If you’ve spent any time watching horse races or trying to learn about them, you’ve probably encountered the word “furlong” and wondered what it meant. A furlong is a unit of measurement that represents 1/8 of a mile. It’s not a term that you’re likely to hear outside of the horseracing world—at least, not in the modern era. At one time, though, this was widely used terminology.
So, what exactly is a furlong, and why does horseracing utilize this outdated language? Keep reading to find out!
What Is a Furlong?
A furlong is simply a unit of measurement, just like a foot, inch, mile, yard, or kilometer. If you’ve never heard someone use this term before, it’s because no one really does outside of horseracing, but it used to be a more commonly used system of measurement.
One furlong represents a distance of 220 yards or 660 feet. 220 yards equals 1/8 of a mile, so a furlong is 1/8 of a mile in distance, and 8 furlongs is 1 mile.
Where Does the Furlong Come From?
Although you rarely hear the term anymore, a furlong is a very old word that was used in Ancient Rome to represent the length of a stadium, which was equal to 1/8 of a Roman mile. This wasn’t the same mile that England used, but in the 14th century, the English mile was changed to prevent disrupting existing practices of land measurement. England also adopted the 8-furlongs-per-mile system of the Romans.
Why Are Furlongs Used in Horse Racing?
While ancient Rome and England both used the furlong, it’s rarely heard today. You’ve probably never seen a measurement in furlongs unless you’ve been to The Republic of the Union of Myanmar, which is the one unique place in the world that uses furlong measurements on its highway signage. England still uses furlongs in reference to their canals, but that’s about it.
So, why are furlongs used in horse racing? Why not switch to a more common system of measurement, such as yards or miles?
It all comes down to tradition. Horseracing first became formalized with official rules and racecourses in England in the 16th century. At this time, furlongs were used for setting up these initial racetracks, and the tradition has simply stuck around throughout the many years.
That said, there have been a few changes made. In modern horseracing, furlongs are only used to express the length of racetracks that are 1 mile or shorter in distance. A 1/2-mile track is referred to as 4 furlongs, but if the track were a mile and a half, it would just be called a mile and a half. Any track longer than a mile is expressed in miles and fractions; only races shorter than a mile use furlongs.
Furlong Racing Records
Many horses have competed in furlong races through the years, and along the way, impressive world records have been set.
One-Furlong Race Record
The record for the fastest 1-furlong horse race was set in a claiming race of all places. Travel Plan, a quarter horse, set the record of 11.493 seconds at the Los Alamitos Racecourse in 2009. Thoroughbreds don’t compete in races that are just 1 furlong in length.
Two-Furlong Race Record
This record was set by a thoroughbred named Drip Brew in 2020. Remember, 2 furlongs equals 1/4 of a mile, and Drip Brew ran it in 19.93 seconds, beating the long-standing record set previously in 2008 of 20.57 seconds by Winning Brew.
Five-Furlong Race Record
The fastest time on a 5-furlong race is just over 55 seconds, set by a thoroughbred named Chinook Pass in 1982.
Furlong is a term not often used in the modern era. If you’re a big fan of horseracing, though, it might benefit you to understand this term and where it came from. Remember, only races that are shorter than a mile will be measured in furlongs. Otherwise, they’ll be expressed in miles and fractions, which makes them easier to understand. A furlong is equal to 1/8 of a mile, so 8 furlongs make 1 mile. Just remember that easy conversion, and you’ll always never be confused about the length of a race!
Featured Image Credit: gabriel12, Shutterstock