Understand the races

Learn to read the programme

When you arrive at a racecourse, a free programme is available. This contains a lot of important information for your day at the races.

The start

How the start is organised, at which places, why are they not always in the same place, the distances...

In general, the start of thoroughbred races on the flat takes place through starting stalls. The runners enter from behind in draw order. The horse that starts from the Number 1 position (closest to the rail) will go in first, then the horse drawn in Number 2, and so on. These positions are drawn at random.
When all the horses are in the stalls, the race can begin. The starter is responsible for this, pushing an electric button to ensure the simultaneous opening of all the stalls to let the horses go, which then jump out instinctively. In less than 50 metres, they can gather a speed of 50km/h.

Boîte de départ
Jumping out of the stalls at Longchamp.

In Jumps racing, the starts are with elastic tapes. These are elastic bands that stretch across the track at the designated starting place before being let go by the starter at the beginning of the race when all the runners are behind the tapes.
As a result of the longer distances that these horses run over and because of the slower pace of the races, it is not necessary for the horses to start all together in a line, even if this is ideal to give the jockeys and their mounts the best possible chances.

Départ à l'élastique
Behind the tapes at Auteuil.

The place where the race starts depends on the distance of the race, as the finishing line is in a fixed position, generally in front of the stands. Therefore, the start is measured in relation to the distance for each individual racecourse and in function to where the turns are as well.

In contrast to races taking place in stadiums for athletics, the size and shape of the racecourses vary considerably, measuring from 1,300 metres round to 2,000 metres at their biggest. There are also races that are held in straight lines. Maisons-Laffitte has the longest straight in Europe, measuring 2km.

The start is generally placed on a straight piece of the track, or far enough away from the first turn to allow the runners to form a compact field. Unlike in athletics, horses do not run in lanes. It’s place in the race is down to the jockey, who needs to adapt to the aptitudes of his mount and the trainer’s instructions, who may prefer them to ride close to the front, back, or middle, depending on the horse and the racetrack

The Finish

What denotes the finish line, how, and why, does this change for different tracks and distances...

The finishing line is denoted by a winning post, easily recognisable by its red disk and often placed in front of the stands for the public. At several racecourses, there is more than one winning post, allowing, depending on the size and shape of the tracks, them to organise several different races over a variety of distances.
The distance and winning post are always marked in the free official programme available at each racecourse.
At each winning post, an apparatus for taking photos is in place to allow the judges to determine the finishing positions for each race without error. This is called a photo-finish, which shows the final positions of the horses in a race and the distances that separate them with a synchronised view from the outside and inside of the track so that no horses will be hidden.

Poteau d'arrivée
Fillies pass the post in the Prix de Diane Longines.

Weight / Ratings

The weight that we talk about in races is not that of the horse, which is generally above 300kg, but the weight that the horse must carry (jockey and equipment included) in a race. Before each one, all the jockeys must weigh out with their saddle, girths, stirrups, back protector, and number and weight cloth (but without their hat and whip). Their weight must correspond exactly to that marked in the programme: not more, not less.

La pesée
The jockeys’ scales at Chantilly.

In general, the weight is fixed in the race conditions according to the following criteria:

  • The age of the horses (the youngest horses carry less weight than their elders),
  • Their sex (females benefit from an allowance of three pounds),
  • Their past performances (in relation to prize money won, sometimes in a certain period, or the number of races or their wins, or their performance at a certain level)

On the other hand, the size and weight of a horse does not enter into calculation, nor does the different distances that they have run over during their career, or the surfaces on which they have competed. Over jumps, however, a horse’s experience in each speciality (steeplechase or hurdles) is taken into account.

Another variable that is important when deciding a horse’s weight, is the experience of its jockey. In certain races, an apprentice (a jockey with less than 70 wins) can receive an allowance of up to 3,5kg – meaning that the weight that the horse carries will be 3,5kg less than the conditions outlined in the race, to make up for the rider’s inexperience against professionals.

The draw

In flat races, the draw for each horse is decided at random, and does not relate to its number in the programme. A horse that carries the Number 1 saddle cloth, could break from stall number 5. The number 1 draw is closest to the rail, meaning this would be the interior barrier in a race with turns, or closest to the rail for races in straight lines. The number of a horse in the programme and on their number cloth is used only to differentiate each one for betting purposes.

Numéros de stalles
The draw numbers are shown above the stalls.

A horse’s equipment

Certain equipment used on a horse during a race must be officially declared. Each one wears a bridle and a saddle, and sometimes bandages on their legs for protection. Only blinkers are officially declared, and there are two types: traditional blinkers are worn on a hood, limiting the field of vision of a horse from what is in front of him, while Sheepskin Cheekpieces are sheepskin accessories attached to the side of the bridle next to a horse’s cheeks, which also limits his vision and equally has an effect on his behaviour.
Blinkers are used to make the horse concentrate on racing, stopping him from being diverted by the other horses passing him or anything that is happening during the race. In contrast to trotting, every horse runs with shoes in thoroughbred racing. There is therefore no need to officially declare that a horse does not have shoes on, as in trotting.

œillères traditionnelles
A National Hunt horse wearing traditional blinkers at Auteuil.

The different categories

There are a whole variety of races that enable each class of horse to race corresponding to its aptitudes over a certain distance, but also its quality. The best races are classified Group 1 (85 in Europe in 2016), followed by Group 2 (105), Group 3 (223) and Listed races (433). These are known as stakes races.

Next, there are handicaps, often chosen to be the Quinté+ race of the day. There are often a lot of runners, as each one carries a weight in relation to its quality (the best carry the most weight to equalise each horse’s chance), which often guarantees a lot of horses.

Claiming races are events where a horse is for sale for a certain amount, which is determines the weight that it will carry in a race. After the finish, one can bid upwards from the minimum price marked for the horse, which is then deposited into a ballot box. The highest bid then buys the horse.

When starting out, horses have the possibility to run in races for first timers, then maidens, events for horses that have never won, and then conditions races. They are then campaigned in races that best suit their ability.