One of the major appeals of the sport of horse racing is the diversity it offers, both in terms of the courses where the races take place, and the distances over which they are run. Here in the UK, we are perhaps more fortunate than in any other nation when it comes to the range and uniqueness of our racetracks. From the constant turns of Chester, to Windsor’s figure of eight configuration, and on to the famed demands of the Cheltenham Hill, our courses are one of the major reasons the sport maintains its widespread appeal around the world.
The variation in race distances may not quite match the variety offered by our disparate racetracks, but it isn’t too far off. At the upper end of the spectrum we have what remains just about the most famous horse race in the world: Aintree’s Grand National, which sees competitors lock horns over 30 imposing fences and a marathon trip of 4m2½f – a race which is all about stamina and toughness. It is however to the opposite end of the scale to which we turn our attention here, and to those races which are all about speed. Clearly the shorter the distance, the greater the emphasis is upon fleetness of foot, but what exactly is classified as a short distance in the world of horse racing?
As we shall see, the answer to that question is broadly the same in racing jurisdictions around the world – although there are a handful of unusual exceptions. Here we take a look at what constitutes a sprint race – both here in the UK and Ireland, and elsewhere in this global sport – and we highlight a selection of the most prestigious contests to fall into the category.
What Makes a Good Sprinter?
What makes certain horses suitable to extreme tests of stamina, and others more attuned to the demands of an all-out speed test? And are there any distinctive signs we can seek out when attempting to spot a runner likely to thrive over the minimum distance? This is a question which can be particularly useful when assessing juvenile races.
Whilst there are of course exceptions, in general terms, what we are looking for in a good sprinter is power, and specifically signs of an ability to generate that power quickly – that is to say muscle.
Sprint Versus Marathon
One useful analogy here can be to compare human sprint athletes with those who ply their trade over the marathon trip. Broadly speaking, the sprinters will be in possession of a far more muscular physique than their more sparsely built middle distance or long-distance contemporaries.
And, so it is with horses, with the five furlong specialists often being visibly more compact and muscular than those likely to thrive at distances of a mile or further. Specifically, much of a horse’s power is generated from its back end, so a particularly muscular posterior ought to count as a plus in the world of sprint horse races.
Top Ten Shortest Races in the UK & Ireland
Here in the UK and Ireland, the minimum distance over which a horse race may be run is five furlongs. The category of contests considered to be sprint events are those which take place over this five furlong minimum, and the slightly longer distance of six furlongs. One furlong equates to 1/8th of a mile, or 200m in metric terms, making the shortest distances over which races take place 1000m, or the equivalent of two and a half laps of an athletics track.
The minimum distance of five furlongs is particularly prevalent in the world of two year old racing, with the trip widely viewed to provide runners with a suitable test as they take their first steps in their racing careers. The juveniles are far from the only runners to ply their trade over the minimum distance though, with many runners remaining at sprint distances for the duration of their careers, be that in the multitude of sprint handicap contests on offer, or – for the more talented runners – the many high-class contests which represent the pinnacle of the sprint racing programme.
Now, there are races over shorter distances than five furlongs which take place at British and Irish racecourses: the Football Mascot Derby over approximately one furlong, and the Shetland Pony Grand National over two and half furlongs (and no, the diminutive creatures aren’t required to jump any five or six foot fences!) being two examples. For the purposes of this article though, we will stick to those five furlongs races which are contested by thoroughbred racehorses, of which there are many excellent events – including three at the very highest level.
Major Five Furlong Races in the UK & Ireland
|King’s Stand Stakes||Ascot||Royal Ascot||Group 1|
|Nunthorpe Stakes||York||Ebor Festival||Group 1|
|Flying Five Stakes||Curragh||Irish Champions Weekend||Group 1|
|Temple Stakes||Sandown||Temple Stakes Day||Group 2|
|Queen Mary Stakes||Ascot||Royal Ascot||Group 2|
|Norfolk Stakes||Ascot||Royal Ascot||Group 2|
|King George Stakes||Goodwood||Glorious Goodwood||Group 2|
|Sapphire Stakes||Curragh||Irish Derby Festival||Group 2|
|Palace House Stakes||Newmarket||Guineas Festival||Group 3|
|Epsom Dash||Epsom||Derby Festival||Class 2|
King’s Stand Stakes
A real highlight of the opening Tuesday of Ascot’s unrivalled Royal Meeting which is held in June each year. One of only three Group 1’s on this list – the King’s Stand Stakes is open to colts, fillies and mares aged three and older.
Only coming into being by virtue of the distance of the two-mile Royal Stand Stakes being cut to five furlongs courtesy of a waterlogged track way back in 1860, the race is now one of the very best of its type to be run anywhere in the world, and it invariably attracts an international field of sprinting superstars.
A jewel in the crown of the excellent racecourse at York, this event – which takes its name from an area of the city – is held in August each year. The Nunthorpe Stakes is one of the more unique top class sprint contests of the season, by virtue of the fact that it allows the two year old contenders to lock horns with their elders. First held in its current form in 1922, the race regularly sees those competitors to have clashed in the King’s Stand Stakes lock horns once more.
Flying Five Stakes
Now staged at the top Irish track of the Curragh, the race came into being as a Listed level event in 1985, and was initially held at the now defunct Phoenix Park. Having originally been switched to Leopardstown, the race then first moved to the Curragh in 2002, and has featured in its current slot as part of Irish Champion’s Weekend since 2014.
A steady increase in the quality of the winner led to the event becoming Ireland’s first five furlong race, for runners aged three and older, to be granted Group 1 status in 2018.
Making its debut at Sandown Park in 1965, this Group 2 contest open to runners aged three and older switched to its current home of Haydock Park in 2008. Held in late May each year, Temple Stakes is an excellent race to win in its own right, and also regularly serves as an ideal prep for the King’s Stand Stakes at Royal Ascot.
Queen Mary Stakes
Also falling into the Group 2 bracket is this event which takes place on the second day of the Royal Meeting at Ascot. Unlike many other entries on this list – which have fairly broad entry requirements – the conditions of the Queen Mary Stakes are far more specific.
Open only to two year old fillies, in previous years the race has been landed by talents such as future 1,000 Guineas winner, Attraction, and the US flying machine, Lady Aurelia.
Royal Ascot is certainly a rich hunting ground for fans of top-class sprinting action, with this Group 2 event also taking place at the June extravaganza. One of many highlights on Day 3 of the meeting, the Norfolk Stakes is held over the same course and distance as the Queen Mary Stakes, and is also restricted to juveniles; but unlike in the Queen Mary, both male and female youngsters are permitted to line up here.
King George Stakes
The sprint highlight of the Glorious Goodwood meeting which lights up the summer in late July/early August each year, this Group 2 contest is open to all runners aged three years and older.
One of the quickest races on our list, thanks to the speed-favouring nature of the Goodwood track, the brilliant Battaash made history when becoming the first three-time winner of the King George Stakes in 2019.
One of the newer entries on our list, this Irish event has been held at the Curragh over in Ireland since making its debut in 2001. A Group 2 affair, the race is open to all runners aged three and older.
Initially featuring as part of the Irish Derby Festival, the race is now held on the second day of the Irish Oaks meeting in July, and counts subsequent Group 1 stars Slade Power and Mecca’s Angel on its roll of honour.
Palace House Stakes
For many racing fans, this is the event which really signifies the beginning of the high-class sprinting season. Staged in late April/early May each year, and run at the headquarters of flat racing that is Newmarket racecourse, the contest takes its name from a notable building in the vicinity.
One of the chief support acts on the opening day of the Guineas meeting, the race is the first British five furlong Group class event of the year, having boasted Group 3 status since 1971.
Our final entry may “only” be a handicap affair, but in terms of pure speed, the Epsom Dash is tough to beat. Taking place during the prestigious Derby meeting at Epsom in June, the downhill nature of the sprint course makes this the most blisteringly quick contest on the British racing calendar.
And, not just the British Calendar. In 2012, spectators of this race witnessed a new five furlong world record, when Stone of Folca scorched home in just 53.69 seconds – a benchmark which still stands as of 2019.
Short Races Around the World
In common with racing in the UK and Ireland, it is the five furlong trip which represents the minimum distance over which horses are asked to compete in the vast majority of racing jurisdictions around the world. As with many things though, they do like to do things a little differently in the USA – but only a little – with the minimum trip Stateside (at least for thoroughbred racehorses) being the slightly shorter four and a half furlongs.
Those four and a half furlong races over in America are largely restricted to the two year olds, and whilst such contests have acted as a racecourse introduction to the likes of Lady Aurelia over the years – and will no doubt continue to do so in the future – there aren’t really any races over that trip which make much of an impact internationally.
Whilst the focus of this article is upon the thoroughbred racehorse, around whom the vast majority of the global racing industry is built, there are other types of animals who do take part in competitive action, including those Shetland ponies, camels, and specifically bred Arabian horses.
In terms of the need for speed though, the type which stands out above all others is the US Quarter Horse. Specifically bred for all-out pace, these animals don’t qualify as pure thoroughbreds, and would likely struggle to stay a trip of even five furlongs. The “Quarter” of their breed description stems from the fact that they most commonly race over a trip of just two furlongs, that is one quarter of a mile.
They do occasionally race over even shorter distances than that though, and in terms of the shortest horse race ever to have been run, this half furlong event from Louisiana Downs must take some beating. It’s all over in around eight seconds!
Top 5 Shortest Races: Rest of the World
When it comes to the top international sprint events, it is the trip of five furlongs which really ought to be considered the minimum in terms of the most meaningful races. Here we take a look at five of the top global contests to be held over that five furlong distance.
Honourable mentions go to the hugely valuable Everest Stakes in Australia, Al Quoz Sprint at Meydan, and the Hong Kong Sprint at Sha Tin. All three are undoubtedly amongst the very best sprint races to take place anywhere in the world, but all are held over six furlongs, and it is the five furlong speedballs we are focussing on here.
Major Five Furlong Races ROW
|Prix de l’Abbaye||Longchamp||France||Group 1|
|A J Moir Stakes||Moonee Valley||Australia||Group 1|
|Black Caviar Lightning||Flemington Park||Australia||Group 1|
|Breeders’ Cup Sprint||Churchill Downs||USA||Grade 1|
|Ibis Summer Dash||Niigata Racecourse||Japan||Grade 3|
France: Prix de l’Abbaye
Introduced to the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe meeting in 1957 in order to honour 100 years of racing at the Longchamp track, this race – which takes its title from an Abbey previously located on the site of the course – remains one of the most prestigious sprint events on the European racing calendar.
One of the most open of the Group 1 sprint contests of the season in terms of entry requirements, all runners aged two or older are permitted to line-up – be they colts, geldings, fillies or mares. This highlight of the French sprinting season traditionally takes place on the first Sunday in October.
Australia: A J Moir Stakes
Named in honour of the track’s former chairman, Alan John Moir, this Group 1 held at Moonee Valley in Melbourne is held in late September each year. First run in 1976 and finally attaining top-class status in 2013, the race has been won by Australian sprint legends Miss Andretti and Black Caviar – two horses who traversed the globe to record further Group 1 success at Royal Ascot.
Australia: Black Caviar Lightning
Speaking of Black Caviar, the second Australian race in the top five has now been named in honour of one of the greatest Australian racehorses of all time. Officially registered as the Lightning Stakes, the event was won by the 25-race unbeaten superstar three times between 2011 and 2013, and regularly attracts the real cream of the Australian sprint division. This Flemington Park contest takes place in February each year.
Churchill Downs (USA): Breeders’ Cup Sprint
The major sprint event of the US racing season is unique amongst our top five, in that some years it will qualify as one of the best of the world’s shortest races, and in other years it won’t. Unlike the majority of the top race meetings in the world, which all have a stable home, the Breeders’ Cup is a festival which moves around a select pool of tracks from year to year.
Of those tracks it is only Churchill Downs that stages this race as a five furlong affair – with the event being held over distances as far as six and a half furlongs at other venues, such as Santa Anita.
Japan: Ibis Summer Dash
Japan’s biggest race over the minimum distance comes at the Niigata Racecourse, and is held in July each year. Open to colts, geldings and fillies aged three and older, the race was first introduced in 2001 and has been classified as a Grade 3 since that inaugural running. Whilst not boasting quite the international appeal of others on this list, the race does remain a pretty big deal domestically on the thriving Japanese racing scene.