The Grand National’s unhelpful measurements

The race has been run. Pictures and commentary have been broadcast around the world, and millions will have formed an impression of Britain in 2013. Ronnie Cohen asks if more could have been made of this opportunity to publicise UK plc.

The Grand National took place on Saturday 6 April this year at Aintree racecourse, near Liverpool. There were 16 fences and 40 runners. The horses covered almost two laps round the racecourse and jumped most fences twice, a total of 30 fences.

Millions around the world placed bets on the Grand National, one of the most famous horse races in the world, and large numbers of people who do not normally gamble placed a bet. But it was a reminder that many in Britain are still living in an imperial past: the horse racing industry in the UK still uses for measurement an archaic mix of miles, furlongs, yards, feet and hands.

The Grand National race is 4 miles 3 furlongs 110 yards in length, about 7140 metres. Given that furlongs are only used in horse racing nowadays, I wonder how many Britons know how long a furlong is and how many there are in a mile. Elsewhere in the world, devotees of the turf  are likely to be even less familiar with imperial measurements.

As well as the length of the race, its other features are also defined in imperial measurements. According to the Aintree and Grand National website, the details for some of the other features of this race are:

  • Run-in from the final fence of the steeplechase:  494 yards
  • Height of fence 1:  4 ft 6 in
  • Height of fence 2:  4 ft 7 in
  • Height of fence 3:  4 ft 10 in
  • Open ditch in front of fence 3:  6 ft
    and so on, until
  • Height of fence 15:  5 ft 2 in, preceded by a 6 ft wide ditch
  • Height of fence 16:  2 ft 6 in
  • Length of Aintree racecourse:  nearly two and a quarter miles in circumference

Meaningless for 95% of the world’s population, and not a great advertisement for UK plc as a modern, forward-looking country that embraces the future. It makes us look eccentric and out of step with the modern world, but perhaps that is the image that many of us prefer.

Sources for measurements: and

16 thoughts on “The Grand National’s unhelpful measurements”

  1. There has been concern expressed in recent years about this race being too hard on the horses. Were it to be revised then it would be a good opportunity to convert it to rational metric heights and distances.


  2. If I were to guess, I would say that most people in the world are oblivious to the non-metric nature of the race. I’m sure that the race is translated into other languages and along with the English words goes the imperial measurements into metric.

    How often do UK & US viewers and listeners of TV and radio see & hear the units used in most of the world’s activities? They don’t. They are often dumbed down to imperial or USC and give the illusion that the world uses these units as well, totally oblivious to the fact that what they are hearing is a conversion.

    I’m sure the same happens in reverse. If the sponsors of this event think they are helping promote imperial around the world, it is isn’t working. The world either isn’t getting the message or they are ignoring it.


  3. Ray wrote: “How often do UK & US viewers and listeners of TV and radio see & hear the units used in most of the world’s activities? They don’t. They are often dumbed down to imperial or USC and give the illusion that the world uses these units as well, totally oblivious to the fact that what they are hearing is a conversion.”

    And quite often the conversions from metric/SI units to imperial/USC units are wrong. As well as radio and television, certainly the internet abounds with inaccurate conversions from metric to imperial/USC weights and measures. The horse-racing fraternity and administration in the UK, I suspect, are a highly conservative group and would probably refuse point blank to use metric while there is the least doubt about metric use in Britain. Unless metric is in common, widespread, and popular use, conservative groups have an “excuse” not to use metric.


  4. I think it is fair to say Paul, that metric is already in common widespread use in the UK. It is just that its application is patchy. The persistence use of imperial even in a limited number of areas is enough to undermine the advantages of a single system.


  5. I read this article with interest on the day (25 July 2012), riding on the back of the Olympic hype. .
    I am sure there were some posts on this site about it as well. Can anyone do a follow up on this? Was it a success or a dismal no go?
    This was an initiative of ‘Racing For Change’ which has recently (07 March 2013) been re-branded as ‘Great British Racing’ . The dropping of ‘Change’ in favour of ‘British’ would indicate that a lot of people did not like the feeling of change.
    I doubt if many countries outside of the former commonweath countries would have a clue as the what these ft and ins are, even less know the conversion factors. More likely they would not even recognise them as distances.


  6. Paul Sweet made this comment today on the UKMA facebook page. Although not directly related to horse racing, the comment is relevant to the conclusion of the article, and I believe deserves a wider audience. Paul wrote:

    “It is difficult for an outsider looking in to understand why metrication has proved such a difficult exercise in both the UK and the US. I realise that comparing much smaller countries with much smaller populations and economies that metricated, and here I’m thinking of Australia and NZ, with either the UK or the US is probably not wholly valid, but in the case of Britain metrication has been messed around with since 1965 by successive British governments, that is now 48 years, and now in 2013 it is still being messed around with and the UK is still no closer to full metrication than it was 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. Correct me if I’m wrong. And having to straddle two systems of weights and measures has to be simply maddening for those parties affected in industrial, commercial, and agricultural sectors in the UK, not to mention to government and civil administration. This is beyond dithering and vacillating: it is ridiculous indecision which is downright perverse.”


  7. I know it’s only a small step but I notice that Channel 4 racing now show the race lengths in metres as well as miles and furlongs on their captions.


  8. Maybe worse than 95%. I don’t know much about American horse racing, but it appears we just express furlongs as multiples of 1/8 mile using common fractions. The American equivalent of this race has been run since 1899 under various names, and lengths ranging from 2 1/4 miles to 3 1/8 miles. The modern length is 2 5/8 miles since 1987.

    People here may or may not know what a furlong is; I suspect at best avid horse racing fans. I suspect we would describe the British Grand National as 4 7/16 miles. Given the wide variation in lengths here, I don’t think metricating would “destroy the spirit of the race.”


  9. The Grand National is run over the National Course at Aintree and consists of two circuits of sixteen fences, the first fourteen of which are jumped twice. Participating horses cover a distance of four miles and three and a half furlongs, the longest of any National Hunt race in Britain. As part of a review of safety following the 2012 running of the event, in 2013 the start was moved 90 yards forward away from the crowds and grandstands, reducing the race distance from the historical four miles and four furlongs.


  10. @Rob Mcdaniel
    The average punter would need a calculator to visualise the measurements in what you have written. How stupid is that?


  11. If you view a mile as 1600 m and a furlong as 200 m, that comes out as 7200 m. A traditional 4.5 miles would be 7242 m, a difference of 42 m. Would this reduced racing distance be equal to 42 m, implying that they based the furlong on 200 m and the mile on 1600 m and thus the race is now hidden metric?


  12. According to the figures quoted above the revised Grand National course is 7159 m


  13. Hopefully they’re not metricating the Grand National through the back door. The last thing we want is yet anther Great British tradition adopting a backward toe counting system based, not on mathematics, but by the amount of fingers and thumbs we happen to have. Chastised to base ten…How sad…even fractions are disallowed. Not much room for real maths and this is why metric is for backward thinking hobbits.


  14. @Matthew John
    An interesting viewpoint.
    You say: – ‘Not much room for real maths and this is why metric is for backward thinking hobbits.’
    So how does this explain why UK is falling behind all the recently fully metricated countries? We have real maths, the ones that torture the sole and befuddle the results. The rest of the world uses maths for dummies, and it works pretty well as can be seen quite clearly. An estimated 97% of the world is fully metric; it is Great Britain that is in the 3% minority that still likes purgatory.
    Just in case you still have your blinkers on, every other country in the great British Empire (except USA) has converted fully to metric and are doing very-nicely-thank you, vis-à-vis the UK (and USA)
    How does this fit in with your way of thinking?


  15. All non English-speaking countries must be back ward thinking hobbits then. Please note Canada isn’t totally metric. And New Zealand uses pints, acres and sells tv sets in inches.


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