Horse Racing

Karl Bodmer Horse Racing of the Sioux (Source)

Horse racing is an extremely popular and fascinating sport and it has been this way not for centuries but for millennia. This sport has a rich history that can be traced back to prehistoric times and most definitely it is much more than the well-known once-a-year Kentucky Derby. For a couple of centuries, horse racing has been the most prestigious sport geared exclusively towards kings and nobility.

That’s why its nickname – the sport of kings – appears to be true-to-life indeed. However, nowadays the situation has slightly changed and horse racing is no longer favoured by the nobility only.

It is equally popular among elite and working class people, probably due to the fact that betting on horse races is legal in almost every country unlike other betting activities. The history of the so-called sport of kings extends back to the prehistoric nomadic tribes which were the first ones to domesticate these noble animals. Indeed, man and horse have been together since ancient times (approximately 4 500 B.C.) which makes competitive horse racing one of humankind’s most ancient sports.

The year 638 B.C. is marked by appearance of chariot and horse racing events in the Greek Olympics. By this time horse racing was already a well-organized sport that was an integral part of all the civilizations from central Asia to the Mediterranean. The Greeks included both, mounted and chariot horse racing into the Olympic Games and the Romans are known to have been absolutely obsessed with this sport.

It stands to mention that the origins of modern horse racing can be found in the 12th century; up until then it was something completely different. We owe this development boost to the English knights who didn’t return from the Crusades empty-handed but brought swift Arabian horses with them.

Over the next several centuries Arabian stallions continued to be imported to England and bred with English mares in order to produce horses that combine important characteristics such as endurance and speed. At that time nobility has already developed taste for sports betting and enjoyed matching the two fastest horses in races and placing wagers on the winner. It became a very popular diversion for the nobility.

York is known to be the first place where horse races were organized approximately in 1530. Ten years later, Chester had a race course of its own. The first track in America was laid out in Long Island as soon as the British settlers brought horse racing to the New World. During that time horse racing gained more and more popularity and consequently the tracks, which were operated by rich and famous people, continued to appear here and there in Britain and in the New World.

It wasn’t until the beginning of the 18th century when horse racing turned into a professional sport. Despite the fact that horse racing was called “the sport of kings”, Queens did not want to stand on the sidelines and largely contributed to its development too. Queen Ann was fond of horse racing and did everything in her powers (which were impressive enough) to promote this noble and fascinating sport.

However, Charles II was the one called “the father of the English turf“, seeing as he inaugurated the famous King’s plates. These were the first races that provided prizes for winners. Besides that, he wrote a couple of articles on how these races were supposed to be organized. Later these articles were taken as the very first horse racing rules.

It is worth noting that at first the rules were quite simple: the horses participating in the races were no more than 6 years old and carried 168 pounds. The winner was the one to win two 4-mile heats. During the reign of Charles II, Newmarket was established as the headquarters of English racing. France kept pace with other countries that favoured horse racing, so the first documented race took place in 1651.

It’s interesting that the race was the result of a wager between two noblemen. Louis XIV was fond of racing based on gambling, so it was prevalent in France. His later descendant Louis XVI made another step towards organizing horse racing the way it is now. He established rules that required certificates of origins for horses and imposed extra weight on foreign horses.

James Pollard The_Derby Pets- The Winner

The very first races that were held in Britain were match races which quite soon became one of the most popular amusements for nobility. These were races between two or three horses with a purse for the winner provided by the owners of the horses. In case an owner withdrew he had to pay half the purse – it was the main principle of the “play or pay” rule. All the agreements were recorded by some third parties that didn’t have anything to do with horse racing and these people used to be called the keepers.

Time went on and the demand for more public racing was increasing. As a result more open events with larger fields of runners were organized.  It is worth noting that only thoroughbred horses were allowed to participate in races. Thoroughbreds are a mixture of Turk, Barb and Arab horses with native English stock. Usually as a result of such breeding strong and agile animals were produced. In the 17th century studbooks appeared in which pure-bred horses were listed. It is said that all thoroughbreds descend from these three “Oriental stallions”: the Godolphin Barb, the Darley Arabian and the Byerly Turk.

All of them were brought to Great Britain in the 17-18th centuries and bred with “43 royal” mares. Horse racing in England was largely regulated, and thus produced a certain standard for other countries. In France the studbook differed a bit; it had two classifications – English (mixtures according to an English standard) and Oriental (Arab, Barb or Turk). The first category was later reduced to pure English breeds.

The American studbook is even more varied, seeing as it includes foals from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Canada and the United States. The reciprocity among studbooks of several countries was rescinded in 1913 by the Jersey Act which accepted only thoroughbred horses bred in Ireland and England.

It was thought that the main purpose of the act was to keep the British thoroughbred away from the infusions of the U.S. sprinting blood. However, after a wave of victories in elite English races by some French horses with questionable American ancestry in the 1940s, the aforementioned Jersey Act was abolished.

The first Jockey Club was founded in 1750 and was notable for introducing its own rules of racing. These rules were more detailed unlike the King’s Plates rules and took into consideration various contests involving horses of different age. Originally, the new rules applied exclusively to Newmarket; however, as soon as they were printed in the Racing Calendar they started to serve as a model for rules everywhere.

By the end of the 19th century the Jockey Club came to control English racing, having acquired the Racing Calendar and the General Stud Book. It is worth noting that the Jockey Club has managed to eliminate much of the corruption and still rules horse racing in England with an iron hand.

In the U.S. the situation is a bit different and the governance of racing resides in state commissions, while track operation is private. In 1894 the North American Jockey Club was founded and took certain control over American racing. The Racing Calendar and the American Stud Book were published afterwards.

The late 19th century was notable for the developing of the pari-mutuel wagering. Modern punters owe the appearance of this system to the Frenchman Pierre Oller. Nowadays, pari-mutuel wagering is considered to be the most common wagering system on the market. People bet certain amounts of money on a specific outcome and all the money is placed into a pool.

Once the outcome is known, the pool is divided among the winning wagers. Betting has always added a certain appeal to this sport and probably that is the reason why horse racing has managed to maintain its status as a professional sport throughout centuries.

At the beginning of the 20th century racing in the U.S. had almost disappeared because of the antigambling sentiment that swept through the country. As a result of that campaign betting was banned in almost all the states and the number of tracks was reduced to just 25. However, the introduction of the pari-mutuel system for the Kentucky Derby lead to a turnaround for horse racing. Most of the tracks were reopened, seeing as state legislatures agreed to legalize pari-mutuel betting in exchange for a certain share of the money wagered.

At the end of the WWI more spectators were brought to racetracks willing to enjoy the show by the great and inimitable racehorse Man o’ War. It has become a legend in the betting circles, seeing as no other horse was able to achieve such incredible results – 20 of 21 races won and 249,465$ in purses. Until WWII the sport prospered, but it fell into decline during the 50s and 60s.

The popularity of horse racing was restored in the 70s due to the immense interest towards great horses such as Affirmed, Seattle Slew and Secretariat. Each of these three was a winner of the American Triple Crown – the Belmont Stakes, the Preakness and the Kentucky Derby.

Modern Horse Racing at the Ascot

Horse racing used to be a traditionally male-dominated sport; however women also made attempts to take part in it. Diane Crump was the first woman jockey to ride in a pari-mutuel race in North America and since then female jockeys burst onto the scene. Tuesdee Testa was the first woman who won a race at a major American thoroughbred track.

Nowadays, horse racing is considered to be one of the most popular and widely attended spectator sports in the world. For example, in the U.S. 56,194,565 people wagered $9.14 billion and attended 8,004 days of racing, while thoroughbred tracks exist in about half the states. Public interest is focused on major thoroughbred races such as the Breeders’ Cup races and the American Triple Crown, which offer purses equalling approximately $1,000,000. 

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