If you’re a fan of horse racing but aren’t sure if you really know your Swinley Bottom from your elbow, this post is designed to help you start getting up to speed. Racing is a sport with a rich and sometimes confusing lexicon, but what’s most important to get to grips with first is how any given racehorse may be described. On a race-card or elsewhere, horses are most commonly described using their age, colouring and other key descriptors.
Let’s dig into the main terminology that you might come across, then, and let you know exactly what it all means.
All racehorses in the Northern Hemisphere share the same birthday. Regardless of when they’re actually born, each and every one is recorded as having a birthdate of the 1st of January.
This is done so keeping track of the age of different horses is simpler. This is crucial as many races are open only to runners of certain ages. It also places some extra pertinence upon the following descriptions:
A yearling is the name given to any horse between January 1st and December 31st, of the year after their birth. If a horse had the birthdate January 1st 2018, therefore, it would be a yearling between January 1st and December 31st 2019. Yearlings are too young to race competitively but are often bought and sold with future racing in mind.
Racehorses are described as a two-year-old for entirety of the twelve-month period immediately after they are a yearling. It is during this time that most horses in the flat racing arena begin their racing careers. Many high-class and prestigious races are only open to two-year-olds, including the Group One Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket and the Group Two Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot. It is not uncommon for two year olds that were initially bought cheaply to produce superb results and become the subject of an attractive offer from one or more of racing’s powerhouses.
A racehorse’s three-year-old season immediately follows its two-year-old campaign and is arguably the most important year of a truly top-class horse’s career. All five British Classics – the 1,000 Guineas, the 2,000 Guineas, the Oaks, the Derby and the St Leger -, after all, are open only to horses of this age.
A number of the top-class horses who perform in the British Classics will not continue to race after they turn four. Instead, they will be kept for breeding purposes and used to produce the next generation of on-course performers.
Many other racehorses, however, do continue to race, and flat horses have been known to keep going until they are ten or even older. National Hunt horses, meanwhile, don’t typically hit their peak until they’re between seven and ten, and can carry on racing well into their teens.
As well as determining which races they are eligible for, a horse’s age also has a bearing on how the horse is described. Age specific descriptions are common elements of horse racing parlance, and are described in brief below:
A filly is a female horse aged four years and under. It is fillies, therefore, which take part in all of the highest profile races for female horses on the flat. Those include the 1,000 Guineas and the Oaks, both of which are described as races for three-year-old fillies only.
When a filly turns five on January 1st, it ceases to be called a filly and becomes a mare. Many mares continue to race, but the term is perhaps most commonly applied to female horses kept for breeding purposes. The related phrase ‘broodmare’ is sometimes used to differentiate those horses and the mares who do continue to race.
A colt is essentially the male version of a filly. What we mean by that is that it is a male horse aged less than five years old. In order to be described as a colt, however, the horse must also have not been gelded (see Geldings below). Any male horse which hasn’t been gelded is also sometimes described as being ‘Entire’.
Any male horse over the age of five and still ungelded is described as a stallion. As is also the case with the term ‘Mare’, ‘Stallion’ is a term most closely associated with those horses who have gone to stud after their racing careers. Stallions at stud cover a certain number of broodmares each year, in order to breed offspring for future racing.
A gelding is a male horse which has been castrated. Sometimes euphemistically described as ‘the cruellest cut of all’, gelding a horse is often done to calm the horse down and get them to adopt an attitude better suited for racing. Almost all national hunt horses are gelded but far fewer flat horses undergo the procedure. That is because of the importance and potential value of a stallion’s breeding career after racing.
After age and type, a horse’s colouring is the third most common thing used to describe it. To differentiate it from its equine brethren, a defined colour is necessary. The following are the four most frequently used coat colour descriptors, with a brief explanation so you can identify them.
As simple as the name suggests, a black horse has a coat which is almost solely that one block colour. White markings on the head and lower legs can still be present, however, without changing the horse’s colouring description.
Bay is the name given to any horse which is mostly brown but with a black mane, tail and/or legs. The black areas of a bay horse are called ‘black points’, a horse cannot be described as ‘Bay’ without them.
A chestnut horse can be anything from a light, washy yellow to a dark, liver auburn. Its mane and tail will be of the same colour or a lighter shade than the rest of its coat, and it will not have any true black hairs. It is often the most difficult colour to describe verbally.
The favourite of many racing fans, grey horses possess a coat made of a mixture of black and white hairs. Grey horses come in many different shades and can often possess very attractive patterning, dappling and mottling. Most grey horses also have black skin and dark eyes.
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