Historically, the maximum ‘official’ winning distance – that is, the maximum, meaningful distance that racecourse judges could record – was 30 lengths; anything beyond that was simply recorded as ‘a distance’. However, when Kauto Star swept clear of his nearest pursuer, Madison Du Berlais, in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, 2009, the racing public was, understandably, keen to know the actual winning margin. Shortly afterwards, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) increased the range of distances available to racecourse judges to 99 lengths.
The next change to the maximum official winning distance was implemented, ‘in the interests of greater accuracy’, on New Year’s Day, 2018. At that point, the BHA extended its computerised ‘lengths per second’ (LPS) tables to 200 lengths. Thus, to quote one recent example of a relevant, wide-margin victory, the result of the open hunters’ chase at Bangor-on-Dee on February 7, 2020 is recorded for posterity as a 107-length win for Bob And Co, trained by Paul Nicholls and ridden by David Maxwell.
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, a furlong is an old English unit of length. The term is, in fact, derived from the old English words ‘fuhr’, meaning ‘furrow’, and ‘lang’, meaning ‘long’; in the traditional medieval farming system in England, known as the ‘open-field’ system, each ploughed furrow ran the length of an acre. The furlong was standardised to 660 feet or 220 yards – that is, one-eighth of a mile – in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century and has been the traditional unit of measurement for British horse races since the first formal race meetings in the sixteenth century.
The furlong remained an official measurement until the Eighties but, today, is used almost exclusively in horse racing; indeed, to the layman, the furlong is probably the distance most associated with the sport. That said, aside from the fact that British racecourses are geared up to use furlongs, in terms of marker posts and the like, there is no real reason why race distances cannot be measured in metres, as they are elsewhere in Europe. However, the British racing industry is notoriously traditional and tests of distance markers in furlongs and metres have received, at best, a lukewarm reception.