What is a yearling horse and when are they ready to race?

Yearling horses are yet to break onto the racing scene but they are important for unearthing the stars of the future

Yearling race horse


Race horses go through many stages of development when they are being trained to reach peak physical condition. It takes years to nurture a foal into a thoroughbred racehorse capable of topping the horse racing betting odds and winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe or the Grand National.

And while many horses show excellent racing promise almost from birth, horse racing trainers and owners must take their time to ensure they are in prime condition for the Flat and National Hunt seasons.

One of the stages horses go through is the yearling stage — and Paddy Power is here to explain what a yearling is, and why we don’t see them racing every week of the year.


A yearling is a horse aged between one and two years old. It is not yet old enough to race but is likely showing promise, and so it can be bought and sold in the hope it will one day become a champion racehorse.

Yearling race horse

Yearlings can often be sold at auction (Image: GETTY)

But there is also a discrepancy in ageing yearlings — and horses in general. The horse racing ageing system doesn’t work like the human one, when you get a year older on your birthday. In horse racing, all horses born in the same year are given their birthday as 1 January.

This is important because many young horses compete in handicap races that have age requirements. So, a horse born on 15 January 2020 is considered the same age – and to have undergone the same development and training – as a horse born on 15 December 2020, even though there is 11 months difference between the two!

This means that yearlings born in the early months of the year tend to be better developed than their counterparts born in October, November and December.


Yearlings do not run in horse races on the basis that they are too young and underdeveloped to race. While a horse may be able to walk almost from birth, they do not reach full racing capacity until around three years old.

Therefore owners and trainers focus on developing yearlings, ensuring they are in prime physical condition by the time they are ready to race. Race horses can compete from the age of two, often in juvenile races, which offer great racing betting experiences. The majority of young race horses will start out in the Flat season and could retire in just a few years.

However, those that prove strong, durable runners and have a proficiency in jumping will often go on to compete in the National Hunt season. This is where horses race over fences and hurdles, and feature famous races such as the Grand National and the Gold Cup at the Cheltenham Festival.


Check out these other guides in Paddy’s Demystifying Racing series!


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