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History of Horse Racing

Updated on August 22, 2017

The History of Horse Racing

Horse Racing in Early Times

Although there is no historical evidence of organized horse racing in early times, it is believed China, Arabia, Persia, and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa did have some sort of racing since the Arabian, Barb and Turk breeds came about.

Horse racing is ancient sport, and has gone relatively unchanged for centuries. Its origins can be traced to speed or stamina contests between 2 horses and grew to many horses competing with electronic modern day monitoring equipment. In more modern times, horse racing developed from something to do for the leisure class, into a large public entertainment and a big businss. In the early 2000s, the popularity of horse racing declined.

During the Olympic Games chariot racing and bareback racing were held in Greece from 700 B.C. to 40 B.C. Even during the Roman Empire, horse racing was a well organized publicly held event for entertainment.

Horse Racing and Royalty

In Medieval times in England, horses were displayed for sale with professional riders showing their speed. In the time of Richard the Lionheart (1189-1199), the first winning racing purse was offered. The race was run on a course that spanned over 3 miles with knights atop the horses.

From the time nomadic tribesman In Central Asia domesticated horses horse racing came into existence. modern horse racing type of racing we know as today actually began in the 1300s.

When English Knights came home from the Crusades they brought Arab horses with them. Arab stallions with bread with the English mares in the thoroughbred horse was born. this breed has endurance and speed. In 1660’s King Charles held horse racing events. The English aristocracy made private bets over races between the thoroughbred horses.

King Charles II (1660 -1985), started the King’s Plates, where prizes were won for the winners of two four mile races. He established the earliest national racing rules for England.

The first documented horse race in France was held in 1651, when two royalty bet on a horse race. Louis XIV (1643-1715), held so many races, gambling was prevalent. Louis XVI (1774-1793), held a royal decree establishing the rules of racing, and organized a jockey club.

Under the reign of Queen Anne from 1702 to 1714 horse racing evolved into including several horses with spectators placing wagers on the horses. Jockeys ride thoroughbred horses at top speed on a flat race courses especially created for the sport. Only thoroughbreds can enter this competition. The Jockey Club was established in 1750 which formed rules and set up the General Stud Book to record the pedigree of all the Thoroughbreds racing. From the idea of breeding a superior horse to the passion of the English for horse racing, the “Sport of Kings, was born”. Since this time, many other countries have created similar racetracks for horses.

The demand for more public racing continued. Thoroughbred horses evolved from Arab, Turk, Barb and native English stock horses to create the perfect racing horse.

Horse Racing in the United States

Organized racing began in North America 1664. Colonel Richard Nicolls, who was commander of the British troops in occupied New Amersterdam, now known as New York City, organized racing in the colonies. He set up a two mile course in Hempstead, Long Island and offered a silver cup to the winning horse. The races were held in the spring and autumn.

Prior to the Civil War, racing excellence was defined by the Thoroughbred stamina. After the Civil War, it was and still is speed. After the Civil War, interest in horse racing blossomed in the U.S.

Even before the Civil War, it was popular to race horses from the North against horses from the South. In 1823, a horse named Eclipse raced Sir Henry, a horse from the South at the Union Course in Long Island. The race attracted nearly 70,000 spectators. Eclipse won the prize of $20,000, fortune at that time.

The Civil War and the Indian Wars promoted the breeding of Thoroughbred horses. The cavalry needed fast horses, and imported many of this breed from England. In 1864, John C. Morrissey built a racetrack in Saratoga, NY because he knew the wealthy families who visited nearby health resorts during the summer would promote horse racing. This led to other horse racetracks being built. On June 19, 1867, the first annual Belmont Stakes was won by a horse named Ruthless. Belmont was originally build in Jerome Park, NY in 1867, then moved to Morris Park in 1890, and then to Belmont Park in 1906. In Maryland, Pimlico Racecourse was built in 1870, just outside Baltimore, Maryland and hosts the Preakness Race (the second race in the Triple Crown).

American Classics such as the Kentucky Derby (1875), the Preakness (1873) and the Belmont Stakes (1867) make up the American Triple Crown. Other countries have similar races. By 1890, there were 314 racing tracks, in nearly every state. After years of legislation about anti gambling many racetracks closed and by 1908 only 25 race courses remained. During the latter part of the 1920’s and 1930’s, racing became a valued source of tax revenue.


Another type of horse racing is Steeplechasing. Thoroughbreds race over obstacle courses with fences, shallow water jumps, and hurdles. This type of racing originated in Ireland and England in the 1800’s. It began in the U.S,, during the 19th century. This type of racing got its popularity from Thomas Hitchcock, known as the father of American Steeplechasing. He built a Steeplechase training center in South Carolina for horse he imported and trained from England, and helped establish the sport of Steeplechasing. Today 11 states hold this type of racing.

Different Horse Racing

Quarter Horse racing was introduced in the U.S, by the early settlers in Virginia. The race took place over a quarter mile distance on paths typically cut through forests or on local streets. The race became formally organized in 1940.

The Tevis Cup, originating in the mid 19th century, began as an organized activity for training horses and its riders. In 1955, it became a sport, with a 100 mile competitive ride across the Siera Nevada Range.

Harness Racing involves a two wheeled cart pulled by horses and is similar to the ancient chariot races. The Dutch may have introduced this type of racing to the U.S. in the 1600’s. Its popularity continued and by the end of the 1800’s grew with dedicated racetracks in many locations across the country. Harness racing led to the Standardbred horse.

As early as 1500 B.C., in Egypt chariot racing began. Chariot races were part of the Olympic games. In the Roman era, Circus Maximus held over 200,000 spectators to watch the chariot races of the time.

Modern Horse Racing

Early racing bets were for two horse races. Today, people bet on the first three horses, (win, place, and show), In the 1800’s a professional bet accepter called a bookmaker, set their odds to win based on a percentage calculated in their favor. Horse racing began to become a big business and the government got involved with off track betting. Organized crime got involved with illegal bookmaking.

During the 1960’s drugs were used to make horses run faster, and came under scrutiny during the late 20th century. Animal rights organizers and activists, have worked to expose horse doping and horse whipping by jockeys, and to limit the number of races a horse can run in a season.

Some racetracks are government owned, and some are private businesses. Most race courses in the U.S. are privately owned, profit oriented businesses, as are the horses and jockeys. Today there are approximately 100 horse racetracks across the United States.

Today, horse racing is one of the few legal forms of gambling throughout the world. It is also one of the most widely attended spectator sports in the U.S., Canada, England, Ireland, South America, the Middle East, and Australia.

Common Phrases from Horse Racing

Across the Board
came from horse betters in 1903, who wanted to bet on 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place.
Affects everyone
Dark horse
came from a surprise winner in a horse race, first recorded approx 1825 -1835
A candidate or a competitor we know little about
Front Runner.
refers to a horse that runs best in the lead
Who is most likely to win
Straight from the Horse's Mouth
A tip you got directly from the jockey or the trainer
Getting information directly from the highest source
Running Mate
is a horse used to set the pace for another horse, or a horse that runs alongside a trotting or pacing horse in double harness, so that the horse doesn’t have to pull all the load.
The person who runs with someone else in an election. For example, the vice president, or lt. govenor
A Run for their Money
was used by people who bet on a horse who ran but may have been withdrawn from the race
To challenge someone
Home Stretch.
came to be used for the final length of the racetrack.
The last part
Hands Down
comes from jockeys who would loosen the reins of the horse when they were certain they would win.
Easily and without much effort

Have you ever gone to a racetrack to see a horse race?

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Horse racing is ancient sport, and has gone relatively unchanged for centuries


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