There are times when horse racing can seem like a completely impenetrable industry. Imagine going to place a bet on a race and being asked if you’d like to make it an Acca, for example, or that the wager that you’re trying to place is an ante-post bet.
Picture being informed that the apprentice lost their maiden race because the horse’s bridle broke. Perhaps you’ve approached an on-course bookmaker, asked what odds a horse has and they’ve replied that they don’t fancy it so it’s going at a Double Carpet.
Worst of all, you get told that the horse that you’ve bet on lost by a neck. Not only is your wager not a winning one, you haven’t got a clue why it is that the horse lost in the first place. That is the problem with an industry that uses words and phrases that may seem like complete gibberish to the uninitiated.
The good news is that, when it comes to the various words that are used to describe distances in horse races, they’re easy enough to get your head around once you’ve been told what it is that they all stand for.
When we’re talking about phrases such as ‘head’, ‘neck’ and ‘length’, they are all referencing the distance by which a winning horse finished in front of the horse that came second.
It is an important thing to learn, not just because of the fact that it will help you to understand how closely you won or lost your bet, but also because some bookmakers will allow you to place wagers on the winning distance of horses in some races. C
onversely some bookies have offers that give you refunds or free bets if you horse loses by a length, neck, head or nose. Racecards tend to record both the time and the winning measurement of a horse in each race.
In 2008, the British Horseracing Authority confirmed a series of new finishing distances, with the original ones being supplemented by some others. The official distances were as follows:
- Dead heat
- Short head
- ½ length
- ¾ length
- 1 length
- 1¼ lengths
- 1½ lengths
- 1¾ lengths
- 2 lengths
- 2½ lengths
- 3 lengths
- 3½ lengths
- 4 lengths – 30 lengths
These were supplemented with the following:
- 2¼ lengths
- 2¾ lengths
- 3¼ lengths
- 3¾ lengths
- 4½ lengths
In 2020, the BHA decided to introduce six more winning distances, with a quarter of a length margin being extended to up to five lengths and half length margins going up to ten lengths.
What Is A Length?
It’s all well and good being told that a horse has won by one and a quarter lengths, but without knowing what a length is that is all a bit meaningless. In essence, it means what it sounds like: the length of a horse. Obviously this will differ from one horse to the next, with the British Horseracing Authority saying the following:
A length is a measurement of elapsed time as the horses cross the line and can vary on the size of the horse and its stride pattern, but in general would be about 8 to 9 feet.
We haven’t done a typo, it is right that the BHA refers to it as a length of time. There doesn’t seem to be a concrete definition of what ‘length’ means, unlike other distances that have a defined length, such as centimetre. The idea that it can vary depending on the length of a horse certainly adds a degree of confusion into the matter.
In races run in the United Kingdom, a race judge will calculate the distance between a winning horse and the horse that came second based on the time that it takes for each horse to cross the finish line.
The time is converted into distance by using the Lengths per Second scale, or Lps. Given the fact that thoroughbreds can travel up to sex lengths per second, we’re not necessarily talking about huge distances.
Of course, as with so many other things in horse racing, there are numerous different factors that can alter the Lengths per Second scale, including whether it is a National Hunt race, a flat race or a race on an all-weather circuit and what the Going was for the race. Here is a look at the Lps scale depending on each of those:
National Hunt Races On Turf
|Soft or Slower||4|
|Soft, Good to Soft in Places||4|
|Good to Soft, Soft in Places||4.5|
|Good to Soft||4.5|
|Good to Soft, Good in Places||4.5|
|Good, Good to Soft in Places||4.5|
|Good or Quicker||5|
Flat Races On Turf
|Soft or Slower||5|
|Soft, Good to Soft in Places||5|
|Good to Soft, Soft in Places||5.5|
|Good to Soft||5.5|
|Good to Soft, Good in Places||5.5|
|Good, Good to Soft in Places||5.5|
|Good or Quicker||6|
National Hunt All-Weather Races (Standard Going)
Flat Races On All-Weather Tracks (Standard Going)
Though this is, like so much else in racing, a decidedly convoluted method, it does at least promise consistency across all of the various races that take place around the United Kingdom, presuming that they come under the jurisdiction of the BHA.
As far as punters are concerned, the exact distance doesn’t matter too much in most instances, so you can rest assured that the winning distance will have been about eight foot, give or take.
Things get a little bit less complicated when you start to look at the other distances that a horse might win by during a race. That being said, there are still some distances for which there is no official measurement, including that of a Neck.
This is usually written as (nk) when you’re looking at the race card and references a winning margin that is less than half a length and is probably closer to between a quarter and a third. As the name suggests, it is roughly the equivalent of the length of a horse’s neck.
Would you be surprised to learn that there’s no official definition of how long a head is? Once more, it is roughly equivalent to how long a horse’s head is. You’ll only usually get this sort of finish, which is noted as (hd) in the form book, if a race has gone to a photo finish.
If the wining horse is in front of the second-place horse by the equivalent of about a head’s length then they will, unsurprisingly, have won by a head.
Even closer than a head is a short head, which is thought of as being roughly one-tenth of a length. Not an exactly science, but if the winning horse finishes in front of the second-place horse by less then a head and more than our next measurement, which is a nose, then it will have won by a short head.
This distance is shown by (sh) appearing where measurements are displayed after races.
The smallest outright winning distance in a horse race, a nose will apply when a photo finish happens and it appears as if one of the horses has just pipped the other one to the victory. Ironically, considering it is the smallest of the winning margins, it has the longest denotation when it comes to the race card, given that (nse) is what you’ll see written there.
The reason the distance is a nose is that the British Horseracing Authority say that it needs to be a horse’s actual nose that crosses the line first, so a tongue sticking out or an ear flapping won’t count.
It is fair to say that dead heats don’t happen very often in horse races, but when they do you will see a handicapper somewhere quietly raising a glass to themselves. It is what happens when not even a photo finish can separate two or more horses on the finish line, meaning that bookmakers and race organisers consider them to have finished at the same time and effectively drawn the race.
It is denoted by (dh) in the race card and a bookmaker will apply dead heat rules in such scenarios. This will see the amount of your stake reduced, reducing winnings accordingly.
Are Winning Distances Important?
The obvious question to ask is why, exactly, it matters what distance a horse did or didn’t win a race by. In some senses, it doesn’t matter, unless you’ve placed a bet on exactly that.
Why it matters in practice, though, is that handicappers use winning distances in order to assign weights to horses in their next races where handicaps apply. If there was no sense of consistency in how long finishing distances were, handicappers wouldn’t really have a clue how to give weights to horses and their job is already really difficult.
The reality is that it is very difficult to correctly identify distances in races where horses are going at incredible speeds. As punters, looking at the distances in a race card will give you a sense of how easily a horse won a race, or how close it was in instances where a horse only won by a length or less.
The fact that you won’t know exactly how long a length is is pretty irrelevant, all things considered. You can just know that a horse either ran away with a race or else timed its run to the line to perfection.