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Five furlongs is the minimum distance for flat races in the UK and Ireland but there are shorter races in other parts of the world – in the United States quarter horses race over two furlongs, which is the equivalent of a quarter of a mile.
Horses race from starting stalls on the flat to ensure a level start to a race and this is particularly relevant to five furlong sprints in which ground lost at the start is hard to make up.
Flat races take place in Britain over five furlongs to two miles and five furlongs. Races are either sprints, medium distance races or extended distance races. Horses specialise so there are sprinters, mid-distance horses and stayers.
Sprints take place over five to seven furlongs. Mile races and more are middle distance races. Any races over one mile and six furlongs are designed for stayers. The fastest sprinters race in five furlong sprints in which speed is off the essence. Middle distance horses are outpaced in five furlong sprints but some have been tried in both types of race.
The most prestigious flat races and Classics are run over distances from one mile to one mile and six furlongs. Proven horses over this range of distances will command huge stud fees but sprinters are much less in demand.
Five furlong sprints allow for no margin of error and horses run as fast as possible from the starting stalls to the finish. The most lucrative five furlong sprints take place at Royal Ascot, Haydock and York.
The world record for the fastest sprint was set on the straight five furlong course at Epsom.