Why are British horse races measured in furlongs?

Horse racing in Britain is a cherished tradition, whose roots, as a professional sport, can be traced back to the first Plantaganet King of England, Henry II, during the twelfth century. The word ‘furlong’ is, in fact, centuries older still, having first been recorded in Anglo-Saxon England, at a time before the country was unified, as a single ‘English’ kingdom, in the first half of the tenth century.

‘Furlong’ is derived from the Old English word ‘furlang’, meaning ‘length of a furrow’, which, under the English open-field system was 40 rods, or 660 feet. The furlong remained an official unit of length in Britain, equal to 660 feet, or 220yards, such that the standard linear measurement, the mile, consisted of eight furlongs, until the traditional British Imperial System was replaced by the metric system in 1965.

Of course, Britain is still not fully metricated; road signs, for example, still use miles, fractions of a mile and yards. Nevertheless, the furlong has largely fallen out of favour anywhere outside the world of horse racing, where it remains a standard measurement of distance. On the racecourses, marker posts count back the number of furlongs from the winning post and races shorter than a mile are described exclusively in furlongs on racecards and in the racing press. Longer races may be described in miles, fractions of a mile, or miles and furlongs as appropriate.

The ‘archaic’ furlong is, of course, the equivalent of approximately 201 metres and, apart from tradition, there is no practical reason why British horse races could not be measured in metres, as they are in France and elsewhere in Europe. ‘Tradition is a guide, not a jailer’, wrote William Somerset Vaughan, but, despite some trials, the adoption of metric race distance looks unlikely any time soon.