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Age is just a number, right?

They say that age is just a number.

And that’s true, of course, although in sport, you can see the benefits – and often drawbacks – of being young, old or even somewhere in the middle. Some sports lend themselves to youth, others to experience. There aren't too many teenagers playing crown green bowls, nor septuagenarians in gymnastics.

But as far as horse racing is concerned, age is certainly more than a number, because often it dictates when a particular horse will be in its prime based upon their discipline; be it sprinting, chasing or staying. And the gradual change in the type of horse we breed for Jump racing has also dictated the career life span of our best known horses.

So, is age just a number in horse racing, or do different horses peak at different times of their lives?

Speed is of the essence

A study from the Journal of Equine Science revealed that a horse’s speed peaks at around four-and-a-half years old; hence why sprinters tend to be at the younger end of the age spectrum.

If you look at the list of winners at the Haydock Sprint Cup, for example, six of the last ten champions have been aged three at the time of their triumph, with a pair of five-year-olds and a six-year-old duo also taking the spoils.

There are also specific races for each age group, with novice and nursery renewals designed for horses aged two. They are, by their very nature at that age, just starting out in racing and unlikely to be able to compete with bigger, more mature horses, so under the Rules of Racing, this is not permitted until they reach three.

Interestingly, in Germany, where breeders have a reputation for staying horses, there are virtually no sprints, and no two year old races till very late in the season.

Hitting their stride

While a horse may get no faster over the ground than when they are four or five, within the next couple of years, they will develop physically and reach their prime as chasers or stayers.

With stronger limbs and more defined physical conditioning, older horses are then run over longer distances, and as we all know, it's largely among the staying and middle distance races that the sport is top heavy in prize money for their owners and connections, whether on the Flat or over the sticks.

Take the Cheltenham Festival’s flagship races, such as the Gold Cup. Al Boum Photo, the back-to-back champion, was aged seven and eight in his victories, while before him the rollcall of winners includes Native River (eight), Sizing John (seven), Don Cossack (nine) and Coneygree (eight). The average age of winners in the 20 years to 2020 was 7.8, against 9.65 for the previous 20 years, and 8.85 for 1960-79. And yet ironically, one of the youngest ever winners was 5 year old Red Splash in the race's inaugural year - 1924.

There is one overriding reason for this reduction, which in its turn has turned the art of training on its head. The market for top flight chasing bloodstock was largely in Ireland until about 20 years ago, with some notable exceptions. The late David Barons took to shipping in bloodstock from New Zealand but this wasn't sustained after his retirement. But where the Irish had cornered the field, more precocious early-maturing types from France have been able to steal a march and erode a near monopoly position for the Irish.

Visit any French Jumps trainer and you will see juveniles as young as two jumping obstacles in loose schools in order to make the jumping habit an everyday occurrence. Four year old steeplechases are sufficiently common for the idea to have been tried over here. And it works. The number of French-breds over here in the UK continues to grow year on year. Of Timeform's top 20 chasers, rated from Chacun Pour Soi's 176+ to Saint Calvados at 166, no less than 12 are French, including the top 4. Irish and British breds score almost the same among the rest.

Among our top hurdlers, the situation is more balanced, with a strong seam of talent from Ireland to counter the likes of Benie des Dieux and Epatante. And remarkable as it may seem, recent Leopardstown winner Honeysuckle is a British bred!

The earlier start for French breds has brought down the retirement age for the average National Hunt horse by a couple of years. It's now rare to see horses racing under Rules beyond the age of 12 because they start earlier. 2017 JLT Chase winner Yorkhill has just been retired by Sandy Thompson at the tender age of 11.

As you can see, the continental angle explains the kind of age profile where horses show their class best, so if you fancy a flutter and use your Cheltenham Festival free bets with, then consider how age is a factor in the different types of races.

But age isn't always a barrier. Sonny Somers was a winner twice over fences in 1980 at the grand old age of 18!

Repeat success

Whatever your interest in horse racing, but particularly from a betting perspective, it is essential to study the form.

Not just what a runner has been up to lately, but also their record on particular going, over specific distances and at the many different racecourses in the UK and Ireland, which are configured left or right-handed.

A horse's age helps punters put together a picture of the criteria for success. For example, an eight-year-old might have a bank of form to call upon on soft ground, and at right-handed courses, and with particular jockeys on board.So, age is key to identifying winners in horse racing, because experience dictates how well a horse will run – or otherwise – on any given day. As we all know, every horse has an off day every so often, and just like humans, you tend to have more off days the older you get.

So, is age important in horse racing? Absolutely. And when do horses hit their prime? That depends on the individual. It could be as a precocious two-year-old who doesn't train on, or as a nine-year-old powerhouse in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

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