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History of Horse Racing

Horse racing is a thrilling sport that draws in all kinds of people. A day at the races never fails to excite, and many have made it a family tradition. Horse racing is also considered a prestigious sport, and folks who visit the race track often dress up in their finest outfits. It might seem like a tradition that stretches back hundreds of years, but the truth of the matter is that the history of horse racing is actually much, much older.  Even betting on horse races dates back as far as the 1600s in Great Britan.  Today, techology has brought us the ability to do online horse betting.

Origin of Horse Racing

The history of horse racing takes us back to the time when wild horses were first domesticated.   As soon as humans were riding horses, they began to race against each other. Since the earliest domestication of horses can be traced back to Central Asia, so too can the origins of horse racing. 

Nomadic tribesmen in this area were the first to race against each other, and the sport was considered to be highly prestigious even in those early days. A great deal of honor was at stake for whoever could win against his fellow tribesmen. That being said, horse racing during this time was an informal event, and it wasn’t an organized sport in the same way as it is today. 

First Official Horse Races

Chariot racing
Image by Dean Moriarty from Pixabay

The first official horse races occurred in Ancient Greece, Syria, Rome, and Egypt. Although it might seem counterintuitive, the first horseraces were actually chariot races. Instead of the much simpler and less technologically-advanced method of actually riding the horse, racers instead rode two-wheeled chariots behind the horse. 

First Jockeys

It was only in 664 BCE that jockeys first started to ride on top of the horses. This year marked the thirty-third Olympiad, and since then, horse racing has been entwined with human sport. Horse racing is still an official event in the modern Olympic Games. 

Initially, citizens of ancient Greece didn’t understand the technology of stirrups or saddles. Nonetheless, ancient literature of the time laid out instructions on how to ride and care for horses. This included techniques for fighting on horseback. 

Riderless Horses Racing

Horses racing
horse race winner

It is interesting to note that in many cases, horse races were conducted without riders. During the Spring carnival celebrated by the ancient Romans, approximately 20 riderless horses were set loose to sprint down a long, straight street. 

Roman Horse Racing

The ancient Romans would go on to feature horse racing in their colosseums and amphitheaters. Although they were more focused on chariot racing (for the most part), they spread the concept of horse racing throughout the modern world, as Rome had an empire that stretched across the globe. 

One of the nations they conquered was Brittainy – present-day Britain. Like many other nations, its citizens were introduced to horse racing through the Roman occupation. When the Romans left, the citizens of Britain continued to participate in this new sport. 

The Thoroughbred

Combat horses
Photo by Casper Johansson on Unsplash

Horse racing, as we know it today, began in the 12th century in England. At this time, knights returned from the Middle East with new Arabian horses as trophies of war. These new horses were bred with English horses to create the thoroughbred – the type of horse that is used in professional racing today. Historically, racing is one of the methods used by knights to hone their skills. Along with jousting and dueling, horse racing represented an interesting game through which nobles could fine-tune their riding techniques and prepare for combat. 

A Royal Event

Horse racing quickly became associated with royalty, as only nobles seemed to be involved with it. At around this time, horse racing began to be referred to as “the sport of kings.” King Athelstan is credited with popularizing the sport, and virtually every noble worth his salt owned several horses for sport, hunting, and leisure. By the later 1500s, the sport was popular throughout Britain, although it still wasn’t organized in the same way as today. Because of the absence of a clear set of rules, horse racing was a more informal pursuit that would take place during festivals or fairs. 

Athelstan went so far as to ban the export of English horses, as he felt that his nation’s horses were vastly superior to those on continental Europe. That being said, the king still allowed various horses to be imported into England, such as Spanish stallions. Henry VIII put forth more laws regarding horses, especially in regard to their breeding. 

The First Trophy

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

The first standardized horse race that we know of was Kiplingcotes Derby, which first took off in 1519. Then came Carlisle Bells, which is believed to be the first horse racing event where the victor was presented with a trophy. The first racetrack ever established was at Chester in 1540, and the venue still exists to this day. Then came Leith Races and Doncaster. 

Horse racing was briefly banned after the civil war in England. This new puritanical regime frowned upon frivolous pursuits such as horse racing, and men were instead urged to practice archery or combat-related sports. When Charles II took the throne, he swiftly lifted the ban. 

Standardizing the Rules

By 1750, the first standardized rules of horse racing began to come into play. The Jockey Club was formed.  Its expressed aims were to prevent cheating and ensure a level playing field for all. These rules formed the basis for modern horse racing, although they were mostly focused on flat racing. This was because of the focus on sprinters and also because of the natural flatness of Britain’s racing venues. 

Horses jumping
Image by John Collins from Pixabay

It wasn’t till almost 100 years later that jump racing or “National Hunt Racing” was viewed as professional. This variant of horse racing originated in Ireland. Because the English tended to look down upon the Irish, jump racing is considered less prestigious than flat racing even to this day. This is also one of the reasons jump racing is considered more of a “working-class” racing sport. 

History of Horse Racing in the United States

Around that same time, professional horse racing in the United States began to take shape. After the Civil War, the sport truly skyrocketed in popularity and began to rival the races in Britain. Over 300 racetracks emerged across the United States. The American Jockey Club was formed.  Just like its English counterpart, this organization vowed to eliminate corruption in the game. 

History of Horse Racing and Gambling

However, just when horse racing seemed to gather momentum in the United States, it was almost completely wiped out by a growing antigambling sentiment that had spread across the nation. At one point, only 25 tracks remained. Luckily, the legislation was changed, and folks started to flock to the races once more. It goes without saying that gambling has been intertwined with horse racing from the very beginning of the sport. Without gambling, horse racing probably never would’ve become so popular in the first place. 

Featured Image by Jan-martijn Verlaan from Pixabay