First emerging as a primitive contest of stamina or speed between two horses, horse racing has since evolved into a multi billion dollar sport which is watched and wagered on the world over. Despite the enormity of the sport in the modern age the basic premise remains, the horse that finishes first is the winner, just as it was thousands of years ago.
The practice of racing horses against each other stretches back millennia and across numerous civilisations. Although hard to pinpoint any exact point in history when organised races between two or more horses first took place, archaeological records show that horse racing occurred in Ancient Greece, Egypt, Syria, and Babylon.
Strongly featured in tales of myth and legend throughout the ages, chariot racing became one of the most popular ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine sports. The often fatal sports of mounted horse and chariot racing were recorded as being part of the ancient Greek Olympics in 648 BC.
Well organised horse races, with both chariots and mounted riders, were often a massive crowd pleaser hosted in purpose built oval arenas called ‘circuses’ throughout the Roman Empire. Betting soon became a feature of these events with spectators picking sides and riders becoming full time professionals.
The Sport of Kings
From the 11th Century onwards organised horse racing gained huge popularity across Europe and quickly became a sport very much associated with royalty and the aristocracy.
In England King Henry VIII is known to have imported many horses from Asia and the Middle East during his reign to breed and race competitively. During this time the first recorded occurrence of a trophy being presented to the winner of a race took place in 1512 at a fair in Chester.
King Charles II first formulated rules for a horse race at known as the Newmarket Town Plate which has been run every year since 1666. Then during the reign of Queen Anne, around 40 years later, horse racing began to emerge as a professional sport. This continued association of thoroughbred racing with the aristocrats and royalty of British society earned it the title of the “Sport of Kings”.
All across England racecourses began to appear and started offering increasing large purses to attract the best horses of the day. This in turn made made breeding and owning horses for racing more profitable and the sport rapidly expanded to become a national obsession.
In 1750 racing’s elite met at the famed Newmarket racecourse to form what was to be called the Jockey Club. This is still the organisation which regulates English racing to this day.
The Jockey Club effectively wrote the rulebook on racing, defining many standards for races and how they are run which are still in use today. They sanctioned racecourses to conduct meetings under those rules to help and standardise the sport of horseracing across England and beyond.
A few races quickly established themselves as the ultimate test of both horse and rider in this sport and since 1814 five races have been known as as “the classics” in England. They are the 2,000 Guineas, the Epsom Derby, the St. Leger Stakes, 1,000 Guineas and the Epsom Oaks, all of which are still hugely popular today.
Over in the US public interest in horse racing focuses on major Thoroughbred races such as the American Triple Crown and the Breeder’s Cup which today offer purses of up to about $1,000,000.
Wagering on the outcome of horse races has been a key element since it’s humble beginnings hundreds of years ago. It has helped to both sustain interest in and grow the sport over time.
Under modern rules most bettors will bet on a horse to win (finish first), place (finish first or second), or show (finish first, second, or third). However in recent times the amount of other betting systems and wagers that can be placed has grown to maximise the money created by any single race.