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The History of Horse Racing

Horse racing is among the very oldest sports in the entire world. Indeed, the fundamentals have gone largely unchanged for over five hundred years. The speed of the horses and stamina the jockeys required for horse racing was a big draw to the sport back in the day, helping it gain its immense popularity. Historically, the spectacle involved two horses, runners, intricate monitoring equipment, and, of course, huge piles of money.

The simplicity of two noble steeds battling it out in a race of stamina, strength, and endurance was enough to catapult the event into the mainstream. Today, horse racing is as popular as ever, across all spectrums of society. It used to be, however, that horse racing was a rite of passage for much of the gentry.

Ancient Greek Chariot Racing

We don't know when the first-ever horse race took place, but we do know that they date back to Greek chariot races circa 700 BC. The ancient Olympic games were showcases of the might and power of Ancient Greece. They stood to remind people of Greece’s strength and dominance over most of its neighbours and further afield at the time. The chariot races held by the Greeks in and out of the Olympics were often dangerous events with many casualties. The brisk pace of the races along with the chariot riders’ own ego were often ingredients for disaster. While not knowing for sure, many thousands of people must have been killed in horse and chariot races in ancient Greece every year.

Before long, horse racing had found its way around the world, notably to far-flung places such as China as well as to North Africa and the Middle East, where horsemanship became particularly developed. It wasn't until the Crusades during the 11th-13th centuries that the Arabian Barb and Turk horses were brought back to Europe and used in races. In fact, these horses were often sold in medieval England, being held in very high esteem. Horse riders of the time used their skills to display the horse's speed to prospective buyers, in so doing finding themselves able to earn two or three times the average wages of the day.

The Birth of Organised Horse Racing

Organised racing as we sort of know it wasn't really a thing until the late 1600s. Charles II championed the sport and became known as “the father of the English turf”. He was so fond of the sport, in fact, that he was among the first of the European nobility to offer prizes for winners in the form of ‘King's Plates’. At the same time, concise rules were set out, which further defined national horse racing. Indeed, the patronage of Charles II established Newmarket as the headquarters of English racing.

Colonisation also played a big part in popularising horse racing as a sport across the world. The first organised horse race in the North American continent took place during the British occupation of New Amsterdam in 1664. The esteemed Colonel Richard Nicolls was the commander of the British troops that led the invasion into the Dutch colony. He ingeniously established speed races, carving out 2-mile-long courses on the plains of Long Island. These races became so popular that after the Civil War, speed was favoured over stamina. Thoroughbred racehorses were now bred with the British system and model in mind, with the Americans following suit shortly after.

The Rise of Gambling

Match races were to follow next and started off with only about two or three competing horses. Horse race betting odds would generally favour the owner with the biggest ‘purse’. These wagers were backed up by certain rules which, if broken, were taken as a forfeit. This allowed for some of the first ever controlled bets to take place with a “play or pay” policy adopted from the get-go. People without a vested interest in the outcome of the race were often employed as “keepers of the matchbook” to further the legitimacy of the sport.

The evolution of horse racing over the years clearly demonstrates a love between man and horse. From the ancient Greeks onwards, the sport has seen many changes, but it has come to be defined as one of the most traditionally established sports in the world today. Horse racing has come to be associated with a sense of grandeur, especially in the United Kingdom. This is reflected in both the Grand National and Royal Ascot meets, with the latter being founded in 1711 by Queen Anne. She famously rode her horse from Windsor Castle to Ascot, claiming “this would be a fine place for a race”.

The sheer cultural importance of horse racing, spanning four continents, is hard to argue with. From the earliest North African Berbers to the nomadic fighters of the Mongolian empire, horse racing has always been a fundamentally important pastime. Horse racing has not only served the elite noble class but has equally encouraged those of lower status to take up the sport too.