Horse racing is a sport in which horses compete to determine which is fastest—and for purse money; races are divided into those in which a rider sits on the horse's back and those in which the horse pulls a small buggy (harness racing). Horses with riders are usually thoroughbreds, while those in harness racing are called standardbreds. Thoroughbred racing includes both flat and jump races; while flat races are held on dirt and grass courses, steeplechase and hurdle races are run on grass courses, and horses jump over a number of barriers set up on the course. Racing in Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand is exclusively on grass courses, while racing in North and South America is on both dirt and grass courses.
The early history of horse racing is sketchy, with most attention devoted to England, beginning in the 1600s. Records indicate that chariot racing and mounted races were a part of the ancient Olympic Games (700 b.c. to 394 a.d.) and were used as public entertainment in the Roman Empire. Racing was popular in the Middle East and North Africa; Europeans became familiar with these races during the Crusades (eleventh to thirteenth centuries) and brought many horses back to Europe. Charles II, who reigned from 1660 to 1685, was known for his interest in racing and is credited with starting the King Plates, writing the rules for the races, and making Newmarket the center of English racing.
The settlers brought horses with them when they came to America; they had brought at least seven by 1610 and continued their interest in racing, usually match races between two horses over several four-mile heats. Racing was more popular in the South, and Virginia became the horse center in America. As Edward Hotaling noted: "Like flies to molasses, the whole South took to 'the races.' . . . They seemed an extension of the establishment's favorite fantasy, that life was a chivalric pageant out of medieval England, the obverse of the North's delusional, anti-English Puritanism" (p. 22). By 1840, the South had sixty-three racetracks; the Northeast had only six. While most racing was local or regional, the Union Course on Long Island, New York, promoted the popular North-South races. The first North-South race was held in 1823; American Eclipse, the northern horse, beat Sir Henry in three four-mile heats. Other North-South races were held in 1832, 1840, and 1845.
The Civil War devastated the horse business in the South; after 1865, the racing world centered on New York. Saratoga was opened in 1863, followed by Jerome Park in New York City in 1866. The Kentucky Derby was started in 1875, the Preakness in 1873, and the Belmont in 1867. These three races were linked to form the Triple Crown series in 1930. Winning all three races at their varying distances—a mile and a quarter (Derby), a mile and three-sixteenths (Preakness), and a mile and one-half (Belmont)—within five weeks has been extremely difficult. As of 2004, only eleven horses had won all three races in a single year, none since 1978. The Breeders' Cup was started in 1984 and was marketed as the World Championship of horse racing.
Historians trace all thoroughbreds to three stallions: the Darley Arabian, the Godolphin Barb, and the Byerly Turk, which were brought to England between 1690 and 1730 and bred to a number of English mares to replenish the declining English stock. Stallions such as Medley (1783), Shark (1788), Messenger (1788), and Diomed (1798) brought the thoroughbred line to America. The offspring of matings between the stallions and mares were recorded (Stud Book) to ensure the standard of the breeding and the quality of the horses. The first General Stud Book was published in England in 1791; the Jockey Club took over the registry of horses in North America in 1896. At the same time, while some acknowledge the presence of mixed breeds, doubting the claim of the "pure" thoroughbred, the Jockey Club controls what horses can run in American races: Only those registered with the Jockey Club as thoroughbreds are eligible.
The rule for breeding has been "to breed the best with the best and hope for the best." It follows that well-bred horses should win the most races and the richest races, and pedigree is often used to evaluate the performances of horses. When a well-bred horse wins, his pedigree is responsible, but when a lesser-bred horse is successful, it is often attributed to luck. Moreover, when the decision is made to have the horse become a sire or broodmare, a horse's success on the track is often overlooked in favor of his breeding. For example, Sunday Silence won two of the three Triple Crown races (the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness) and the Breeders' Cup Classic in 1989, defeating Easy Goer in all three races, yet his breeding was considered lesser than that of Easy Goer. Sunday Silence was then sold to Japanese owners, and he later became the leading sire in Japan. Easy Goer was kept in the United States. Moreover, Secretariat, whom many believe to be among the greatest American horses, winning the Triple Crown in 1973, had an undistinguished career as a sire.
African Americans in Racing
Thirteen of the fifteen riders in the first Kentucky Derby were African Americans, and African American jockeys won fifteen of the first twenty-eight Derbies. Moreover, the winning trainers in the first three Derbies—1875, 1876 and 1877—were African Americans, as were the winning trainers in 1884, 1885, and 1891, the last year an African American schooled the winning horse. The situation was different in the twentieth century, however; when Marion St. Julien rode Curule in the Kentucky Derby in 2000, he was the first African American jockey to ride in the Derby in seventy-nine years. Since 1930 the presence of African American trainers has been spotty; there were two in 1932 and one each in 1934, 1944, 1951, and 1989, the last year in which an African American trained a Derby horse (as of 2004). Eight African American owners have entered horses in the 128 runnings of the Derby; the first and only winning owner was Dudley Allen, who entered Kingman in 1891; the most recent African American owned entry was in 1994.
Another concern with breeding is the hardiness of the horse. Many believe that the emphasis on breeding for speed rather than stamina, coupled with the increasing use of medications to "help" horses to perform on the track, has contributed to less sturdy stock. There is no national standard for drug use; each state has its own rules, and many suspect that the rules are too lax, contributing to abuse for the horses and to uncertainty among bettors. Instead of breeding the best (strongest) to the best (strongest), horses going to the breeding shed are often those who were kept on the racetrack by medicine. Horses no longer run as many races, they have longer rests between races, and they run shorter distances than their progenitors. By 2004, most races ranged between three-fourths of a mile (six furlongs) and a mile and one-sixteenth; races of a mile and a quarter were considered problematical for most horses. Also relevant to the hardiness is the age at which horses begin racing. Historically, horses were at least five years old before racing; in England; the Kings Plates races were for six-year-olds. However, horses now begin racing at two and often are no longer racing at six. The stress of racing is not beneficial to young horses, but the economics of the sport make two-year racing a necessity. In other words, horses need to "earn their keep." The Triple Crown races are for three-year-olds only. Historically, the rationale for racing was the "improvement of the breed," but many now question that outcome. In fact, some in the American Jockey Club acknowledge that their control of the Stud Book is more for integrity than for the improvement of the breed (Case, p. 45).
Structure of Horse Racing
The horse business is composed of the owners, for both breeding and racing; the trainers, who prepare the horses for racing; the jockeys, who ride the horses; the tracks, which organize and hold the races; and the fans, who wager on the races. Added to the mix are state governments, which tax the money bet on each race. Often, the motivations of each group are different, and these differences are one of the problems facing racing. Owners—and trainers—hope to win money by racing, but they also want to protect the reputation of their better horses for breeding; they usually pick and choose which races to enter, often avoiding any competition with rival horses until meeting in prestigious races such as the Kentucky Derby or the Breeders' Cup. It is also common for a horse that wins the Kentucky Derby to be retired soon afterward, a way to protect the reputation of the horse for breeding. The tracks prosper by offering races with large purses for owners that will also attract spectators and bettors.
Bettors prefer competitive races with many horses, that is, more betting options. Fans want to watch competitive races between horses they recognize or with whom they can identify. Racing on dirt in North America is necessary because racing is a year-round sport; owners know that their horses need to work (race) to defray the costs of their upkeep. Daily racing on grass is not possible; racing in Europe and Australia, for example, moves from track to track, and a particular track may have only forty to fifty race days per year. While racetracks in North America also have meets, and racing may move from track to track during the year, a meet will last for sixty to ninety consecutive days. Moreover, most racing is regulated by state organizations, which act independently and for their own interests; there is often little cooperation across state boundaries. In an attempt to provide some structure or consensus among horse-racing interests, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) was formed in 1997; however, the NTRA has little power to regulate racing and so far has only been a marketing group. As of 2004, certain groups were vying for control over racing by buying race tracks in several states. For example, Churchill Downs Inc. owned Churchill Downs in Kentucky and purchased Ellis Park in Kentucky, Calder in Florida, Hollywood Park in California, Arlington Park in California, and Hoosier Park in Indiana. Magna Corporation owned Santa Anita in California, Gulfstream Park in Florida, and Laurel and Pimlico tracks in Maryland. The other major player was the New York Racing Association (NYRA), which controled racing at three tracks: Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga.
Races are organized by racing secretaries employed by race tracks to attract owners to enter their horses. While the public pays most attention to stakes races like the Kentucky Derby, the Arlington Million, and the Breeders' Cup, most races are claiming and allowance races. Claiming races are the lowest level of racing and range from a low of about $5,000 to $80,000 or more; horses entered in a claiming race are "up for bid" and any authorized owner can bid for a horse prior to the race. Following the race the person who bid for the horse becomes the new owner and must pay the claiming price set for that race. Allowance races are those with certain conditions for eligibility, such as the number of wins a horse has or the amount of money it has won in its lifetime or within a certain time period; horses in allowance races cannot be claimed. Young horses usually proceed through allowance conditions before entering stakes races. On an average nine-race program there would be five claiming races, two allowance races, and two maiden races—races for horses who had never won a race. Maiden Special Weight races are for better horses, while Maiden Claiming races are for those unsuccessful at the higher level. Other races include handicap races, in which racing secretaries assign horses to carry varying amounts of weight in an effort to attract more horses and to make the race more competitive. For example, while all horses carry the same weight in the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders' Cup races, the Melbourne Cup, the most popular race in Australia, is a handicap race. Good horses will often not be entered in handicap races if the owner or trainer feels that the weights assigned to their horse will make it too difficult for it to win.
Horse racing is known as the "sport of kings," a phrase coined in England around the time of Charles II and used to refer to those who have the means to own and race horses. Case's The Right Blood and Hotaling's They're Off: Horseracing at Saratoga describe the aristocratic aspect of racing. At the same time, racing is often described as similar to boxing in that the sport brings all classes of people together. For example, in the 1800s, the typical relationship was composed of the plantation master, who owned the horses; the African American slaves, who were the early jockeys and trainers; and the fans, who came from all classes. There were over 100 African American jockeys in the late 1800s, and Isaac Murphy was the best, winning three Kentucky Derbies (1884, 1890, 1891) and 44 percent of his races. By the 1930s, however, there were no African Americans jockeys. Fewer than ten African American jockeys were riding in thoroughbred races in 1975. Marlon St. Julien rode Curule in the Kentucky Derby in 2000, becoming the first African American jockey in the Derby since 1921 (see sidebar). Diversity came later for women and Hispanics. On 7 February 1969, Diane Crump became the first woman to ride in a pari-mutuel race, and two weeks later Barbara Jo Rubin became the first woman to win a pari-mutuel race. Julie Krone was the first female jockey to win a Triple Crown race, winning the Belmont in 1993.
Gambling and horse racing have always been linked. Even when gambling was not legal, it was often carried on privately. The owners of the horses in the early match races bet on their own horses and often had a third person handle the bets. Soon the third person arranged for all bets and kept a "book" of the wagers, hence, the term "bookie." Bookmaking began around 1788 in England; the first American bookmaking business was organized in Philadelphia in 1866. Bookies were eventually allowed to pay for the right to accept bets at the racetracks; all bookies were placed in a separate area, the "betting ring," and race goers could shop for the most favorable odds. If the money waged on a single horse would cause a bookie to lose money if that horse won, he would "lay off" the wagers by placing win bets on that horse with other bookies.
The pari-mutuel betting system, developed in France, is the most common form of betting in American racing. With the pari-mutuel system, customers bet against the other bettors; all the money is included within a single pool, and the odds are determined by the interest of the bettors. If the odds go down on one horse, they will increase on the other horses in the race. In short, there is no need for a bookie and the house (the racetrack) usually has sufficient money in the pool to pay the winning bettors. The track could still lose money, however, because rules require that all payouts must be at least ten cents on a two-dollar bet. Another significant aspect of pari-mutuel betting is that the state and/or whoever operates the wagering can take money from the pool before the payouts are made. Approximately 20 percent of all money wagered is not returned to the bettors but is shared by the state, the track, the horsemen, and others. The size of the takeout varies by state and is often a sensitive issue for horseplayers.
Thoroughbred racing was the number one spectator sport for most of the twentieth century, with yearly attendance of 40,377,000 (1965) and 48,824,000 (1974) compared to 23,437,000 (1965) and 30,630,000 (1974), respectively, for major league baseball, which was second in attendance. In 1979, the Daily Racing Form reported that horse racing was still the number one spectator sport even though attendance dropped over one million that year (Rudy, p. 339). While it was common for tracks to have crowds between 20,000 and 50,000 in the 1940s, attendance had declined by the early 2000s, except for special events such as the Triple Crown races and the Breeders' Cup. The all-time record for thoroughbred racing is 163,628 for the 1974 Kentucky Derby; 100,311 attended the 1999 Preakness. The Breeders' Cup races attracted 80,452 fans in 1998; on-track attendance at the 2003 Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita was 51,648. At the same time, the average daily on-site attendance at race tracks has declined. Attendance at Belmont Park, for example, has steadily declined from 23,006 in 1973 to 5,930 in 2003. (American Racing Manual, 2001; Daily Racing Form, 2003).
Moreover, while horse racing was among the top five spectator sports after World War II, interest had waned so that only 1 to 2 percent listed horse racing as their favorite sport in 2000 (McDaniel and Vander Velden). Racing is also plagued by poor demographics; the image of the typical track patron is an old, retired, blue-collar male. While there was a marketing effort to bring horse racing back into mainstream America, many point to mistakes that horse racing made following the war. Racing leaders did not get in on the rise of television, deciding to protect the on-track attendance by not embracing television. However, by 2004 it had to compete with the major professional and collegiate team sports for attention. Promoting the Triple Crown and the Breeders' Cup is highlighted, and television ratings increase when there is a possibility of a Triple Crown winner. As a way to generate "team spirit" interest as opposed to interest in a single horse, the inaugural Sunshine Millions was run in January 2003 and featured races between horses bred in California and those from Florida. It is difficult to become a fan of a favorite horse when its racing career is so short and its handlers avoid competition with rivals; rivalries between Swaps and Nashua (1955), Alydar and Affirmed (1978), and Sunday Silence and Easy Goer (1989) captured the imagination of fans and the NTRA would like to develop more of them.
Women in Racing
Mrs. Laska Durnell was the first female owner to enter a horse in the Kentucky Derby; her horse Elwood won in 1904. In 1942, seven of the eight top finishers in the Derby were owned by women, and female owners were commonplace in 2004. Penny Chenery owned Secretariat, perhaps the most celebrated horse in the latter half of the twentieth century. Ten female trainers have started horses in the Derby, with Shelley Riley coming the closest to a Derby win with Casual Lies, who was second in 1992. Jenine Sahadi was the first woman to train a Breeders' Cup Winner in 1996 and she won again in 1997. In 2002, Laura de Seroux trained Azeri to a Breeders' Cup win and the horse was later voted Horse of the Year. Diane Crump, Patricia Cooksey, Andrea Seefeldt, and Julie Krone (twice) have ridden in the Kentucky Derby. Krone was the first woman to ride in the Breeders' Cup. While the number of female jockeys has increased, it was still a struggle for them to find mounts in the early 2000s.
While large crowds at racetracks were once the norm and the benchmark for racing interest, they are no longer useful measures. Outside of races like the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont, and Breeders' Cup, track attendance is down. "Handle," the amount of money wagered, is now the benchmark, and more money is now wagered from bettors not at the track. Obviously, larger audiences mean more betting, but patrons can now bet on races at tracks all over the world; videos of races are simulcast to other racetracks and beamed to betting places (off-track) with no live racing. Moreover, in many states it is possible to bet online. Thus, when a racetrack reports the amount of money bet, it is broken down into "on-track," within state, and out-of-state subtotals. The "out-of-state" handle is usually the largest.
With the money wagered at a track the measure of success, and with most bettors not on-site, competition for the gambling dollar has increased. The tracks with the best racing attract the most wagers and the best horses will race at the tracks with the largest purses. To increase the quality of racing several states (Delaware, West Virginia, Louisiana) have legalized slot machines at racetracks and have used the slot money to increase the purses for horse racing. States without slot machines are at a disadvantage, which has prompted many of them (Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and others) to consider legalizing slot machines or video poker machines at racetracks to support horse racing
"African-Americans." Available from http://www.kentuckyderby.com/2002/.
American Racing Manual. New York: Daily Racing Form Press, 2001 edition.
Bowen, Edward. The Jockey Club's Illustrated History of Thoroughbred Racing in America. Boston: Bullfinch Press, 1994.
Case, Carole. The Right Blood: America's Aristocrats in Thoroughbred Racing. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001.
The Daily Racing Form, 5 November 2003.
Davidson, Scooter Toby, and Anthony, Valerie, eds. Sport of Kings: America's Top Women Jockeys Tell Their Stories, Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1999.
Hillenbrand, Laura. Seabiscuit: An American Legend. New York: Random House, 2001.
"The History of the Thoroughbred in America." Available from http://www.racingmuseum.org.
"Horseracing." Encyclopedia Britannica Deluxe Edition, CD Version, 2003.
Hotaling, Edward. They're Off! Horseracing at Saratoga. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1995.
——. The Great Black Jockeys: The Lives and Times of the Men Who Dominated America's First National Sport. Rocklin, Calif.: Forum, 1999.
Kay, Joyce, and Vamplew, Wray. Encyclopedia of English Horseracing. London: Frank Cass and Company, 2003.
Law, Tom, and Michele MacDonald. "Stars Out in Full Force." Thoroughbred Times 19, no. 5 (2003): 26–27.
McDaniel, Steve, and Lee Vander Velden. "Profile of Those Expressing Interest in Thoroughbred Horseracing." Unpublished study, University of Maryland, 1998.
Rudy, William. Racing in America, 1960–1979. New York: The Stinehour Press, 1980.
Simon, Mary, and Mark Simon. Racing Through the Century: The Story of Thoroughbred Racing in America. Mission Viejo, Calif.: Bowtie Press, 2003. See the Afterword.
"Women in the Derby." Available from http://www.kentuckyderby.com/2002/.
Lee Vander Velden
Origins. Organized horse racing in the United States dates back to 1665, when Richard Nicolls, the royal governor of New York, authorized the first track at what is now Hempstead, Long Island. The first thoroughbred or purebred sire of record to reach the country was Bulle Rock, imported from England to Virginia around 1730. Thereafter scores of both sires and mares arrived, forming the foundation of the American racing stock, which by the 1860s was based on Diomed, the winner of the first English Derby, Glencoe, winner of the Two Thousand Guineas and Ascot Gold Cup, and others. During the colonial era horse racing was the favorite pastime of the Southern elite, especially the Virginian gentry. In the late 1820s track organizers in the United States standardized weights, planned yearly schedules, arranged the
settlement of bets, and fixed rules of entry. Local clubs increasingly charged admission, less to make a profit than to control the clientele, especially when only the wealthy could afford to own, maintain, and train thoroughbred racing horses. Most jockeys, in the South at least, were African Americans.
Popularity. By the 1830s horse racing had become a sensation in the United States, and remained so with each passing decade. The English traveler William Blane remarked that it roused more interest than a presidential election. By 1836 the sale of race horses amounted to more than $500,000 nationwide, and three years later there were 130 thoroughbred meetings in the country. Many of the races reflected the sectional issues of the day, pitting horses from the North against those from the South. In 1823 the race between the Northern champion Eclipse and the South’s Sir Henry at Union Course, Long Island, attracted an estimated seventy thousand spectators, some of whom traveled five hundred miles to see the event. Eclipse won the prize, which amounted to $20,000. At least forty U.S. senators attended the 1842 match between Fashion (North) and Boston (South); grandstand seats at the event cost ten dollars apiece.
Civil War. The North-South challenges continued until the late 1850s. The Civil War, along with the Indian wars, helped promote the breeding of thoroughbreds—cavalrymen needed fast horses, and by 1861 most American horses were crossbreeds. As a result, Union officials during the Civil War steadily imported thoroughbreds from England. It was also at this time that the first major-stakes race occurred in the United States. (In a stakes or sweepstakes, the owner of each horse puts up money before the race, with the winner taking the full amount, known as a purse.) In 1864 John C. Morrissey, the former boxing champion turned businessman/professional gambler, built a racetrack at Saratoga, New York. He chose the area because of the wealthy families who visited the nearby health resort in the summers. Incorporated the next year, the Saratoga Association for the Improvement of the Breed of Horses had socially prominent men on its board, including William R. Travers, John R. Hunter, and Leonard W. Jerome.
Three Classics. After the Civil War horse racing, like many sports, began to boom as other entrepreneurs followed Morrissey’s lead. During this period the three American classic horse races began: the Belmont Stakes, Preakness Stakes, and Kentucky Derby. On 19 June 1867 the first annual Belmont Stakes was won by Ruthless, with a time of 3:05. The track was 1.625 miles long and was located at Jerome Park, New York. (In 1890 organizers moved the race to Morris Park, then in 1906 to Belmont Park.) The Maryland Jockey Club staged its inaugural meeting at Pimlico Racecourse, just outside of Baltimore, on 25 October 1870. The first stakes race, the two-mile Dinner Party Stakes, was held two days later, with the winner being a huge colt named Preakness. Afterward the duke of Hamilton purchased the horse and took it to England, where he killed the animal in a pique. Three years later the Jockey Club honored the great horse by naming a race for him and offering the Wood-lawn Vase as a trophy. The Preakness Stakes had its first running on 27 May 1873, when the bay colt Survivor won the 1.187-mile race in 2:43. In 1875 the Kentucky Derby opened at Churchill Downs in Louisville, where a small chestnut colt named Aristides won the 1.5-mile stakes race. Local promoter M. Lewis Clark had modeled the track on the Derby Stakes at Epsom Downs, the Oaks, and other English classics. The stakes race for three-year-olds was later shortened to 1.25 miles, and is still held the first Saturday in May. The Derby is probably the best known of the three American classics, which today are called the Triple Crown.
Trotters. Another form of horse racing during this period was harness racing. By the 1850s there were seventy harness tracks nationwide, with seven in the New York metropolitan area alone. Most trotters in the mid nineteenth century traced their lineage to the stallion Hambletonian, the great-grandson of the English horse Messenger, who arrived in America in 1788. Harness racing appealed to Americans because it fostered egalitarianism: unhitched from its cart, any tradesman’s horse could win at the track. Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Atlantic Monthly in 1857 observed: “Wherever the trotting horse goes, he carries in his train brisk omnibuses, lively bakers’ carts, and therefore hot rolls, the jolly butcher’s wagon, the cheerful gig, the wholesome afternoon drive with wife and child—all the forms of moral excellence.” Nevertheless most good trotters were owned exclusively by prosperous businessmen, and the cost of the fine horses increased steadily from the 1850s to the 1870s. In 1869 Alden Goldsmith sold his eight-year-old mare Goldsmith Maid for $15,000; two years later, the
new owner sold her for $32,000. By 1881 the mare had won a total purse of $364,200. The leading trotter owners were steamship magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt and newspaper owner Robert Bonner, whose rivalry was legendary. Although a devout Presbyterian who frowned upon racing, Bonner could not contain his competitiveness as he encountered Vanderbilt on the avenues of New York City. On 13 May 1862 they met at Fashion Course on Long Island. Bonner won the $10,000 bet, then quickly announced that he would make a “gift” of the money to anyone who could beat his time.
Elliot J. Gorn and Warren Goldstein, A Brief History of American Sports (New York: Hill & Wang, 1993);
Ivor Herbert, ed., Horse Racing: The Complete Guide to the World of the Turf (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981).
horse racing, trials of speed involving two or more horses. It includes races among harnessed horses with one of two particular gaits, among saddled Thoroughbreds (or, less frequently, quarterhorses) on a flat track, or among saddled horses over a turf course with obstacles to be jumped (steeplechase).
The Roots of Horse Racing
Horse races, today popular throughout most of the Western world as well as in other areas, were probably contested as early as 1500 BC in Egypt. The roots of harness racing extend back at least to early Greece, where chariot races were a part of the Olympic games. In the Roman era the chariot race became an entertainment for the masses; the Circus Maximus seated over 200,000 spectators. The constant and widespread desire for faster and stronger horses for work, military use, and sport led to the development of several specially bred strains.
In 12th-century England, Henry II mated the offspring of the speedy Arabian stallions bred in the 9th–11th cent. with his own powerful mares. The resultant breed drew proud owners into informal wagers and races to determine the superior horses and riders. The first public racecourse opened at London about 1174, and the "sport of kings" became a staple of fairs. As early as the 16th cent., prizes were awarded in English racing, but the 12th Earl of Derby originated (1780) the first event held on a sweepstakes basis (whereby the winner "sweeps" the stake offered) at his estate in Epsom; known as the Epsom Derby or English Derby, it continues to be held annually.
In the American colonies, horse racing's appeal was evident in the 17th cent. Informal races, often held on busy roads, gave way by century's end to formal contests at racetracks. Although racing waned during the Revolutionary period, it regained popularity afterward, and in 1823 a North-South challenge drew 60,000 spectators to Long Island's Union Course (N.Y.) for a contest of three four-mile heats between two horses.
Development of Modern Horse Racing
Steeplechase (the racing of horses over a course with hurdles and shallow water jumps to approximate country riding conditions) became popular in England and Ireland in the 19th cent. The Grand National Steeplechase, held annually since 1839 at Aintree course, Liverpool, England, is the most famous.
Harness racing, begun in the 1830s from the custom of informal carriage races, became very popular in the 1870s, and in 1891 the modern low-wheel sulky replaced the high-wheeler. Harness racing features two differently gaited standardbred horses—pacers (laterally gaited), which move with a swaying motion, bringing the right front and right hind legs forward at the same time, and trotters (diagonally gaited), which move with a high-stepping, straight ahead gait with left front and right hind legs moving forward in unison. Harness racing, formerly a favorite event mainly at U.S. country fairs, became increasingly popular after World War II at racing centers near urban areas. The United States Trotting Association (formed 1938) governs the sport. Notable harness races include the Hambletonian, the Kentucky Futurity, and the Little Brown Jug.
The first major thoroughbred racing in the United States was at the Saratoga Springs, N.Y., track (1863). Churchill Downs, at Louisville, Ky., opened its flat-racing track in 1875; other thoroughbred tracks soon appeared across the country. At that time, jockeys were often African Americans, but whites forced them from the saddle and effectively denied them riding opportunities until the latter part of the 20th cent., when Latin Americans and women also became some of the top jockeys. The Thoroughbred Racing Associations (founded 1942) is the leading regulatory organization in racing, but state racing commissions oversee racing within their borders. The use and abuse of drugs with racehorses, both for treating and masking pain and enhancing performance, has been a chronic problem in modern horse racing.
Historically the three most important U.S. flat-racing events (all limited to three-year-old horses) have been the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, the Preakness at the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, and the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park, on Long Island near New York City. Together these events are known as the Triple Crown, and such winners of all three as Citation (1948) and Secretariat (1973) are considered among the greatest horses in all racing. Since 1984 they have shared the limelight with the annual Breeder's Cup championship, a one-day event comprising seven races of differing conditions held at a premier course. Other important thoroughbred races include the St. Leger Stakes (Great Britain), Queen's Plate (Canada), Melbourne Cup (Australia), Gran Premio Carlos Pellegrini (Argentina), Japan Derby, Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (France), Preis von Europa (Germany), and Dubai Classic (United Arab Emirates).
Gambling and Horse Racing
Gambling has accompanied horse racing from the beginning, and persists despite attacks by reform groups and religious leaders. In the United States, various states, recognizing an opportunity for increased revenues, began legalizing and taxing betting at the track in the 19th cent. American tracks now use the parimutuel system of wagering, invented in France in the 1860s. All bets are pooled, the odds are based on the relative amounts bet on the horses, and wagering is on whether a horse will win, place (finish second), or show (run third). Some states now also operate facilities for off-track betting (OTB).
See R. Longrigg, The History of Horse Racing (1972); T. Ainslie, Ainslie's Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing (3d ed. 1986); R. Cassidy, The Cambridge Companion to Horseracing (2013).
Old World Models. Horse racing probably began as soon as humans domesticated horses. In England modern racing, as opposed to other types of competitive horsemanship like dressage, was first organized during the reign of Henry VIII. Cities sponsored races during festivals as just one of the many available entertainments. By 1600 there were a dozen or more English towns sponsoring races. In time silver trophies for first, second, and third places became commonplace, and towns built grandstands and marked off courses for the events. Spectators watched for free and betted on the outcome. Races were as long as four miles and were run in several heats, which rewarded stamina as well as speed. The first specialized racecourse was developed by James I at Newmarket by 1622. While some members of the royal court raced, others watched them from permanent stands. Newmarket became so identified with dissipated court life that when the Puritans came to power during the civil war, they demolished the stands and plowed up the course. The Restoration in 1660 brought to power Charles II, a fine, competitive rider who established
an annual race, the Plate, which he himself later won. Under him Newmarket became the fashion center of the nation. Other courses developed later. Queen Anne founded the famous races at Ascot and also established the breeding lines known as “thoroughbred” using horses of Arabian stock. These pedigrees would become formalized, and some of this stock would find its way to America.
America’s Newmarket. Informal races between riders on horseback undoubtedly occurred everywhere that there were horses. Formal horse racing was introduced to the colonies by New York’s governor, Richard Nicolls, in 1668 when he sponsored an annual race at Hempstead Plain on Long Island. This oval course of two miles was named Newmarket after its English model. Races were run in the spring and fall, with the winners taking home an engraved silver porringer. The popularity of horse racing gave New York a second racetrack closer to the city by the 1730s when Church Farm was developed on Manhattan Island. In 1744 Peter De Lancey and the Honorable William Montague raced their horses, Ragged Kate and Monk, respectively, for a prize of £200, more than five times what a laborer might make in a year. Other tracks also opened in New York in the years before the Revolution.
Other Northern Courses. Puritan and Quaker disapproval of time-wasting entertainments such as horse racing meant that formal courses were slower in developing in New England and Pennsylvania. During the eighteenth century both Boston and Philadelphia held races. By 1720 horses ran at Cambridge and Rumney Marsh outside of Boston for money prizes. Race Street in Philadelphia led to the racecourse, and before 1726 Sassafras Street served as a straight racetrack. By 1761 races in Philadelphia were advertised in colonial newspapers, suggesting that those who wished to contain such sports had lost the battle.
The Chesapeake. Horse racing was one of the most popular sports in the South, and the Chesapeake (Maryland and Virginia) developed both the quarter race and the quarter horse. Races were run on a straight quarter-mile track rather than an oval course. The horses that ran this quarter mile were known for stamina and the ability to put on quick bursts of speed. These events operated under a variety of rules, agreed to before the race, which specified any handicap one horse might have and the
weight of the riders. Growing colonial wealth and a disposition toward competition and gambling led to better breeding and the importation of English blooded stock. The first recorded stallion was Bulle-Rock, sired by the Darley Arabian and sent to Virginia in 1730. The most famous imported horse was Janus, a grandson of the Godolphin Arabian, brought over in 1752. These imported horses were bred to local mares, producing a fast horse that could also go the distance. Their speed and stamina led to the same kind of course racing as in England and the Northern colonies.
The Lower South. Charleston was the center of horse racing in the Lower South. By 1734 racing was a semipublic sport advertised in the South Carolina Gazette. That year the prize was a saddle and bridle. The next year a jockey club organized. In their races horses ran one mile for prizes worth £100 at the York course. By 1743 there were monthly races there and a new course opened at Goose Creek. In 1754 a third racecourse opened on the Neck outside of Charleston. Prizes included not only money and trophies but also watches and, in 1744, a finely embroidered jacket.
Carl Bridenbaugh, Cities in the Wilderness: Urban Life in America 1625–1742 (New York: Capricorn Books, 1964);
Thomas S. Henricks, Disputed Pleasures: Sport and Society in PreindustrialEngland (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991);
John B. Irving, The South Carolina Jockey Club (Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Co., 1975);
Nancy L. Struna, People of Prowess: Sport, Leisure, and Labor in Early Anglo-America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996).
Racing expanded with courses springing up at Doncaster (1595), York (1709), Ascot (1711), Epsom (1730), Goodwood (1801), and Aintree (1827). In 1750 the Jockey Club was founded to regulate the sport. The first Racing Calendar was introduced in 1773 and stud books and jockeys' colours followed. Lord George Bentinck (1802–48), an influential horse breeder-owner, devised the flag start, race card, paddock parade, and much of modern race-course practice. Highlights of the flat season include the Derby, Oaks, and St Leger.
Steeple-chasing derived from horses racing each other cross-country to the nearest church steeple. The concept of a course with artificial fences originated at the Newmarket Craven meeting in 1794. A Grand Annual Steeplechase began at Cheltenham around 1815. In 1866 the Grand National Hunt Steeplechase Committee was formed to establish rules and the first Calendar appeared in 1867. It became the National Hunt Committee in 1889 and merged with the Jockey Club eighty years later. Highlights include the Grand National and the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Horse-racing has become synonymous with betting. The on-course Totalizator introduced in 1929 and the Horserace Betting Levy Board founded in 1961 both aimed to distribute betting revenue for the good of the sport. A Joint Racing Board was established in 1968 to facilitate policy discussion between the Turf Authorities and the Levy Board.
Richard A. Smith