Before I even get into the nitty-gritty of British and American horse racing, I should point out that the idea of ‘better’ is incredibly subjective and completely open to personal preference.

Whether you would rather watch the Kentucky Derby or the Epsom Derby, the Aintree Grand National or the American Grand National, or any of the famous races in between is entirely up to you.

I’m not here to change your mind but rather to highlight the best of both while attempting to produce some details worthy of consideration when comparing them in the context of what they offer in terms of excitement, prize money, and overall contribution to the racing world.

So, with that in mind, let’s begin our journey into the often very different world of British racing versus American racing by starting with the Grand National.

The Grand National

Known as one of the most difficult steeplechases in the world, the Aintree Grand National is steeped in history, and winning it can be the crowning achievement of any jockey or trainer’s career.

The Grand National, held at Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool, England, was first run in 1839 and is approximately 4 miles and 2½ furlongs long.

With 30 fences over two circuits of the course to navigate, it is known for its iconic fences, such as Becher’s Brook, The Chair, and Canal Turn. Though still challenging, these fences have undoubtedly been watered down in recent years.

Famous winners over the years include the legend Red Rum, who won the race three times (1973, 1974, 1977) and was trained by Ginger McCain.

Approximately 70,000 spectators will attend Aintree on Grand National Day, and with £1,000,000 in the prize purse, it is one of the most lucrative races in the UK.

American Grand National

The American Grand National, first run in 1899, is held annually at the Far Hills Race Meeting in New Jersey, USA.

Unlike Aintree, the American version is much shorter, running over 2⅝ miles and with only 14 fences to be jumped.

The course is also shorter than its British counterpart, and with its well-manicured grass and rolling terrain, it provides a different type of challenge compared to the rugged Aintree course.

One of its most famous winners is McDynamo, who won five times (2003-2007) and was trained by Sanna Hendriks.

Given the shorter distance, American trainers often emphasise speed and focus on conditioning a horse’s ability to maintain a fast pace over the course.

The Comparison

Aintree’s course is longer and more demanding, requiring a high level of stamina and jumping prowess, while the American National focuses more on speed and agility.

Jockeys at Aintree must navigate a crowded field of up to 40 runners (though that was reduced to 36 in 2024), whereas in America, the 2023 winner, Noah and the Ark, only had seven rivals to contend with.

Aintree is known for its rich history and global recognition, making it a dream race for many in the racing community. While the race at Far Hills holds significant national prestige, it is less known around the world.

Both are celebrated steeplechases, each with unique challenges and demands. However, the Aintree race is longer and more grueling and has a bigger field and higher prize money, which gives it the edge and makes it the better of the two races.

The Classic or The Stakes?

On par with each other, the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the US and the King George VI and the Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot in the UK are where the absolute best thoroughbreds in the world go to battle.

Breeders’ Cup betting is huge in America, and only the finest horses of the season gather to round off what will be an incredible year in flat racing.

The 2024 race will be its 40th birthday, having first been run in 1984, and unlike most international races, the venue rotates each year for the Breeders’ Cup.

With $7 million up for grabs, it’s worth traveling for if only to try and follow in the legendary footsteps of American Pharoah, Cigar, and Zenyatta.

The King George VI and the Queen Elizabeth Stakes

A little bit older than the Classic, The King George VI and the Queen Elizabeth Stakes was first run at Royal Ascot in 1951 and is 12 furlongs in distance.

Equally as well regarded as its American counterpart, it attracts an all-star international field, often comprised of those who have triumphed in earlier seasonal races such as the Derby and the Oaks.

However, it does have significantly less money in the prize pot, with only $1.6 million (£1.25m) compared to the Classic’s $7 million.

And the Winner is…

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a tie. Other than the prize money, almost nothing separates these two incredible races.

Both are high-stakes events that bring together the very best thoroughbreds in their field, as well as the best jockeys and trainers from around the world.

Each is held towards the end of the season and contributes significantly to determining the champion racehorse of the season.

And both are championship events equally as difficult in terms of ability and endurance. A winner in either race is the true mark of a great horse.

The Derby

The Americans have the Kentucky Derby, and the Brits have the Epsom Derby, but which is better?

Known as the ‘most exciting two minutes in sports,’ the Kentucky Derby is one of the most famous races in the world. It takes place annually at Churchill Downs in Kentucky.

First run in 1875, and now with $5 million in the prize pot, the Kentucky Derby is run over 10 furlongs (approx a mile and a quarter), and is the first leg in the American Triple Crown.

The race is deeply ingrained in American culture and is well known for its garlands of roses, mint juleps, and the amazing style of the 150,000 people who show up to watch it every year.

The Epsom Derby

Older but no less distinguished, the Epsom Derby has been around since 1780 and offers a very healthy $2 million (£1.6m) in prize money.

A slightly longer race at 12 furlongs, it forms part of the five British Classics and is considered to be one of the most prestigious flat races in Britain.

The attendees, which range in number from 130,000 to 150,000, come from all walks of life, including members of the Royal Family, racing fans, and members of the general public who embrace its historic significance.

Which is Better?

While both are significant events in their respective countries, there is something so unique about the Kentucky Derby that its larger attendance and prize money give it the tiniest of edges over Epsom.

Whether it’s the international hype, its status in world horse racing, or the charm of the South, the Kentucky Derby has given the world some incredible legends, including American Pharoah, Secretariat, Man o’ War, and Citation.

Epsom, too, has produced some spectacular winners, including Galileo, Shergar, Nijinsky, and Sea the Stars. On balance, more of us tune into the Kentucky Derby each year, so Churchill Downs wins this round of the battle.

Conclusion

So, what have we learned today? Actually, both countries have some genuinely outstanding races, and while one may outshine its counterpart, it is only by the slimmest of margins.

This is also why racing has had such a long and varied history in both countries and long may it continue.