Horse racing fans are certainly spoilt for choice here in the UK, with well over 1,000 meetings and 10,000+ individual races held each and every year. And contained within that number are contests for horses of all abilities – from your lowly Class 6 handicapper, all the way up to the headline-grabbing Group 1 superstars.
And, just as in other sports, as ability improves, so too do the rewards on offer. Whereas in football, for example, those rewards take the shape of increasingly astronomical salaries, in the sport of horse racing, it is prize money which is the financial measure of success.
Whatever the race – from your bottom-of-the-pile all-weather maiden on a Thursday afternoon, to the showpiece event at the big Saturday afternoon meeting – there is always a pot of some description to play for. Of course, not all pots are created equally, and whilst at the lower levels the prize money is unlikely to raise too many eyebrows, at the top end of the game the UK continues to offer some very big pots indeed.
Here we take a look at the biggest of those big pots, with a rundown of the top 10 richest races from both the flat and National Hunt spheres. We will then conclude with a look at just how well prize money in the UK measures up on a global scale. All figures quoted are taken from the most recent editions of the races as of September 2021.
UK’s Richest Flat Races
Springing to life as a pastime of the aristocracy, and soon earning the nickname of “the sport of kings”, money has been synonymous with flat racing throughout its history. And whilst nothing like the preserve of the elite as it was in years gone by, racing on the level is still the richer of the two disciplines, boasting higher average prize money than its National Hunt cousin. When it comes to bumping up that average total, no races contribute more than the UK’s 10 richest contests:
Champion Stakes – Ascot – £1.2 million
Held in October each year, this Group 1 contest is the star attraction of British Champions Day. Taking place at what is one of the UK’s classiest racecourses, the event sees a late-season clash of the generations, as the Classic crop lock horns with their elders over the 1m2f trip. The brilliant Brigadier Gerard won back to back editions of this during the 1970’s, whilst in more recent times the prize has fallen to the incomparable Frankel, his full brother Noble Mission and his son, Cracksman.
The Derby – Epsom – £1.125 million
In many years, the most prestigious contest on the racing calendar would sit atop the financial table. And whilst the UK’s number one Classic may have been pipped to the post in 2021, the excellent prize money is really only part of the financial reward on offer here – win this and a multimillion-pound career at stud is all but guaranteed. Held at Epsom Downs each year in June, this 1m4f Group 1 event is viewed as the ultimate test of the thoroughbred and never fails to attract the very best of the three year old colts in training.
Juddmonte International – York – £1 million
It may not quite be the richest, nor the most prestigious, but in terms of the average rating of the contenders, this 1m2f showdown on the Knavesmire is regularly amongst the highest-class events held anywhere in the world. The big Group 1 highlight of the outstanding Ebor meeting in August, this cracking contest made its debut in 1972 and has since been landed by the likes of Singspiel, Sea The Stars and the irrepressible Frankel.
Queen Elizabeth II Stakes – Ascot – £1 million
Offering over £4 million in total across a six-race card, British Champions Day is the UK’s single richest race day; and as the UK’s most valuable race, it is of course the Champion Stakes that tops the bill. Not too far behind though comes this event held over the straight mile. Regularly attracting an international field – with the French having a particularly good record – previous winners include Frankel (again), and Godolphin’s greatest ever racehorse, Dubai Millennium.
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes – Ascot – £875,000
Traditionally Britain’s most prestigious open-age flat event, this 1m4f contest is effectively the UK equivalent of the illustrious Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. First held in 1951, the roll of honour here reads like a who’s who of middle-distance greats, with the likes of Brigadier Gerard, Galileo and two-time heroine Enable being just a selection of the superstars to have stamped their class on proceedings.
Prince of Wales’s Stakes – Ascot -£700,000
Of the UK’s 60 racecourses, it is the Berkshire venue of Ascot which is perhaps most associated with the upper echelons of society. And with five of our top 10 richest races taking place at the track, it would seem that reputation is fully deserved. Each year in June, Ascot stages the meeting which is the jewel in its rather gleaming crown, with the annual staging of the world-renowned Royal Meeting. Held over five days, this international showstopper features Group class contests in an abundance rarely witnessed elsewhere – including this 1m2f Group 1 affair which lights up the turf on Day 2.
Diamond Jubilee Stakes – Ascot – £700,000
And sticking to the Royal Meeting, our next event sees the speedballs line up over six furlongs for the final day feature. Regularly boasting a truly international flavour – at what is already the UK’s most cosmopolitan of race fixtures – previous winners here include super stallion Danehill and unbeaten Australian mare Black Caviar, who almost gave backers a heart-attack when pulling up close to the line – but just hanging on – in 2012.
St Leger Stakes – Doncaster – £700,000
It may not be the most prestigious of the British Classic contests, nor is it the richest, but the historic St Leger does lay claim to being the oldest. Run over a stamina-sapping trip of 1m6f, the race first took place in 1776 and remains the premier event of the season for the three year old stayers to this day. Taking place in September, the “Leger” acts as the third and final leg of the Triple Crown for both the colts and the fillies.
Ebor Handicap – York – £500,000
And last but by no means least, the only handicap contest to hit the top 10. Taking its name from the ancient Roman name for York, this 1m6f event provides one of the major targets of the season for the most talented staying handicappers in training. Worth as much as £1 million in previous years, the 2021 prize money still makes this August contest the most valuable event of its type in Europe.
UK’s Richest Jumps Races
Whilst flat racing has traditionally been a rich man’s game, the National Hunt sphere boasts more humble beginnings, with roots harking back to rural 18th century Ireland. The sport has come a fair way from the days when races were quite literally held between two church steeples though and in the modern era, it boasts a number of the biggest and most popular events in the UK – many of which have prize money to match.
Grand National – Aintree – £750,000
There are no prizes for guessing the name at the top of the National Hunt list. None other than the most famous jumps race on the planet: the Merseyside marvel that is the Grand National. Taking place in April each year, this 4m2½f war of attrition features obstacles quite unlike any other, with the likes of Becher’s Brook, Foinavon and The Chair being almost as famous as the race itself. The contest may “only” be a Grade 3 handicap, but it is a race engrained in the public consciousness to an unparalleled degree and doesn’t seem likely to be knocked off top spot any time soon.
Cheltenham Gold Cup – Cheltenham – £468,750
Whilst the Grand National is undoubtedly the most famous jumps contest of the season, it is not the classiest. That honour belongs to the race which sits second on our rich list, the magnificent Cheltenham Gold Cup. The Grade 1 feature on the fourth and final day of the exceptional Cheltenham Festival in March, this 3m2f heavyweight contest is the race in which the true greats of the game strut their stuff. Arkle, Kauto Star, Denman, Golden Miller and Best Mate being just a few of the legendary names etched into the history of this great race.
Champion Hurdle – Cheltenham – £337,500
It is with good reason that the Cheltenham Festival is known as the meeting around which the whole National Hunt season revolves. And hot on the heels of the Gold Cup, our next four entries all also take place at Prestbury Park in March. The biggest event of the season over the smaller obstacles, this illustrious two-mile contest lights up the opening day of the meeting, and has been graced in the past by the likes of Hurricane Fly, Faugheen “The Machine” and brilliant three-time winner Istabraq.
Queen Mother Champion Chase – Cheltenham – £300,000
Whilst stamina is the name of the game in the Gold Cup, it is jumping accurately and at speed which is called for in the Cheltenham Festival’s second most valuable chase contest. Topping the bill on Day 2 at the meeting, this Grade 2, two-mile affair has been the scene of some of the great meeting’s most memorable moments, with the back-from-the-brink success of Sprinter Sacre in 2016 still sending a tingle down the spine.
Ryanair Chase – Cheltenham – £265,000
We have not one, but two of the UK’s richest jumps races on day three of the Cheltenham, Festival, the first of which is this chase event over the intermediate trip of 2m4½f. Not quite quick enough for the Queen Mother Champion Chase? But not possessing the stamina for the Gold Cup? Then this is the race for you. And just as with those other Grade 1 events, come home in front here and you will be richly rewarded.
Stayers’ Hurdle – Cheltenham – £240,000
The second half of the rich race double act on Day 3 at the Cheltenham Festival sees the cream of the staying hurdle division do battle in what is their major event of the season. A Grade 1 event over the three-mile trip, this race was famously landed by stayer supreme Big Bucks for four years in succession between 2009 and 2012.
King George VI Chase – Kempton – £204,000
Moving away from Cheltenham, our next race takes us to Kempton Park on Boxing Day for this post-Christmas cracker. Kauto Star won this a remarkable five times, with everyone’s favourite grey, Desert Orchid, only just behind on four occasions. Those enduring storylines and returning greats have earned this 3m Grade 1 event a place close to the public’s heart.
Ladbrokes Trophy Chase – Newbury – £200,000
After the Grand National, this 3m2f Newbury contest is the year’s most valuable handicap chase. Established in 1957 as the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup – and still referred to as such by many – the prize money and prestige on offer regularly attracts a calibre of field that is a notch above your average handicap. Denman “The Tank” twice defied a weight of 11st12lb to land this prize, whilst the greatest of them all, Arkle, shouldered 12st7lb to victory in both 1964 and 1965.
Aintree Hurdle – Aintree – £187,000
As the biggest race of the jumps season, the Grand National deserves a strong undercard, and it certainly receives it, with a full three days of supporting action. Topping the bill in terms of prize money on the opening Thursday is this Grade 1, 2m4f event. Often the next stop for the Cheltenham Festival’s hurdling stars, the prize has been claimed by Champion hurdler’s Buveur d’Air and Annie Power in recent years.
Melling Chase – Aintree- £187,000
We remain at Aintree for our final entry, and the pick of what is a Graded race bonanza on the Friday at the National meeting. At 2m4f, this Grade 1 contest is held over half a mile further than the Queen Mother Champion Chase, but nevertheless attracts many of the same runners as the Cheltenham event. Viking Flagship, Moscow Flyer, Master Minded and the wonderful Sprinter Sacre are amongst those to boast successes in both races on their CV.
World’s Richest Races
|Saudi Arabia||Saudi Cup||Riyadh||$20 million|
|Australia||The Everest||Randwick||$15 million|
|UAE||Dubai World Cup||Meydan||$12 million|
|USA||Breeders’ Cup Classic||Various||$6 million|
|France||Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe||Longchamp||€5 million|
|Japan||Japan Cup||Tokyo||£4.1 million|
|UK||Champion Stakes||Ascot||£1.2 million|
|Ireland||Irish Champion Stakes||Leopardstown||€1 million|
There is no shortage of big pots to aim for in the UK each year then, with plenty of prize money up for grabs, both on the level and over jumps. But with horse racing being a worldwide affair these days, how do the UK’s biggest events measure up on the global barometer? As we can see from the table above, the answer to that question is, not too well. Whilst the £1.2 million of the Champion Stakes is certainly not to be sniffed at, it is somewhat put in the shade by events elsewhere.
France top the European rich list with the hugely popular Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, whilst the feature race at the huge Breeders’ Cup meeting tops the pile Stateside. Australia’s newest Grade 1 race, The Everest, meanwhile makes a bold bid for top spot, but even the $15 million on offer in that sprint contest isn’t quite enough to reach the summit. Making its debut three years after The Everest in 2020, Saudi Arabia’s Saudi Cup took the $15 million of the Australian event and raised it $5 million to become the richest race held anywhere on the planet.