World’s best: These 18 races stand out from all the rest

World’s best: These 18 races stand out from all the rest

At some point in our lives, we all have 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 racing, the classic designation applies to a race for 3-year-olds. However, many major races for older horses from around the world can be considered “classic” in the sense that they 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. It’s just not the prize money that lures horsemen to these major events, it’s the prestige, the history and the heritage that these races represent.

These historic races, whether restricted to 3-year olds or open to older horses, provide the yearly narrative around which racing revolves and are considered the ultimate test that identify the stars of their generation.

Based on their yearly placement on the racing calendar, here are “classic” races from around the world with long-established significance that are not to be missed.

Cheltenham Gold Cup

Age: 5-year-olds and up

Regularly held: Thursday of the Cheltenham Festival in mid-March

Where: Cheltenham, England

First run: 1924

Distance: 3 miles, 2 1/2 furlongs, about 3 5/16 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.

2021 winner: Minella Indo

Dubai World Cup

Age: 3-year-olds and up

Regularly held: Late March

Where: Meydan, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

First run: 1996

Distance: 2,000 meters, about 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 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.

2021 winner: Mystic Guide

Grand National

Age: 6-year-olds and up

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, testing horse and jockey, is best known for its 30 jumps during two laps over the famous course.

2021 winner: Minella Times

2,000 Guineas

Age: 3-year-old colts and fillies

Regularly held: Late April or early May

Where: Newmarket, Suffolk, England

First run: 1809

Distance: 1 mile on turf

The 2,000 Guineas is the first classic of the British Thoroughbred season and the first leg of the British Triple Crown series.

2021 winner: Poetic Flare

1,000 Guineas

Age: 3-year-old fillies

Regularly held: Late April or early May

Where: Newmarket, Suffolk, England

First run: 1814

Distance: 1 mile on turf

The 1,000 Guineas is the distaff 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

2021 winner: Mother Earth

Kentucky Derby

Age: 3-year-olds

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 Run for the Roses” captures the attention of millions and is the one event beyond all others that every North American horseman dreams of winning.

2021 winner: Medina Spirit

Preakness Stakes

Age: 3-year-olds

Regularly held: Third Saturday in May

Where: Pimlico, Baltimore, Md.

First run: 1873

Distance: 1 3/16 miles on dirt

As the middle leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness is the link that joins the series. It comes just two weeks after the Kentucky Derby, testing the winner’s fitness level and determining whether a sweep is still possible.

2021 winner: Rombauer

Belmont Stakes

Age: 3-year-olds

Regularly held: June on the third Saturday after the Preakness

Where: Belmont Park, Elmont, N.Y.

First run: 1867

Distance: 1 1/2 miles on dirt

The final leg of the American Triple Crown is also the longest and most challenging. It is a true test of speed and stamina. Thirteen horses have gone on to be crowned American Triple Crown champions after winning this finale.

2021 winner: Essential Quality

Epsom Oaks

Age: 3-year-old fillies

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 Epsom Derby.

2021 winner: Snowfall

Epsom Derby

Age: 3-year-olds

Regularly held: First or second Saturday in June

Where: Epsom Downs, Epsom, England

First run: 1780

Distance: 1 1/2 miles on turf

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.

2021 winner: Adayar

Gold Cup

Age: 3-year-olds and up

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 eight Group 1s. With Her Majesty 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.

2021 winner: Subjectivist

Irish Derby

Age: 3-year-old colts and fillies

Regularly held: Late June or early July

Where: The Curragh, Ireland

First run: 1866

Distance: 1 1/2 miles on turf

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.

2021 winner: Hurricane Lane

St Leger Stakes

Age: 3-year-olds

Regularly held: Second Saturday in September

Where: Doncaster, England

First run: 1776

Distance: 1 mile, six furlongs, 132 yards, about 1 3/4 miles, on turf

The world’s oldest classic 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.

2021 winner: Hurricane Lane

Prix l’Arc de Triomphe

Age: 3-year-olds and up, no geldings

Regularly held: First Sunday in October

Where: ParisLongchamp, Paris, France

First run: 1920

Distance: 2,400 meters, about 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 racing events. The Arc draws a top-notch field each fall that often features current classic winners and established stars from around the world.

2021 winner: Torquator Tasso

Breeders Cup Classic

Age: 3-year-olds and up

Regularly held: Late October or early November

Where: Track selected by Breeders’ Cup Limited

First run: 1984

Distance: 1 1/4 miles on dirt

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 other continents. 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.

2021 winner: Knicks Go

Melbourne Cup

Age: 3-year-olds and up

Regularly held: First Tuesday in November

Where: Flemington, Melbourne, Australia

First run: 1861

Distance: 3,200 meters, about 2 miles, on turf

Billed as “The Race That Stops a Nation,” the Melbourne Cup is a huge event that attracts a strong international presence. Since its inception, the race has become the highlight of Australia’s social and sporting calendar.

2021 winner: Verry Elleegant

Japan Cup

Age: 3-year-olds and up

Regularly held: Last Sunday in November

Where: Tokyo

First run: 1981

Distance: 2,400 meters, about 1 1/2 miles, on turf

Japan’s richest race quickly established itself as a dynamic international contest. 10 different countries have won this event, including the U.S., but Japan-bred and trained horses have clinched the last 16 consecutive years.

2021 winner: Contrail

Hong Kong Cup

Age: 3-year-olds and up

Regularly held: Mid-December

Where: Sha Tin, Hong Kong

First run: 1988

Distance: 2,000 meters, about 1 1/4 miles, on turf

The Hong Kong Cup anchors four Group 1 stakes that compose an international racing festival attracting a competitive field of high-class jockeys and Thoroughbreds from around the globe. The signature race is a fan favorite and one of the highlights of the Hong Kong racing calendar.

2021 winner: Loves Only You

Author’s note: Both the Pegasus World Cup Invitational, inaugurated in 2017, and the Saudi Cup, currently the world’s richest horse race, which debuted in 2020, made an immediate impact in Thoroughbred racing here in the U.S. and a half-world away. Both events are lucrative and rewarding opportunities for trainers and owners but are still too new to be considered a classic on the level of these other events.

Meet Nick Costa


Nick became instantly hooked on horse racing when his father first took him to the racetrack when he was 5-years old. As a racing fan, he's attended several Kentucky Derbys, Belmont Stakes and Breeders' Cups, and has visited several racetracks throughout the United States and Canada.


Back in the year 2000, Nick became a licensed owner and is currently still involved with the sport in that honored capacity. In 2010, Nick added another dimension when trying his hand at writing about horse racing for Horse Racing Nation, and thanks its readers for their support.

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