The competitive racing of horses is one of humankind's most ancient
sports, having its origins among the prehistoric nomadic tribesmen of
Central Asia who first domesticated the horse about 4500 BC. For thousands
of years, horse racing flourished as the sport of kings
and the nobility. Modern horse racing, however, exists primarily because
it is a major venue for legalized gambling [Sports Betting]. Horse
racing is the second most widely attended U.S. spectator sport, after
baseball. In 1989, 56,194,565 people attended 8,004 days of racing, wagering
Horse racing is also a major professional sport
in Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Western Europe, Australia,
New Zealand, South Africa, and South America. By far
the most popular form of the sport is the racing of
mounted Thoroughbred horses over flat courses
at distances from three-quarters of a mile to two miles.
Other major forms of horse racing are harness racing,
steeplechase racing, and Quarter Horse Racing.
Horse Racing History demonstrates that by the time humans began to
keep written records, horse racing was an organized sport in all major civilizations
from Central Asia to the Mediterranean. Both chariot and mounted horse
racing were events in the ancient Greek Olympics by 638 BC, and the
sport became a public obsession in the Roman Empire. The origins of modern
racing lie in the 12th century, when English knights returned from the
Crusades with swift Arab horses. Over the next 400 years, an increasing
number of Arab stallions were imported and bred to English mares to produce
horses that combined speed and endurance. Matching the fastest of these
animals in two-horse races for a private wager became a popular diversion
of the nobility.
Horse racing began to become a professional sport during the reign
(1702-14) of Queen Anne, when match racing gave way to races involving
several horses on which the spectators wagered. Racecourses sprang up
all over England, offering increasingly large purses to attract the best
horses. These purses in turn made breeding and owning horses for racing
profitable. With the rapid expansion of the sport came the need for a
central governing authority. In 1750 racing's elite met at Newmarket to
form the Jockey Club, which to this day exercises complete control over
English racing. The Jockey Club wrote complete rules of racing
and sanctioned racecourses to conduct meetings under those rules. Standards
defining the quality of races soon led to the designation of certain races
as the ultimate tests of excellence. Since 1814, five races for three-year-old
horses have been designated as "classics." Three races, open
to male horses (colts) and female horses (fillies), make up the English
Triple Crown: the 2,000 Guineas, the Epsom Derby (see DERBY, THE), and
the St. Leger Stakes. Two races, open to fillies only, are the 1,000 Guineas
and the Epsom Oaks. The Jockey Club also took steps to regulate the
breeding of racehorses.
James Weatherby, whose family served as accountants to the members of
the Jockey Club, was assigned the task of tracing the pedigree,
or complete family history, of every horse racing in England. In 1791
the results of his research were published as the Introduction to the
General Stud Book. From 1793 to the present, members of the Weatherby
family have meticulously recorded the pedigree of every foal born to those
racehorses in subsequent volumes of the General Stud Book.
By the early 1800s the only horses that could be called "Thoroughbreds"
and allowed to race were those descended from horses listed in the General
Stud Book. Thoroughbreds are so inbred that the pedigree of every single
animal can be traced back father-to-father to one of three stallions,
called the "foundation sires." These stallions were the Byerley
Turk, foaled c.1679; the Darley Arabian, foaled c.1700; and the Godolphin
Arabian, foaled c.1724.
The British settlers brought horses and horse racing with them to the
New World, with the first racetrack laid out on Long Island as early as
1665. Although the sport became a popular local pastime, the development
of organized racing did not arrive until after the Civil War. (The American
Stud Book was begun in 1868.) For the next several decades, with the rapid
rise of an industrial economy, gambling on racehorses, and therefore horse racing itself, grew explosively; by 1890, 314 tracks were
operating across the country. The rapid growth of the sport without any
central governing authority led to the domination of many tracks by criminal
elements. In 1894 the nation's most prominent track and stable owners
met in New York to form an American Jockey Club, modeled on the English,
which soon ruled racing with an iron hand and eliminated much of the corruption.
In the early 1900s, however, racing in the United States was almost wiped
out by antigambling sentiment that led almost all states to ban bookmaking.
By 1908 the number of tracks had plummeted to just 25. That same year,
however, the introduction of pari-mutuel betting for the Kentucky Derby
signaled a turnaround for the sport. More tracks opened as many state
legislatures agreed to legalize pari-mutuel betting in exchange for a
share of the money wagered.
At the end of World War I, prosperity and great horses like Man o' War
brought spectators flocking to racetracks. The sport prospered until World
War II, declined in popularity during the 1950s and 1960s, then enjoyed
a resurgence in the 1970s triggered by the immense popularity of great
horses such as Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed, each winners of
the American Triple Crown--the KENTUCKY DERBY, the Preakness, and
the Belmont Stakes. During the late 1980s, another significant
decline occurred, however. Thoroughbred tracks exist in about half the
states. Public interest in the sport focuses primarily on major Thoroughbred
races such as the American Triple Crown and the Breeder's
Cup races (begun in 1984), which offer purses of up to about $1,000,000.
State racing commissions have sole authority to license participants and
grant racing dates, while sharing the appointment of racing officials
and the supervision of racing rules with the Jockey Club. The Jockey
Club retains authority over the breeding of Thoroughbreds.
Although science has been unable to come up with any breeding system
that guarantees the birth of a champion, breeders over the centuries
have produced an increasingly higher percentage of Thoroughbreds who are
successful on the racetrack by following two basic principles.
The first is that Thoroughbreds with superior racing ability are
more likely to produce offspring with superior racing ability. The second
is that horses with certain pedigrees are more likely to pass along their
racing ability to their offspring. Male Thoroughbreds (stallions)
have the highest breeding value because they can mate with about 40 mares
a year. The worth of champions, especially winners of Triple Crown
races, is so high that groups of investors called breeding syndicates
may be formed. Each of the approximately 40 shares of the syndicate entitles
its owner to breed one mare to the stallion each year. One share, for
a great horse, may cost several million dollars. A share's owner may resell
that share at any time.
Farms that produce foals for sale at auction are called commercial breeders.
The most successful are E. J. Taylor, Spendthrift Farms, Claiborne
Farms, Gainsworthy Farm, and Bluegrass Farm, all in Kentucky. Farms
that produce foals to race themselves are called home breeders, and these
include such famous stables as Calumet Farms, Elmendorf Farm, and Green-tree
Stable in Kentucky and Harbor View Farm in Florida.
Betting on the outcome of horse races has been an integral
part of the appeal of the sport since prehistory and today is the sole
reason horse racing has survived as a major professional sport. All wagering
at American tracks today is done under the pari-mutuel wagering system,
which was developed by a Frenchman named Pierre Oller in the late 19th
century. Under this system, a fixed percentage (14 percent-25 percent)
of the total amount wagered is taken out for track operating expenses,
racing purses, and state and local taxes. The remaining sum is divided
by the number of individual wagers to determine the payoff, or return
on each bet. The projected payoff, or "odds," are continuously
calculated by the track's computers and posted on the track odds
board during the betting period before each race. Odds of "2-1,"
for example, mean that the bettor will receive $2 profit for every $1
wagered if his or her horse wins.
At all tracks, bettors may bet on a horse to win (finish first),
place (finish first or second), or show (finish first, second, or third).
Other popular wagers are the daily double (picking the winners of two
consecutive races), exactas (picking the first and second horses in order),
quinellas (picking the first and second horses in either order), and the
pick six (picking the winners of six consecutive races).
The difficult art of predicting the winner of a horse race is
The process of handicapping involves evaluating the demonstrated
abilities of a horse in light of the conditions under which it will be
racing on a given day. To gauge these abilities, handicappers use
past performances, detailed published records of preceding races. These
past performances indicate the horse's speed, its ability to win, and
whether the performances tend to be getting better or worse. The conditions
under which the horse will be racing include the quality of the competition
in the race, the distance of the race, the type of racing surface (dirt
or grass), and the current state of that surface (fast, sloppy, and so
The term handicapping also has a related but somewhat different
meaning: in some races, varying amounts of extra weight are assigned to
horses based on age or ability in order to equalize the field.
Harness Racing dates back to ancient times, but
the sport virtually disappeared with the fall of the
Roman Empire. The history of modern HARNESS
RACING begins in America, where racing trotting
horses over country roads became a popular rural pastime
by the end of the 18th century. The first tracks for
harness racing were constructed in the first decade
of the 19th century, and by 1825 harness racing
was an institution at hundreds of country fairs across
With the popularity of harness racing came the development of
the STANDARDBRED, a horse bred specifically for racing under harness.
The founding sire of all Standardbreds is an English Thoroughbred named
Messenger, who was brought to the United States in 1788. Messenger was
bred to both pure Thoroughbred and mixed breed mares, and his descendants
were rebred until these matings produced a new breed with endurance, temperament,
and anatomy uniquely suited to racing under harness. This new breed was
called the Standardbred, after the practice of basing all harness-racing
speed records on the "standard" distance of one mile.
Harness racing reached the early zenith of its popularity in the
late 1800s, with the establishment of a Grand Circuit of major fairs.
The sport sharply declined in popularity after 1900, as the automobile
replaced the horse and the United States became more urbanized. In 1940,
however, Roosevelt Raceway in New York introduced harness racing under
the lights with pari-mutuel betting. This innovation sparked a rebirth
of harness racing, and today its number of tracks and number of
annual races exceed those of Thoroughbred racing. The sport is also popular
in most European countries, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.
Steeplechase, Hurdle, and Point-To-Point Racing are some other forms
of horse racing. Steeplechases are races over a 2- to 4-mi (3.2- to 6.4-km)
course that includes such obstacles as brush fences, stone walls, timber
rails, and water jumps. The sport developed from the English and Irish pastime
of fox hunting, when hunters would test the speed of their mounts during
the cross-country chase. Organized steeplechase racing began about 1830,
and has continued to be a popular sport in England to this day. The most
famous steeplechase race in the world is England's Grand National, held
every year since 1839 at Aintree. Steeplechase racing is occasionally
conducted at several U.S. Thoroughbred race tracks. The most significant
race in the history of Steeplechasing is the U.S. Grand National
Steeplechase held yearly at Belmont Park.
Hurdling is a form of steeplechasing that is less physically demanding
of the horses. The obstacles consist solely of hurdles 1 to 2 ft (0.3
to 0.6 m) lower than the obstacles on a steeplechase course, and the races
are normally less than 2 mi in length. Hurdling races are often
used for training horses that will later compete in steeplechases. Horses
chosen for steeplechase training are usually Thoroughbreds selected for
their endurance, calm temperament, and larger-than-normal size. And finally,
Point-to-point races are held for amateurs on about 120 courses throughout
the British Isles. Originally run straight across country (hence the name),
these races are now conducted on oval tracks with built-in fences, often
The history of horse racing is rich in royalty, respect and the
art of gambling. It is recognised as a multi-classed sport that has evolved
from the sport of kings to a diversely entertaining hobby.