American Quarter Horse-Racing Basics

Get up to speed on the details of the Quarter Horse industry’s fastest event: horse racing!

From the American Quarter Horse Association

American Quarter Horses can hit a top speed of 55 mph. AQHA File photo.

The fastest horse in the world, the American Quarter Horse is a specialized sprinter with a quick turn of foot. Racing at speeds up to 55 mph, Quarter Horses can cover a quarter-mile in less than 21 seconds, starting from a flat-footed standstill.

In Quarter Horse racing, the clock begins as soon as the starter pushes the button and the starter gates open. In comparison, Thoroughbreds are given a running start. Although Thoroughbreds break from the gate just like Quarter Horses, their timer doesn’t begin until they are several strides from the gate.

American Quarter Horses vs. Thoroughbreds

Quarter Horses are traditionally short, stocky horses that are specialized sprinters. They are the dragsters of the horse racing world. Quarter Horse races are measured in yards, and are typically between 220 and 770 yards. The classic distance is 440 yards, which is where the horse originally drew its name.

Thoroughbreds are tall, thinner horses that specialize in running long distances. They commonly run between six furlongs (three-quarters of a mile) and two miles. Thoroughbreds originated in Europe.

Want to learn more about racing American Quarter Horses? Check out AQHA's Quarter Paths - Anecdotes of the Fastest Horse on Earth e-book, which will introduce you to the racing industry's most influential sires!

The most famous American Quarter Horse races are the All American Futurity and Derby – both with purses of more than $2 million – at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico.

For Thoroughbreds, the most famous race is the Kentucky Derby, held at Churchill Downs in Kentucky.

Common Types of Horse Races

    • Maiden: A horse of any sex that has never won a race.
    • Claiming: The blue-collar level of racing. All the horses in a claiming race are for sale, and licensed people can purchase them through the racing office.
    • Handicap: Horses are given different weights to carry based on ability. A horse that has a better race record is given a handicap (more weight) to even the playing field.
    • Allowance: Traditionally for horses beyond claiming ranks. These races give a specific criteria the horse must meet to be able to race, such as “3-year-olds and upward, which have never won two races.”
    • Stakes: A race for the best of the best. These high-prestige races have large purses attached to them.
    • Derby: A stakes race for 3-year-olds only.

What Is a Speed Index?

The speed index calculates the average speed of the three fastest horses over three years at a given distance at a given trace. It is a tool used only in Quarter Horse racing to compare horses in a race.

How a Racehorse’s Job Works

Most horses live on the backside, or barns located near the track. They train in the mornings to get in shape for the races. Sometimes, they are simply jogged or galloped around the track. Other times, though, they are sent to work, in which the horse is exercised at racing speed for a certain distance. The workouts are recorded for you to read.

What do Dash For Cash, Go Man Go and Jet Deck have in common? They're some of the fastest and most influential racing Quarter Horses! Download AQHA's Quarter Paths - Anecdotes of the Fastest Horse on Earth e-book so you can be inspired by the stories of these famous Quarter Horses.

Before a Quarter Horse is allowed to race, he or she must be registered with AQHA. Each racehorse is given a permanent tattoo on the inside of its upper lip before the horse’s first race. Before each race, the number on the lip is checked with the official record to be sure the correct horse is entered in the race.

Each race pits horses against each other for a set amount of purse money.

After they are saddled and ready, the jockeys mount up, and the horses are led onto the track. Once there, they parade before the stands and have a chance to warm up. Then, they are led to post, which is just a fancy word for the starting gate. At post time, they run the race, the winner gets his photo taken and wagerers receive their payout. The horses are then returned to the barns to be cooled and bathed.

Immediately after a race, veterinarians collect urine and blood samples from the top finishers so they can be tested for prohibited medicines.