The age at which racehorses reach their peak, in terms of performance, depends on the age at which they start competition, the discipline in which they compete and other factors, including, but not limited to their genetic makeup, physical soundness and temperament. However, it is also true that young horses have lower blood volume and, hence, lower oxygen-carrying capacity, than their older, mature counterparts.
Generally speaking, thoroughbreds that race on the Flat typically reach their peak between 4 and 5 years. Of course, many of them do not race beyond 3 years, so never actually fulfil their potential. By contrast, National Hunt horses typically reach their peak between 7 and 10 years. It is important to note that, in the Northern Hemisphere, every thoroughbred has the same birthday – that is, January 1 – regardless of the month of the year in which is was actually born.
The most obvious difference between Flat and Jump, or National Hunt, racing is that Flat racing does not require participants to negotiate obstacles, but National Hunt racing, at least for the most part, does. The one exception is the confusingly-named National Hunt Flat Race, colloquially known as a ‘bumper’, which is run under National Hunt Rules, but involves no obstacles at all.
Flat racing is also staged, on the whole, over shorter distances than National Hunt racing. In Britain, the official minimum distance for a Flat race is 5 furlongs, but the official minimum distance for hurdle races and steeplechases is 2 miles. At the other end of the scale, the longest Flat race staged in Britain is the Queen Alexandra Stakes, run over 2 miles, 5 furlongs and 143 yards, while the longest National Hunt race is the Grand National, run over 4 miles, 2 furlongs and 7 yards.
Nowadays, Flat and National Hunt races take place throughout the year, but the Flat season ‘proper’ traditionally starts with the Lincoln Handicap at Doncaster in late March or early April and ends with the November Handicap at the same course in early November. By contrast, the National Hunt season ‘proper’ traditionally starts in mid-October and ends with the Bet365 Gold Cup, originally known as the Whitbread Gold Cup, at Sandown Park in late April. National Hunt racing is typically less financially rewarding than Flat racing and, with the most important part of the season extending through the winter, is generally considered less fashionable and less glamorous.
In horse racing, Flat or National Hunt, a handicap race is a race in which each horse carries a weight determined by its official rating, so that, at least in theory, every horse has an equal chance of winning. To be eligible to run in a handicap, a horse must qualify for an official rating and, to do so, must usually run in three non-handicap, or weight-for-age, races, so that the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) handicapper has the opportunity to assess its level of ability. The official rating of each horse corresponds to its ability, expressed in Avoirdupois pounds, in the eyes of the handicapper. In a handicap race, the horse with the highest official rating carries the heaviest, or ‘top’, weight, while the other horses carry less weight, proportionate to their official ratings. Of course, the official rating of a horse can go up, down or stay the same, depending on how it performs from one race to the next.
Jump racing, also known as National Hunt racing, is the code, or discipline, of horse racing that involves negotiating obstacles, usually in the form of hurdles or fences. Some jump racing does, however, take place on specialist ‘cross country’ or ‘bank’ courses, on which some of the obstacles are more akin to those typically found in open countryside. In Britain, with the exception of some National Hunt Flat races, all jump races are run over an ‘official’ minimum distance of at least 2 miles, although on certain racecourses the advertised distance may be slightly shorter. However, the longest jump race staged in Britain is, unequivocally, the Grand National, nowadays run over 4 miles 2 furlongs and 7 yards, at Aintree Racecourse in April each year. Since the advent of so-called ‘summer jumping’, which began in 1995, jump racing is staged throughout the year, although the National Hunt season ‘proper’ lasts from mid-October to late April or early May.