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At some point in our lives, we’ve likely used the word “classic” to denote distinguished or unique works in areas such as art, movies, cars, literature, architecture, fashion, and sports.
A classic can be defined as something of recognized value having transcended time and trends. A reference point that has become part of cultural folklore. Traditional and enduring. A standard of excellence, possessing the highest quality and outstanding of its kind.
In thoroughbred horse racing, the designation classic applies to several historic races around the world, some of which date back to the 19th century. These races boast traditional importance, form the foundation of a country’s racing season, and are the benchmarks upon which careers and legends are based. Elite horses are bred and purchased with the intent to win them.
Classics provide the yearly narrative around which racing revolves and are considered the ultimate test which identify the stars of their generation.
Beginning with the American-based events, here are the world’s classic races with long-established significance that are not to be missed.
Regularly Held: First Saturday in May
Where: Churchill Downs, Louisville, KY
First Run: 1875
Distance: 1 1/4 miles on dirt
The first leg of the American Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby is one of the world’s most iconic races. With Churchill Downs’ recognizable Twin Spires serving as the backdrop, this American classic for 3-year-olds known as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” captures the attention of millions. The 2020 Kentucky Derby was held in September as the second leg due to the pandemic.
2020 Winner: Authentic
Regularly Held: Third Saturday in May
Where: Pimlico Race Course, Baltimore, MD
First Run: 1873
Distance: 1 3/16 miles on dirt
As the middle leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness comes just two weeks after the Kentucky Derby, testing the winner’s fitness level and determining whether a troika is still possible. The pandemic’s effect on the 2020 Preakness made that race conclude the Triple Crown series in October.
2020 Winner: Swiss Skydiver
Regularly Held: Third Saturday following the Preakness
Where: Belmont Park, Elmont, NY
First Run: 1867
Distance: 1 1/2 miles on dirt
The third and final leg of the American Triple Crown is also the longest and most challenging. The Belmont has crowned 13 Triple Crown champions since its inauguration, most recently in 2018 with Justify. In 2020, “last shall be first” came to fruition when a shorter 1 1/8-mile Belmont kicked off the Triple Crown.
2020 Winner: Tiz the Law
Regularly Held: Late October or early November
Where: Various American tracks take turns hosting
First Run: 1984
The Breeders’ Cup World Championships showcase the very best thoroughbreds from around the world, with the hosting American horses facing off against the cream of the crop from the rest of the world. The culmination of the two-day affair (featuring 14 divisional races), is the Breeders’ Cup Classic, a true test that often plays a major factor in deciding America’s Horse of the Year.
Regularly Held: Last Saturday in March
Where: Meydan, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
First Run: 1996
Distance: 2000 meters (approximately 1 1/4 miles) on dirt
A novel concept when it debuted, the Dubai World Cup grew to become the world’s richest race (until the $20 million Saudi Cup debuted in 2020), putting the United Arab Emirates on the horse racing map. Cigar (the best horse in North America at the time) won the inaugural race, establishing the Dubai World Cup as a legitimate competition. The pandemic forced the 2020 race to cancel.
Regularly Held: Late April or early May
Where: Newmarket, Suffolk, England
First Run: 1809
Distance: 1 mile on turf
The 2000 Guineas is the first classic of the British thoroughbred season and the first leg of the British Triple Crown series.
2020 Winner: Kameko
First Run: 1814
The 1000 Guineas is the fillies’ equivalent of the 2000 Guineas and is the starting point for Britain’s Fillies’ Triple Crown. Unlike American racing, the twin Guineas are contested on a straight course with no turns.
2020 Winner: Love
Regularly Held: First or second Friday in June
Where: Epsom Downs, Epsom, England
First Run: 1779
Distance: 1 1/2 miles on turf
The third British Classic of the season is the middle leg of Britain’s Fillies’ Triple Crown. It was established a year before the Derby.
Regularly Held: First or second Saturday in June
First Run: 1780
Simply known as just “The Derby” outside the U.S., this has long been regarded as the most prestigious thoroughbred race on the English racing calendar. The second leg in Britain’s Triple Crown has lent its name to many other prestigious races around the world.
2020 Winner: Serpentine
Regularly Held: Second Saturday in September
Where: Doncaster, England
First Run: 1776
Distance: 2,921 meters (approximately 14 1/2 furlongs) on turf
The oldest (and longest) of Britain’s five classic races, the St Leger is the combined final leg of both British Triple Crowns, which has gone unclaimed since Nijinsky last accomplished the feat in 1970.
2020 Winner: Galileo Chrome
Regularly Held: Late June or early July
Where: The Curragh, Ireland
First Run: 1866
Ireland’s most important Group 1 event of the racing season is the middle race in the Irish Triple Crown. It is not uncommon for horses who have previously contested the Epsom Derby and/or the 2000 Guineas to challenge for the Irish Derby.
2020 Winner: Santiago
Regularly Held: Thursday of the Royal Ascot Meet in mid-June
Where: Ascot Racecourse, Berkshire, England
First Run: 1807
Distance: 2 1/2 miles on turf
The Royal Ascot meet is a five-day series featuring 16 group races, including 8 of the Group 1 designation. With Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II and the Royal Party in attendance, Ascot’s most historic race is not only the highlight of this week-long festival, but of the British racing calendar.
2020 Winner: Stradivarius
Regularly Held: First Sunday in October
Where: Longchamp, Paris, France
First Run: 1920
Distance: 2400 meters (approximately 1 1/2 miles) on turf
The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, arguably the world’s greatest horse race, known simply as the Arc, is an international affair and one of Europe’s biggest horse-racing events. Open to three-year-olds and upwards, the Arc draws a top-notch field each Fall, testing the speed and stamina of the contestants.
2020 Winner: Sottsass
Regularly Held: Last Sunday in November
Where: Tokyo, Japan
First Run: 1981
As a relative newcomer on the world’s racing stage, Japan’s richest race quickly established itself as a dynamic international contest. 10 different countries have won this event, including the United States, but Japanese-bred and trained horses have clinched the last 15 consecutive years.
2020 Winner: Almond Eye
Regularly Held: Mid-December
Where: Sha Tin, Hong Kong
First Run: 1988
Distance: 2000 meters (approximately 1 1/4 miles) on turf
The Hong Kong Cup anchors four Group 1 stakes that comprise an international racing festival attracting a competitive field of high-class jockeys and thoroughbreds from around the globe. The signature race has been a fan favorite for decades and one of the highlights of the Hong Kong racing calendar.
2020 Winner: Normcore
Regularly Held: First Tuesday in November
Where: Flemington, Australia
First Run: 1861
Distance: 3200 meters (approximately 2 miles) on turf
Billed as “The Race That Stops a Nation,” the Melbourne Cup is a huge event in the land down under that attracts a strong international presence. Since its inception, the race has become the highlight of Australia’s social and sporting calendar.
2020 Winner: Twilight Payment
Regularly Held: Late March or early April
Where: Aintree, England
First Run: 1839
Distance: 4 1/2 miles on turf (hurdles)
An icon of the British sporting calendar, the Grand National is perhaps the most renowned steeplechase event in the world. The race is best known for its 30 jumps during two laps over the famous course. The pandemic forced the 2020 race to cancel.
Regularly Held: Thursday of the Cheltenham Festival Meet in mid-March
Where: Cheltenham, England
First Run: 1924
Distance: 5,330 meters (approximately 3 1/3 miles) on turf (hurdles)
The world’s most celebrated jump meet attracts huge audiences and covers a four-day span of racing starring the coveted Gold Cup. The race is conducted over 22 fences and attracts some of the best steeplechase horses, jockeys, and trainers.
2020 Winner: Al Boum Photo
Author’s note: the Pegasus World Cup and the Saudi Cup are still too new to be considered a classic on the level of these other events.
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