Horse racing is a sport with its own language. Though football, tennis, rugby and golf all have their own words for certain aspects of the game, none of them can be as difficult to understand as the gee-gees.
Whether it be the language that on-course bookmakers speak to each other with or the distances that a horse can win a race by, if you don’t know much about the sport then you could feel absolutely lost when all you want to do is watch a race and know who won, by what sort of distance and how much money you might win as a result.
You can read about winning distances elsewhere on this site, with the likes of ‘head’, ‘nose’ and ‘length’ all covered. Here we’re looking at the terminology used to discuss lengths of horse races, which is the category into which ‘furlong’ fits.
It is unique to horse racing, with no other sports referring to things being measured in lengths. It was first used in the 13th or 14th century, which indicates just how old it is and how long it has been used as part of both racing and the English language as a whole.
The Etymology Of ‘Furlong’
In order to better understand where the word furlong comes from, you need to head back to Roman times. The Romans used the word ‘millesimal’, which was used in order to designate the length of a stadium. They also used a Roman mile, with a furlong being equal to one-eighth of a Roman mile.
The problem in England was that an English mile wasn’t the same as a Roman mile, so there was no way that a furlong could translate. Land measurement practices used a furlong, so something needed to be done.
Rather than disrupt land measurement practices, a decision was instead taken to change the length of an England mile in order to bring it in line with a Roman one. In the early part of the 13th century, it was established that eight standard furlongs would be equal to a mile, whilst a rod was 40 rods. Thus it was that rods, yards and feet were all defined by these standards.
As a result, a rod was 16.5 feet, which was 5.5 yards. That was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First, who established the measurements as being the national standard.
Where does the actual word come from? The rod is an historical unit that was believed to have come from the typical length of a medieval ox-goad, which four rods making up a chain. The word ‘furlong’ means ‘furrow length’, which was the distance that a team of oxen would be able to plough without taking a rest. That is because the Old English word for furrow was ‘furh’ and the Old English word for length was ‘lang’, hence furhlang into furlong. It was soon standardised to be 40 rods or 10 chains, which was necessary for farmers.
Long furrows arose as a system on account of the fact that pulling a heavy plough was difficult for a team of oxen, which offset the advantages offered by short furrows. As a result, furrows were made as long as possible, with fields being one long furrow in length and one chain in width.
The furlong was once called ‘an acre’s length’, but that has been lost over time on account of modern acres being as different shapes and sizes. The rod was the most important measurement in the early days of Anglo-Saxons, so rods and furlongs remained unchanged when England moved to the shorter foot.
What did change, though, was the number of feet or yards in a rod or furlong. The rod went from being 15 feet to 16 and a half feet, or five yards to five and a half yards. A furlong, meanwhile, went from being 600 feet to 660 feet, which was 200 yards to 220 yards. The word ‘furlong’ was used in the bible, replacing the Greek word ‘stadion’, though in modern translations the distances used tend to be miles or kilometres and the old distance is offered on a footnote. Even once Rome fell, Europe persisted with the Roman system.
The problem was people diversified the various lengths, which led to issues with the likes of taxation and trading. That is why Elizabeth the First decided to standardised distances, including the foot, the yard, the rod, the furlong and the mile. In the Britannia in 1675, John Ogilby wrote the following:
Dimensurator or Measuring Instrument whereof the mosts usual has been the Chain, and the common length for English Measures four Poles, as answering indifferently to the Englishs Mile and Acre, 10 such Chains in length making a Furlong, and 10 single square Chains an Acre, so that a square Mile contains 640 square Acres.
Furlongs & Horse Racing
One of the strange things about the furlong is its continued use in horse racing. In 1985, the Weights and Measures Act abolished the use of the furlong in the United Kingdom, yet it remains the distance used for races to this day.
There is one main word why that is the case: tradition. Horse racing is a sport built on traditions, from the naming restrictions put in place on owners with their horses to the breeding requirements when people are looking to put their horses out to stud. When racecourses were first built in the 1500s, furlongs were the measurements used.
As a result, furlongs continue to be the measurements used nowadays so as not to break with tradition. Because a furlong is one-eighth of a mile, races that are shorter than a mile use the furlong measurement as it works and is able to keep things much simpler than saying a race is 1,540 yards rather than seven furlongs. If a race is longer than a mile, miles are used at that point.
Interestingly, thoroughbred records are recorded in furlongs, whilst quarter horses are recorded based on their time coming out of the gate. As a result, thoroughbreds seem much faster they effectively get a running start.
Where Furlongs Are Used
Furlongs are used in horse racing in most of the English-speaking countries around the world. From the United Kingdom to Canada via Ireland and the United States of America, races will be described as being run over miles and furlongs. In Australia, meanwhile, the move to the metric system means that furlongs are not used for races that take place down under.
The only place where furlongs are used as an active measurement is Myanmar, which continues to use furlongs and miles to indicate distances.
If you were to travel along the Yangon-Mandalay Expressway, for example, then you would see signposts indicated on the mile and on furlongs when necessary. Given that that is the main road that runs between the country’s largest city, Yangon, and its second-largest city, Mandalay, it is fair to say that it is an important measurement there that the country’s citizens have grown used to using. It isn’t really used anywhere else, though Chicago allots 800 address units in each mile, with eight blocks being in a mile.
That means that each block in Chicago is effectively one mile in length. A similar thing is true in Salt Lake City, where each block is a square furlong in the downtown area. Though the shapes get less regular the more you move away from the city centre, the numbering system of 800 units per mile remains the same in Salt Lake County. A similar square furlong measurement is used in the city of Logan in Utah and the city of Phoenix in Arizona. City blocks are also one furlong long in the Hoddle Grid in the Australian city of Melbourne.
How Long Is A Furlong?
In one sense, you’d think that we’ve already covered this elsewhere on this page. In reality, though, the exact length of a furlong differs depending on the country that you’re in.
Canada and the United Kingdom both define a furlong in terms of the international yard, for example. Because an international yard is 0.9144 metres, that means that a furlong is considered to be 201.168 metres in the UK and Canada. In Australia, meanwhile, the furlong is not given a formal definition, but the chain and link are defined.
In the United States of America, the furlong, chain, rod and link are all defined according to the US survey foot. That is exactly 1200⁄3937 metre, meaning that a furlong in the US is around 201.1684 metres. This means that the measurements differ, though the difference is essentially irrelevant in terms of practical measurements.
Interestingly, the U.S. National Geodetic Survey and National Institute of Standards and Technology announced a joint decision in 2019 to retire the US survey foot at the end of 2022, meaning that the US Customary unit will also be based on the international 1959 foot from then on.