizes, from the time of the year each takes place, to the prize money on offer, to what the average racing fan might wear to a day at the races.
The seasonality of racing
As months tick by, racing fans will often be seen or heard counting down the days until their preferred discipline becomes the focal point of the sport
Throughout the winter the jumps take centre stage. Softer ground conditions provide a safer environment for National Hunt racing, with a slightly softer landing should a horse come unstuck at an obstacle.
Conversely, the summer months are centred around the flat, with just a handful of summer jumps meetings punctuating the plethora of cards on the level. With many flat horses bred for speed (more on that later), a firmer, or sounder, surface provides horses with more suitable underfoot conditions to show a turn of foot.
When does the National Hunt season run?
Although there is generally jumps racing 12 months of the year, the majority of National Hunt fixtures take place in the Autumn and Winter months. The bigger meetings tend to start at the back-end of October, running through to April, the end of this month marking the official end of the campaign.
The Jockey and Trainers Championships for the current season ran from 5th May 2019 until 25th April 2020, with any wins going towards their tallies in search of the top individual prize.
When is the flat racing season?
Officially the Flat Season runs from Newmarket’s 2000 Guineas meeting at the start of May until Champions Day held at Ascot on Saturday 17th October.
Flat racing is actually held year-round. The first meetings on turf start around the end of March and run until the start of Winter, with Doncaster’s November Meeting traditionally seen as a closer to the campaign.
All-weather racing is a relatively new addition to the calendar with meetings being held on synthetic surfaces since 1989. Although there are meetings throughout the year, the all-weather provides flat jockeys the opportunity to pick up some earnings throughout the winter when jumps take over the turf courses.
The different flat and jumps courses
In Britain there are 59 racecourses. 19 are dedicated to flat racing, 24 host only jumps meetings, while 16 hold both codes.
There are six tracks which host all-weather racing in the UK, with all-but Wolverhampton and Chelmsford also hosting jumps racing.
Each course will have it’s own characteristics that make it a different test to other venues. Some will be flatter, whilst others such as Cheltenham provide undulations and a stiff climb at the finish. While the direction of travel may not seem to be of major importance, some horses will often show better form going left-handed or vice versa.
The two codes have distinctive ‘homes’, with Newmarket the undoubted home of flat racing, with a huge percentage of trainers basing themselves in the town
Lambourn in Berkshire is probably the biggest single hub for National Hunt trainers, although handlers are based all over the country.
On the flat, courses hosting notable meetings include;
- The aforementioned Newmarket - home to the Guineas meeting and top 2-year-old races the Dewhurst Stakes and Fillies Mile
- Ascot - Royal Ascot is a highlight in the calendar, with Champions Day a fitting season ending
- York - The Ebor Festival in August is the biggest meeting
The focal point of the National Hunt season is undoubtedly the Cheltenham Festival, with the track in Gloucestershire host four days of top class racing.
Other big meetings are held at:
- Aintree - The Grand National is unquestionably the biggest and widest known jumps race in the world
- Ascot - Like on the flat, the Berkshire tracks host a plethora of top National Hunt races
- Sandown - Although hosting some big races on the flat, jumps meetings such as the Tingle Creek Festival in December and the Season Finale in April mark it out as a top jumping track
How the races differ
The fundamental differences between flat and jumps racing comes in the form of the contests that the participants take part.
From the starting procedure, to the distance a race will be run to the presence of obstacles in the contest, there are numerous variations.
What are the longest and shortest races?
The distance a race is run over depends very much on which banner of racing it is run under. Flat races in the UK range from five furlong sprints to contests over more than two miles that bring a horse’s stamina into the equation.
The longest of these contests on the flat is the Queen Alexandra Stakes, held at Royal Ascot, which is a petrol-sapping two-mile, five-and-a-half furlong race that is often won by trainers more well known for training jumpers.
That anomaly is because in jumps racing, two miles (or a few yards shorter) is the minimum trip for a race over obstacles.
Some contests take place over double that, with a handful of examples pitting horses against a stamina-draining four mile plus course, the longest of which is the Grand National, run over four miles, two-and-a-half furlongs.
Obstacles in National Hunt racing
Hurdles races and Chases are the two defined branches of jumps racing. Typically a horse will race over hurdles before graduating to chases and tackling the larger obstacles.
Standing at around three feet tall, hurdles are the first introduction to jumping on course for most horses. Most hurdles in the UK are made up of several panels of brush which are flexible if kicked over or flicked as a horse attempts to jump it.
Jumps horses will generally begin their jumps careers over hurdles. Some will simply remain hurdlers for their careers, while others will eventually competed over fences in chases.
The most notable difference between hurdles and fences is the size, with fences ranging between four-and-a-half and the five foot, three inches of Aintree’s Chair fence, the biggest around.
Another variation that can often catch horses out is the addition of a ditch in front of some fences. This means a competitor must successfully navigate an open ditch as well as clearing the obstacle.
Most fences in National Hunt Racing are made of birch and are fairly standardised, though some courses are known to have ‘stiffer’ fences with less give in them. Aintree does have a course with these type of fences, but the famous Grand National course boasts its own fences which are topped with spruce for that unique appearance and test.
The difference between flat and jumps horses
As well as the races they contest, there are big differences between the type of horse competing in the two variations of racing.
National Hunt horses tend to be bigger, more robust individuals, built to jump obstacles and withstand an extreme stamina test.
On the other hand, flat horses tend to be more athletic, highly strung individuals bred to deliver a shorter burst of speed at the business end of a contest.
The career of flat horses generally starts at the age of two, with a horse’s three-year-old campaign, and the riches that come with races such as the Guineas, the Derby and St Leger, the ideal time to peak.
Very few flat horses will race on older than around eight-years-old, with the best recruited to the breeding sheds, predominantly after their three or four-year-old seasons.
Jumps horses, in comparison, regularly race on into double-figures, with many continuing into their teens. No horse will jump an obstacle competitively in the UK before the age of three, and many won’t step foot on a racecourse until they are four or five-years-old.
In order to facilitate a better temperament to jump obstacles, most male National Hunt horses will be gelded. However, on the flat, the opposite is more likely, in order to preserve the opportunity to turn a top flat horse into a stallion prospect.
With most National Hunt horses lacking the ‘equipment’ to become a stallion, many jumpers are therefore the offspring of flat horses who have shown an aptitude for a greater stamina test.
A difference in culture
Things are not only different on the track when it comes to flat racing and it’s jumps equivalent, there are also notable differences off it.
The first is money. The biggest prize in jumps racing anywhere in the world is the £561,300 first prize on offer for the winner of the Aintree Grand National. That figure is dwarfed by the £921,537 awarded to the Derby winner at Epsom and surpassed on six other occasions throughout the year in the UK alone.
Looking further afield, the highest value race in the world is set to become the Saudi Cup this year, with a first prize of a whopping $10 million.
More prize money and a lucrative breeding industry (stallion-elite Galileo is said to demand a fee reported to be over €400,000 ‘a time’), means that flat racing is seen as a more glamorous alternative to a slightly more gritty, grassroots National Hunt scene.
Dressed for the occasion
With the flat season taking place predominantly in the summer, the biggest of occasions allows attendees to put on their gladrags and inject further glamour into proceedings. A rainy Tuesday at Taunton in February might not have the same pull when it comes to a day out.
National Hunt meetings might then, be best placed to attract a more hardcore fan base, happy to brave the elements to enjoy their sport of choice.
Of course, this doesn’t mean jumps racing cannot be enjoyed as a day out. The likes of the Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals in the UK and Galway Festival in Ireland attract huge crowds enjoying the big occasion.
Betting on flat and national hunt racing
While the name of the game remains the same, to find as many (or bigger-priced) winners as possible, betting on flat racing and betting on jumps racing do offer up some variables.
The majority of these come in the shape of additional things to consider when placing a bet. In some ways, betting on National Hunt Racing should be slightly easier than on the flat.
More variables to consider
As jumps horses, in general, compete over a longer time-frame it often gives bettors a bigger sample size when it comes to studying form. With precocious two-year-olds there is a fair chance that a horse could improve dramatically from run-to-run as they develop, whereas a nine-year-old staying chaser is unlikely to have much more in the way of improvement.
Secondly, having obstacles to jump means there is another criteria by which to measure a horse’s chance in a race. Some will have reputations as particular good jumpers, others may be susceptible to the odd error along the way. Knowing which category a horse falls into when analysing a race means bettors have more information to inform their opinion.
Flat racing does have the opportunities to specialise and eke out an advantage though. The study of breeding and bloodstock could help bettors understand which younger horses are likely to be suitable for the challenge they may face.
Many racing fans will have a favourite discipline of racing to both watch and bet on, but enjoying one form of racing shouldn’t preclude someone from liking the other. However, understanding the fundamental differences should be key for relative newcomers to the sport.