A Brief History of Horseracing
From the Mediterranean to Central Asia, horseracing has been a much-loved sport since before humans began keeping written records. In the Greek Olympics, both chariot racing and mounted horseracing were featured events, though the beginning of modern-day horseracing took hold much later, around the 12th century AD.
Have you ever wondered about how horseracing began in the United States, or how it has evolved over the years? Let’s take a look at some of the highs (and lows) of the “Sport of Kings” in this brief history.
Horseracing Becomes Professional
Though racing began to take off in the 12th century when English knights returned home from the Crusades with athletic Arabian horses, it didn’t become a truly professional sport until Queen Anne’s reign, beginning in 1702. Spectator wagering grew common as multi-horseracing expanded, and soon racecourses were appearing all over England.
The introduction of gambling made horseracing a lucrative endeavor, and many flocked to compete for the large purses that were regularly offered. As can be imagined, the need for a central governing authority was soon identified as the sport continued to grow in popularity.
The Jockey Club was formed in 1750 to take control, and the rules and standards established at that time are still followed 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 horse races in the United States are believed to have taken place on Long Island and can be traced all the way back to 1665!
As with many aspects of American life, horseracing’s growth was stalled during the Civil War, as both horses and men were called up to fight. In 1868, though, the American Stud Book began publishing a catalog of all Thoroughbred horses foaled in the country. The sport’s popularity blossomed during this time, and by 1890 there were 314 tracks around the country from New Orleans to Saratoga, NY to Louisville, KY.
As had happened across the pond in the mid-18th century, the need for a central governing authority for racing was soon identified, and the American Jockey Club was established in 1894. At this time, the new organization also bought out the original publisher of the American Stud Book, and they continue to issue this registry today.
No More Bets, Please
Anti-gambling laws that were enacted in the early years of the 20th century nearly destroyed horseracing, and fewer than 25 tracks remained open by the year 1908. But, the agreement that same year to allow pari-mutuel betting (which allows those backing the first three finishers of a race to divide the losers’ stakes) for the Kentucky Derby saved the sport from certain doom. Pari-mutuel betting was soon deemed acceptable by many state governments, and interest in the sport flourished again around the time of WWI as more tracks were able to open in the friendlier political climate.
With more tracks across the country, the curious age of the “celebrity” horse was born. Spectators came out in droves to see specific horses like the now-legendary Man O’ War take to the racetrack. World War II and the immediate post-war period again stole the spotlight for a time, but the concept of the celebrity racehorse had been cemented in the American psyche.
In the 1970s, interest in racing peaked again as several superstars like Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed came on the scene and secured the renowned Triple Crown win. But after Affirmed’s 1978 win, racing began a slow decline in popularity due to a lack of champions in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In fact, it wasn’t until 2015 when the contemporary celebrity horse, American Pharoah, was able to capture the elusive crown again and reignite public enthusiasm for the sport.
Different Types of Horses and Races
So, what are the different types of races? We’ve already mentioned the rise of multi-horse racing during the British monarch Queen Anne’s reign in the 1700s, and before that, races were typically run between just two horses at a time. In the United States today, we are most familiar with flat racing, in which Thoroughbred horses compete against several others on a flat surface course across a specific distance. This type of racing was born and perfected in the United Kingdom, spread to the US in its earliest days, and is considered by many to be the only kind of horseracing worth caring about. That said, in addition to Thoroughbred flat racing, three other types of horseracing still enjoy popularity in different parts of the world. These include jump racing, endurance racing, and harness racing.
But what about different types of horses? The famed Thoroughbred horse that’s been explicitly bred for superior athleticism throughout history has bloodlines that can be traced back to one of three original sires. Though Thoroughbreds range in color, size, and weight, most are between 15 and 17 hands in height and weigh over 1000 pounds. Their bodies are designed to balance speed and endurance.
Arabian horses, similar to those that were ridden in the earliest recorded English races, originated 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 became known as the fashionable breed owned by Presidents and other national heroes. They remained a status-symbol breed over the years until the late 20th century when the market for these horses crashed. They are still prized today, but they are seen as appropriate for even amateur owners. Due to their impressive stamina, Arabians excel in endurance races, though they are still raced on traditional flat racetracks in some areas of the world.
The third type of racehorse, the American Quarter Horse, originated in our country. A blend of Native American and English Thoroughbred stock, Quarter Horses are muscular, compact, and fast. Hallmarks of the breed are rapid acceleration and endurance. In the earliest days, owners typically used their Quarter Horses for labor most of the time, and then took them out to race on weekends. Today, these hardy American natives are often seen on the rodeo circuit where barrel racing is common, though they’re also still seen on the flat track, as well.
Changes through the Years
Technological advancements have changed the face of racing over time. When horseracing first began, it obviously lacked the modern electric starting gates and other advanced features that spectators are now used to seeing. Many methods have been used over the years to signal the start of a race, including a person designated as the “starter” standing alongside the horses and jockeys who dropped a starting flag. Simple rope or wooden barriers were used to enclose the horses. In the late 1800s, an Australian named Alexander Gray invented an automated starting system that utilized a wire at the height of the horses’ heads that, when tripped, would cause the barrier to spring up. This innovation 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 themselves have also been transformed through the years. While the Arabians used in endurance races a thousand years ago weighed in around 500 to 600 pounds, today’s Thoroughbreds typically weigh twice as much. Modern racehorses are prized athletes and are treated as such by proud owners, trainers, and grooms who ensure they are fed the proper diet, exercised appropriately, and that their every medical need is taken care of. They never have farm work duty, as the early American Quarter Horses did! Horses of all types in earlier times were often needed for a wide range of tasks such as transportation and even battle, and they were not seen as the valuable investments they are now.
Betting on Horseracing
And why are racehorses such good investments? It is estimated that over $100 billion in bets are placed at racetracks every year. Though the most substantial amounts are wagered at the three races that comprise the Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes), there are millions of dollars in wagers being made at less famous tracks across the United States.
What began as simple wagers between owners, betting on horse races has evolved into a vast and very rewarding industry. Spectators can place their bets in a variety of ways and places, as well. Whether at the track where the race is being run, at other tracks that are simulcasting races and other off-track betting locations, or even from their own laptop computers, betting on racing has never been easier. As we examined in an earlier post here on the blog, owning a racehorse, or just getting lucky with a well-placed bet can be tremendously profitable!