How long is a furlong in horse racing, and why is it called this?

If there is one factor that might deter many people who may otherwise become enthusiastic followers of horse racing, it might well be some of the specialised terms used in the sport.

Of course, here at Newbury Racecourse, we believe such apparent ‘jargon’ is central to the fun of following this thrilling and captivating sport – and we reckon you will come to believe that, too!

But in the meantime, let’s start with just one term a lot of people hear or read a lot, but don’t necessarily know the meaning of: furlong.

As the title of this blog post indicates, a furlong is a unit of distance used in horse racing – indeed, you are likely to have encountered references to the likes of “six-furlong sprints” and “four-furlong workouts”.

But putting all that aside, what does the uninitiated newcomer need to know about furlongs?

The length of a furlong

To get straight to the point, a furlong is one eighth of a mile, or:

  • 220 yards
  • 660 feet
  • 2 kilometres
  • 1 meters

This length works out as approximately three fifths of the height of the Eiffel Tower, which would make the iconic Parisian structure 1.610 furlongs tall.

In practice, the term ‘furlong’ is barely used outside the world of horse racing these days – and even then, typically in reference to races that are less than a mile long. If a race exceeds a mile, you can expect its length to be expressed in fractions of a mile, or a certain number of miles and furlongs.

So if, for instance, you look down the list of upcoming race days at Newbury Racecourse, and you click through to our page for the BetVictor Hungerford Day in August – our second ‘Party in the Paddock’ event in 2022 – you will find that the Ranger’s Riding Ranch Handicap is listed as ‘1m 4f’. This is one mile and four furlongs, which works out as one and a half miles.

What led to the furlong being given this name?

There is a fascinating history behind the word “furlong”, and basically, it comes down to English tradition. In the words of Encyclopaedia Britannica, a furlong is an “old English unit of length, based on the length of an average ploughed furrow in the English open or common-field system.”

Basically, the term is derived from the old English words “fuhr”, which means “furrow”, and “lang”, which means “long”. The “open-field” system was the traditional system for farming in medieval England, with each ploughed furrow running the length of an acre.

At some point in the late 13th or early 14th century, the furlong was standardised to 660 feet or 220 yards. By the time the first formal horse racing meets began in the 16th century, the furlong was the accepted unit of measurement – and to this day, in terms of marker posts and so on, British racecourses are widely set up to use furlongs.

Strictly speaking, today’s racecourses probably don’t “need” to continue using furlongs – metres could be easily enough used, as they are in other parts of Europe.

But as the seemingly never-ending debates over the potential ‘revival’ of imperial measures show, we do love our traditions here in Britain. Unsurprisingly, then, in a British racing industry that treasures tradition, there hasn’t been great enthusiasm in the past for the notion of de-emphasising furlongs.

So, whatever its charms or faults… long live the furlong!