The History of Horse Racing

From the Mediterranean to Central Asia, horse racing has been a much-loved sport since humans began keeping written records. In the Greek Olympics, both chariot racing and mounted horse racing were featured events, though the beginning of modern-day horse racing did not start until the 12 th century. Have you ever wondered about how horse racing began in this country or how it’s evolved over the years? Here’s a brief history of the Sport of Kings.

Horse Racing Becomes Professional

Though racing really began to take off in the 12 th century when English knights returned with Arab horses from the Crusades, it didn’t become a professional sport until Queen Anne took the throne in 1702 and advocated spectator wagering. The introduction of gambling suddenly made horse racing a lucrative endeavor and many flocked to compete for the large purses. With the increased activity, a central governing authority was needed and the Jockey Club formed in 1750 to take control. A complete set of rules were established and standards were set that we still abide by today.

Professional Racing Comes to America

When the British arrived in the New World, they brought horses and the concept of racing with them. The first track set up in the States was on Long Island and can be traced back to 1665. The sport’s popularity blossomed until after the Civil War and, by 1890, there were 314 tracks around the country and led to the formation of the American Jockey Club.

Racing Takes a Hit

Anti-gambling laws that were enacted in the 1900s nearly destroyed the sport, but the agreement to allow pari-mutuel betting for the Kentucky Derby saved it from obscurity. Interest in the sport flourished after the first World War and horses such as the famous Man O’ War took on celebrity status. Though the sport has fluctuating in popularity ever since, a renewed interest in the sport has been seen since the 1970s when super star horses such as Seattle Slew, Secratariat, Affirmed, and American Pharaoh came on the scene and secured the illustrious Triple Crown win.

Different Types of Horses and Racing

Though those of us in the states are most familiar with Thoroughbred flat racing, where horses race on a flat surface between a starting point and an end point. Today, over half of the states in the U.S. have Thoroughbred race tracks and the industry is still governed by the American Jockey Club.

In addition to Thoroughbred racing, there are three other types of horse racing that still enjoy popularity around the world. These include jump racing, endurance racing, and harness racing.

There are three types of horses that are generally recognized and used in the racing world. The first is the Thoroughbred horse. These horses, which are used for Thoroughbred flat racing, have bloodlines that can be traced back to one of three original sires. Though they range in color, size, and weight, most are between 15 and 17 hands and weigh over 1000 pounds. They are considered a good balance between  speed and endurance.

Arabian horses have been used for thousands of years, particularly in the Middle East where they were bred to outrun enemies over long distances. Arabians were introduced to the United States during colonial times and were bred as purebreds during the Civil War. Today, they used mostly for endurance races, though some countries still race them on flat traditional race tracks.

The third type of race horse, the Quarter Horse, have been popular in American since the 17 th century. A blend of English and Colonial Spanish stock, Quarter Horses are muscular, compact, and quite powerful. These types of horses can accelerate rapidly and endure running for long distances. They are typically run on flat dirt surfaces where horses run at top speed for the length of the race.

Changes Over the Years

When horse racing first began, it obviously didn’t have the fancy electric starting gates spectators are now used to. Many methods have been used over the years, including a person designated a ‘starter’ standing alongside the jockeys and horses who dropped a flag to signal a start and simple rope or wooden barriers to enclose the horses. In the late 1800s, an Australian named Alexander Gray invented an automated starter that included a wire at the height of the horses’ heads that, when tripped, would cause the barrier to spring up and away from the horses. This eventually led to the electric starting gates, though it wasn’t until the 1960s that starting stalls were first widely used around the world.

Horses have also changed through the years. While the Arabians used in endurance races a thousand years ago were around 500 to 600 pounds, today’s Thoroughbreds are twice that weight. Race horses in this day and age are also catered to by owners, trainers, and grooms (or stable boys) who ensure they are fed the proper diet, exercised appropriately, and that their every medical need is taken care of. This differs from how horses were treated throughout history as they were often needed for various tasks such as transportation, farming, and battle and were not seen more as tools than as valued investments.

Betting on Horse Racing

It’s estimated that over $100 billion is bet on horses every year. Though much of that is spent on the most well-known three races that make up the triple crown, there are still millions of dollars of wagers that are made on lesser-known tracks throughout the country. Beginning with simple wagers between owners, betting on horse races has evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry where spectators are allowed to bet at the track where the race is being run, at others tracks (known as simulcast racing), or even from a casino or their own laptop computer.

Horse racing is one of the most exciting sports in the world. Whether you own a race horse or you just enjoy participating as a spectator, knowing some background about horse racing can help you better understand and appreciate the sport and those talented horses that make it all happen.