Horse Racing and Showing

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HORSE RACING AND SHOWING. Both horse racing and horse showing antedate the history of the United States. The first settlers in the early colonies, particularly in Virginia, engaged in horse racing, one of the few accepted sports of the time. These races tended to be ad hoc affairs. Typically, they were run over the comparatively short distance of a quarter mile and took place—because of the lack of an established course—on whatever pathways through the forest were available or over the roads of settlements. Colonists began breeding horses that could sprint over the quarter mile distance in the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth century. Institutionalized racing began in New York shortly after it became a British colony, when Governor Richard Nicolls held horse races in the late 1660s at Hempstead on Long Island; the winners were awarded the first known sporting trophies in America. Thoroughbred racing following the British example was introduced by Governor Samuel Ogle of Maryland and first staged at Annapolis in 1745, fifteen years after the first thoroughbred stallion had been imported from England. Despite its attraction for local audiences, organized horse racing on a large scale did not begin before the end of the Civil War. Horses had been used extensively by both sides during the conflict, and after 1865 horse breeding in the South, particularly in the state of Virginia, was devastated. Kentucky took over as the leading state in horse breeding, and New York soon was unsurpassed in racing. Over the next thirty-five years until the turn of the century, horse racing, particularly thoroughbred racing, grew rapidly, with more than three hundred tracks operating across the nation.

Two main types of horse racing have evolved since the Civil War. The first employs jockeys, who ride either on a flat track—often an oval—for distances mostly between three-quarters of a mile and two miles or on the turf course used in the steeplechase, a race in which obstacles must be jumped. The other type is harness racing, in which a horse pulls a small two-wheeled carriage, or "sulky," with a driver over a one-mile course. Here, the horse is not permitted to gallop. Harness racing is governed by the United States Trotting Association, formed in 1938, and its notable races include the Hambletonian, the Kentucky Futurity, and the Little Brown Jug.

Horse racing became a year-round activity during the 1930s when winter racing was organized in Florida and California. The interwar period also saw the first introduction of technology into horse racing with the adoption in 1929 of the mechanical starting gate, which was followed in 1936 by the photo-finish camera. In 1942 the Thoroughbred Racing Associations of the United States was founded in Chicago. During the late 1960s, the first female jockeys were licensed. The heyday of thoroughbred racing came after World War II when track attendance increased from 26 million in 1946 to 53.3 million people in 1974; purses went up from $56 million to $5.2 billion during that period. By the start of the twenty-first century, the number of racetracks had declined to approximately 150, used both for races with jockeys and for harness races.

The number of foals registered each year increased dramatically after World War II, from almost 6,000 to more than 51,000 in 1986. Since 1986 that number has steadily declined to less than 37,000 in 1999. This decline is due no doubt to the fact that racehorses have become a considerable investment. The price for the most traded group of future racehorses, yearlings (about 9,000 horses), increased by more than 100 percent between 1991 and 2001. In 2001 the average cost of a yearling was $52,549, but prices can be well over $1 million—in 1981 the European champion Storm Bird was sold for $30 million. While only a handful of horses from each year's crop will ever win a race—and still fewer will ever generate considerable income—large purses have been won by star equine performers. Kelso earned $1,977,896 in eight seasons of racing (1959–1966), and Secretariat earned more than $1.3 million in only two seasons (1972–1973). Secretariat generated even more income from stud duty at a price of more than $6 million. In the 1970s three horses—Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), and Affirmed (1978)—for the first time after a quarter of a century won the famous Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes). The 1985 American champion Alysheba generated total earnings of more than $6.6 million; Cigar—named Horse of the Year in both 1995 and 1996—earned $9,999,815.


Betting was a traditional ingredient of horse racing even in the early colonies. At many races, each owner of a horse put up a stake, and the total amount made up the winner's purse. Spectators participated in auction pools in which contestants were auctioned off, and the purchaser of the winner collected the pool minus a commission. After the Civil War, bookmakers took over and made betting a profitable business that soon attracted criminals who realized the opportunities for foul play. One form of foul play was the manipulation or doping of horses, which led to much public indignation. In 1894, to eliminate corruption, prominent track and stable owners formed the American Jockey Club, modeled on the English Jockey Club. The sport spread as the nation grew, despite being outlawed in a number of states because it was considered too close to gambling.

Bookmakers paid a flat fee to the racing association for the privilege of operation, and some of their fee money, plus some of the income from admissions, was used to supplement purses. A direct tie between purse money and volume of wagering, however, did not exist. Purses were modest and not sufficient to make winning a race more profitable than a betting coup at good odds. In 1908, however, the pari-mutuel system of wagering regained a foothold in the United States after having been tried and discarded during the nineteenth century. In this system, the odds are based on the relative amounts that have been bet on a horse, and the wagerer stakes his money on whether a particular horse will win the race, finish second, or come in third.

Betting transformed horse racing from a semi-private sport into a very large public entertainment business in which not only racing associations, owners, and jockeys but also state governments derived income directly proportional to the volume of wagering. Tracks now were able to offer larger purses, which attracted more horses and stimulated wagering. Although the number of races has declined since the late 1980s from almost 75,000 to a little over 55,000 in 2001, gross purses have increased from about 700 million to over one billion dollars in 2001. Handle (the total amount bet) in pari-mutuel wagering on U.S. thoroughbred racing increased by 55 percent between 1990 and 2001 from $9.385 billion to $14.550 billion. While horse racing is still a major spectator sport, ontrack betting has gone down during this period. Off-track betting has increased to make up more than 85 percent of all bets in 2001. The relatively easily extracted pari-mutuel tax has become an important source of state revenue since the Great Depression of the 1930s, when states were desperately seeking revenue. The generated annual gross revenues exceeded more than $3.25 billion in 1998. States have not only allowed offtrack betting to make up for the decline in ontrack betting, they have also

permitted ontrack betting on races taking place at other locations, which bettors monitor via simulcast satellite television transmissions. Some states also now allow account wagering that permits bettors to telephone their wagers from anywhere. The latest development is Inter-net betting.

Pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing is legal in forty-three U.S. states. These states have increasingly supplied subsidies to purses to make horse racing more attractive and to secure the flow of revenues. In New Jersey, for example, purses were boosted by a one-time $11.7 million subsidy from the state legislature in 2001. California has become the state with most races (5,107 in 2001, with gross purses of over $172 million), followed by West Virginia (4,379 races, with gross purses of around $66 million), Pennsylvania (3,992 races, with gross purses of around $50 million), and Florida (3,968 races, with gross purses of around $83 million). New York now ranks fourth in number of races (3,851) but second in gross purses ($145 million).

Horse Shows

Horse shows have developed alongside racing into a large number of different disciplines, including dressage, jumping, vaulting, and endurance. The first attempts to organize the sport were made in 1918, when the Association of American Horse Shows was formed on the eastern seaboard of the United States. By 1924 the Association had spread across the nation, enrolling sixty-seven shows. With seven recognized divisions, the Association incorporates the American Royal, Devon, and National horse shows as member competitions. In 2001 it adopted the name USA Equestrian. It recognizes twenty-six breeds and disciplines, and has over 80,000 individual members and more than 2,700 member competitions.

In 1999 there were 725,000 horses involved in racing, and almost 2 million in horse showing. Horse racing and showing remains an important industry and is the second most frequented spectator sport in the United States, surpassed only by baseball.


Duke, Jacqueline, ed. Thoroughbred Champions: Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century. Lexington, Ky.: Blood-Horse, 1999.

Hickok, Ralph. The Encyclopedia of North American Sports History. New York: Facts on File, 1992.

Longrigg, Roger. The History of Horse Racing. London: Macmillan, 1972.

National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame Online. Home-page at

Thalheimer, Richard, and Mukhtar M. Ali. "Intertrack Wagering and the Demand for Parimutuel Horse Racing." Journal of Economics and Business 47, no. 4 (October 1995): 369–383.


See alsoHorse .