It was thousands of years ago that mankind realized that an animal from the Equus order was capable of not only carrying his things and lightening his load, but also to race against others. This animal is none other than the horse, which men thus started breeding so that they could run and win races by excelling in speed and endurance.
However at the inception of this sport, and when it was started and considered to be a form of entertainment, only the noble and royal could afford to breed horses for racing purposes. Consequently only this class of people could actually enjoy or even think of competing in horse races.
The first records of horse racing are picture records of its existence amidst prehistoric nomadic tribesmen of Middle Asia. They were the ones who had actually first domesticated horses around 4500 B.C. however the first written records turned up much later, when horse racing was considered an established sport from Central Asia to the Mediterranean. It was after horse racing was a part of the Greek Olympics in 638BC that the Roman Empire grew obsessed with the sport.
There is proof of modern horse racing having 12th century roots where British Empire knights important Arabic horses while returning from the Crusades. Consequently, hundreds of Arab stallions were crossbred with the mares of England to give the best horses who had a rich combination of speed and endurance.
After its evolution, this breed of horses were known or referred to as the Thoroughbred. Leaders thus considered it a pride and created a distraction in their lives by organizing something Nobel like a staging a competition between two superior Thoroughbred horses for private bets.
It was during Queen Anne’s reign in the early 18th century that the sport evolved in its professionalism. This was when one-on-one races were replaced by events were several horses competed together. The winner of the events were offered purses or prize money by the racetracks and the prize money kept on increasing and this attracted the best horses to the races.
It was in the mid-1700s that it was decided a governing body had to be chosen to determine the rules and standards racers, breeders and owners had to abide. This lead to the establishment of the Jockey Club in Newmarket, which till today exercises complete control over English racing.
After establishing the rules and standards for horses and the Club races, five ?classic’ races were declared for three-year-old horses. Of the three, two are open to only fillies and they are the 1000 Guineas and Epsom Oaks while the English Triple Crown is open to both colts and fillies and comprises of the 2000 Guineas, the St. Leger Stakes and Epsom Derby.
The British brought very fine breeding stock and racing horses while settling in America. The first known racetrack was laid out around 1665 on Long Island in New York. Despite being a popular event, organized and professional horse racing didn’t start till after the Civil War after which the sport grew in popularity throughout the country.
As the “criminal element” run most of the racetracks, the more prominent track owners and breeders who were against this met in New York in 1894 to establish the American Jockey Club. They thus established their own set of rules and regulations which were quite similar to the rules of the English Jockey Club and this eliminated most of the corruption.
It was in 1875 that one of the most famous horse-racing events of the United States, the Kentucky Derby, was first run in its home, Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. While this is one of the three races of the American Triple Crown, the other two are the Belmont Stakes which was first run on Jerome Park on Long Island, New York in 1867, and the Preakness Stakes which was first run at Pimlico Park in Baltimore, Maryland in 1873. Despite fluctuations in the interest for horse-racing, it is still the second-most attended sport in US after baseball.
The other forms of horse racing in Great Britain and United States include:
- The steeplechase where the horse has to clear obstacles like stone walls, water jumps and brush and rail fences. England’s Grand National which was first run in Aintree in 1839 is Great Brittan’s oldest and most famous steeplechase till today. The United States’ most famous steeplechase is the American National which was first run at Belmont Park in 1899, and is still held there annually.
- Hurdle racing is less demanding then steeplechase and is usually used to train Thoroughbreds who will later compete in steeplechases.
- Amateurs hold point-to-point races throughout the British Isles.
- Harness racing was very popular in the Roman Empire where horse are races in harnesses. The sport practically vanished when the Empire fell it; it was at the end of the 1700s that it was resurrected on the country roads of America. While the first official harness racing tracks were established in the early 1800s, it became a favorite attraction at county fairs across US by 1825.
The resurrection of harness racing lead to the birth of a new horse breed, the line of Standardbred. The outstanding English Thoroughbred stallion which was imported to the US in 1788 was bred with American Thoroughbred and mixed-breed mares to establish this line.
The breed was named ‘standard’ as standard was the distance of one mile in harness racing speed. Its descendants were consequently rebred to create a new breed of horses with the physical size, temperament, stamina and structure to race under a harness.
Despite dropping in popularity in the early 1900s, harness racing bounced back in 1940 when it was reintroduced in a New York raceway as a pari-mutuel betting event. Today, its scheduled annual events and tracks outnumber the tracks and annual events of thoroughbred racing in America. The sport has also grown in popularity in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and many European countries.
While horse racing was once considered the “Sport of Kings”, it now encompasses people of all walks of life and income. However it still is considered a sport for the “well-to-do”, for people who can afford to raise the standard of horses running in the races and to win the huge prize money awarded by the most famous horse-racing evens across the world.