Lady and The Track | August 11, 2022

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Inside Racing: Got Time For Some Times?


What Is Time And Distance In Horse Racing And Why Is It So Important?

By Christina Lee

For this installment of “What the Heck Are They Talking About” this former exercise rider and racing official will attempt to simplify terms of distance and time used in North American flat racing and how they may be useful in picking your next winning ticket. In American racing (including steeplechase, which is over fences), distance of races are based upon a unit of measurement called a furlong. A furlong is an imperial term of a unit of ground equal to 1/8th of a mile and is technically made up of 220 yards or 660 feet. Eight furlongs are equal to one mile.

Quarter Horse, Appaloosa and Paint racing will often measure distances by yards, likely due to the generally short distances the horses race. The All American Futurity, the richest race for 2-year-old Quarter Horses, is run at 440 yards or a quarter mile.

In Thoroughbred racing, races less than a mile in distance are described in furlongs; a common race distance is six furlongs, which is equal to three-quarters of a mile long. Races of a mile or more are more often described in mile terms, for example The Kentucky Derby is a 1 ¼-mile long race.


Keeneland. Photo: Keeneland

The colored, striped poles peppered evenly around the track are distance markers starting at the finish line, or wire, and working clockwise or “backwards” in the racing world. The red and white poles indicate every quarter of a mile; and green and white poles are every eighth. Black and white poles mark sixteenths and each pole is located 1 furlong or 1/16 of a mile apart.

The poles are landmarks for a number of reasons, chiefly for enabling clockers, official timers and riders to “clock” or “time” the horse as it passes through furlong

intervals. The poles are also useful for a trainer to easily describe to the rider how far and fast to go when breezing or a regular training day gallop.

For instance, a trainer may say to a rider, “jog back to the five-eighths, stand and jog around to the mile and gallop a mile.” To outsiders, this sounds like some kind of code to crack, but what it translates to is that the trainer wants the horse to jog clockwise, going against galloping traffic to the five-eighths pole, jog going the right way – clockwise – to the mile pole, which is usually the finish line pole, pick up a gallop and gallop all the back to the mile pole (finish pole again) and end with another short jog, stand for the horse to catch its breath and then a jog home or off the track, depending on the layout of the track and the on and off access (gaps).

The “time” a horse is clocked in, or the rate of speed in which he travels, can be very complex due to many variables. These variables are often what handicappers refer to as track bias, surface changes, the general quality of the horses racing at a particular track, type of race, purse money and countless others, priority of which often dependent on the perspective of each person.

Furlongs, quarters, and times, oh my!

Now that you have an idea of how distances are measured and broken down into furlongs, here is a general table of how fast the average rate of speed Thoroughbred racehorses are running, at a track like Santa Anita.

-Generally a galloping/training speed is around :17 to :18 seconds per furlong, faster during actual races as expected
-A “Two Minute Lick” is about :15 seconds/furlong or a two-minute mile.
-An average work for six furlongs and less is usually :12 seconds per furlong
-Racing Average speed is :11.6 seconds/furlong rounded up to fifths or hundredths
-Racing at a mile or over generally averages out to :14 seconds/furlong, also rounded up

With the knowledge of furlongs and these average times, the workout tab or sheet should help even a novice make a little sense of what may qualify a really fast work or a slower work. Looking at the time fractions of race past performances will also give a picture of “how the horse ran the race” compared to its finish and the competition.