Horse racing has a history that dates back to ancient civilisations; it was an important event in the Olympic Games in Greece from around 700BC, and chariot and bareback horse racing were popular forms of entertainment in the Roman Empire. Betting on horse racing was also popular amongst the upper classes.
In the UK the earliest records of horse racing are from the early 12th century, though it was almost certainly practiced before then. The first recorded racing purse was for £40; the race was over 3 miles and was ridden by knights.
Four-mile races were held at Smithfield in London from 1174 and became a familiar entertainment at fairs and markets. To make it fairer and more interesting for gambling, handicapping was introduced; this made picking the winner much less predictable.
The Crusades were important in the development of horse racing. Many returning crusaders brought Arabian, Barb, and Turk horses back with them which contributed considerably to the sport.
Organised horse racing didn’t get underway for a few more centuries until King Charles II promoted the sport. He instigated a race called the Newmarket Town Plate which was the first race with recorded rules. These forbade riders to strike each other; stipulated that the winner should give twenty shillings to the poor of Newmarket; and banned servants and grooms from competing. The winner of the first Newmarket Town Plate is said to have been King Charles.
The first newspaper devoted to horse racing was published in 1727. Named the Racing Calendar, it reported race results and information on upcoming meetings.
Charles II was also interested in horse breeding and he and Queen Anne gave royal patronage to breeding race horses. Today all Thoroughbreds can be traced back to three imported stallions from the Middle East. The first was Byerley Turk imported during the 1680s, followed by Darley Arabian imported in 1704 and Godolphin Arabian imported in 1729. Other imported stallions also contributed to the Thoroughbred bloodline.
The English Classic races were established during the late 18th century. The St. Leger Stakes was founded in 1776, the Epsom Oaks in 1779, and the Epsom Derby in 1780. A little later the 2,000 Guineas and the 1,000 Gunnies were added. These were for three year olds and run over just 1 to 1¾ miles. These races encouraged breeding horses that could race at an early age and which could sprint.
The Classics are flat races (races without any jumps) and today flat racing is the most popular form of the sport globally. In the UK they are run on grass (turf) tracks while in the US they use sand and soil (dirt) tracks; synthetic surfaces are also used in some parts of the world.
In the UK there are three major categories of flat races: Group 1 includes the Classics and other internationally important races; Group 2 includes less important international races; and Group 3 races are domestic. There are also listed races, which are less prestigious, and handicap races in which horses carry specified weights in order to even out their chances, and of course to make betting more interesting.
The Flat Racing Season
The first race of the Flat Racing Season is the Lincoln Handicap which takes place in late March, and the season continues until early November. There is also a Winter Flat Season which extends the season throughout the year, but all the major races are held in the main season and culminate with British Champions Day at Ascot. The major races are:
- 1000 Guineas – Classic held in May
- 2000 Guineas – Classic held in May for fillies
- Epsom Derby – Classic held in June
- Epsom Oaks – Classic held in June for fillies
- St James Palace Stakes – held in June
- Ascot Gold Cup -held in June
- Sussex Stakes – held in July
- St Leger – Classic held in September
Jump racing, also called Steeplechase and National Hunt Racing, requires the horses to jump fences, hurdles and ditches. The sport has Irish origins and dates from the 18th century. It is said to be called steeple chasing as the first race took place from the church steeple in Buttevant to the church steeple in Doneraile in County Cork.
Although jump racing is supposedly less prestigious than flat racing and the prize money significantly lower, it is popular with the public. Watching some of finest horses in the world racing over the jumps on famous courses such as Cheltenham and Aintree is truly spectacular and exciting.
The Jump Racing Season
The Jump Racing Season begins in mid-October when the Flat racing Season comes to an end and continues until late April, though there are jump racing events throughout the year.
One of the season’s main focal points is the Cheltenham Festival, a four day event with at least one Grade 1 featured race on each day. The climax of the festival is the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Another major festival is Aintree, which includes what is probably the most famous jump race in the world, the Grand National. It is also the most demanding steeplechase in the world with a field of around 40 horses covering a distance of 4½ miles and jumping 30 fences.
Betting on horse racing
Betting and horseracing go hand in hand and betting has always had a big influence on the sport. In fact horse racing simply wouldn’t survive without it. It is the thrill of on-track betting that attracts most of the audience to race meetings, and even members of the Royal Family enjoy the occasional (and not so occasional) bet. The sport is also supported by a Horse Race Betting Levy, paid by both on-course and off-course bookmakers including betting shops and online bookmakers.
Horseracing in other countries
Horseracing outside the UK is mainly flat racing, though jump racing is popular in Japan. Many countries have highly prestigious races; these are just a few of them:
- The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe is the most prestigious race in France and probably the whole of Europe. Run at Longchamp over a distance of 1 ½ miles, it was established in 1920.
- The Breeders’s Cup World Championship is a two day event held in the US; it’s location changes each year. It is a major international event attracting some of the world’s best horses.
- The Kentucky Derby is held in Louisville and is the most famous sprint race in the US.
- The Melbourne Cup isn’t only the most important horse race in Australia; it is also an excuse for a nationwide party. Held in Victoria, it covers two miles and just about every Australian has a bet on it.