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Horse Racing History

Horse Racing History

History of horse racingPeople have been riding horses for more than 50,000 years, and there is evidence that horses were used in the sport already by the Egyptians. In this article, we are looking at how horse racing has developed as a sport in the UK.

You will discover that the first recorded horse race was commissioned by Charles II and that Queen Anne created Ascot. We looked at when racing was banned by Oliver Cromwell and when the British Classics and National Hunt jump racing started.

Egyptians, Romans & Ancient Greeks

Horses and people relationship is a very long one: already the Egyptians, Greeks, Babylonians and Syrians learned how to domesticate horses and use them in battles and a working animal.

Since they were mostly used to carry loads or for hunting, early horses were more muscular and usually had shorter legs and greater stamina. The Greeks and Romans were the first to start breeding horses in the right way and to use them more for speed than for their physical strengths.

Racing In The Middle Ages & Medieval

Horses and middle agesWith the end of the Roman empire, the structured sporting events with horses didn’t disappear, but the animals were mostly used to cover vast distances.

In the west horses continued to be associated with the rich and the relationship became so close that it seems impossible to think at an English king that is not riding on a horse. At the time if you were important in society, you had to have a perfect horse. Nobility would compete in Europe in contests that always had horses at the centre.

In the 12th century, the crusaders arrived in Arabia, and Arab animals were introduced: new breeds of horses were therefore available.

In England, the first races took place under King Athelstan’s in the 9th century. Horses, however, were used for leisure or hunting as horse meetings weren’t existing. There were some informal horse racing in major festivals.

16th Century, Henry VIII & Kings’ Sport

With the development of new weapons, the use of horses on the battlefield started to decrease. Horses were therefore used more for sport and also to show status with many being imported. The first horse racing meetings began to take place during this time: in 1512 a trophy was given to the winner of Chester fair while the Kiplingcotes Derby was firstly held in 1519.

17th Century

When Elizabeth I took the reign in the last part of the 16th century the horse racing started to decline: this was probably due to people that were following the habits of their Queen that obviously didn’t like horse racing. Things changed though in 1605 when James I found Newmarket and started to do horse racing there. Newmarket is, therefore, known as the original home of horse racing with the king that was spending more time racing horses than in London running the country.

After Newmarket lots of races meetings started to take place across the country some in Yorkshire, others in Enfield etc. In 1634 the first Newmarket gold cup took place. Horse racing continued to develop under Charles I: horse racing had become a sport that it was compulsory to be involved if you were noble. It was also called the ‘sport of kings’.

Oliver Cromwell Ban and Charles II

Oliver CromwellAfter the civil war, England was a Puritan republic ruled by Oliver Cromwell. He decided to ban horse racing in 1654 as he thought men should do more useful sports like combat and archery rather than play with balls or horse racing. Also, he needed a new army to continue his plan in Ireland and to keep Royalists and Catholics under control in England: to do so, he took lots of horses from nobles to use them in war.

After Cromwell died, Charles II came back to the throne and England was a monarchy once again. Charles II reinstated Newmarket and horse racing and also in 1664 wrote the rules of the sport himself.


Humans have been bred horses for more than 50,000 to find the traits that suited them in that particular time. The Romans were the first to breed on a big scale, but when horse racing become a significant sport under Charles II, breeders and owners became deeply involved in selecting the features they needed for their horses to perform.

All the thoroughbreds we have nowadays come from three horses that were imported in Europe at the beginning of 1700: Byerley Turk, Godolphin Barb and Darley Arabian. These Arabian stallions that had long necks, high tails and quite large frames were mated with British mares. The breed that came out was perfect for a medium distance fast pace as he had the right balance of speed and stamina.

The 18th Century and Queen Anne

royal ascotAfter Charles II was death in 1685 brother, James II took over because Charles didn’t have legitimate children. But it was James’ daughter Queen Anne, that managed to get horse racing to a new level when she took the reign in 1702.

Queen Anne had a vast number of horses and also founded in 1711 Royal Ascot after he identified the place as particularly suitable for racing. The prize pool was 100 Guineas, and 7 horses competed. The love affair with horse racing started to go beyond the elite into the lower classes. In 1840 the Queen Anne’s Stakes was firstly run in honour of Queen Anne.

The Jockey Club in 1750

Racing had become a professional sport in the mid-1700s. In 1750 many high society groups met at the Star & Garter Pub in London with the intention of setting up The Jockey Club that would regulate the horse racing sport. The group met again in 1752 in Newmarket and issued rules that would govern British Horse Racing. The Jockey Club has been in place since 2006 while now the regulation is made by the British Horseracing authority.

The Jockey Club has created lots of classic British races like Aintree, Epsom, Cheltenham, Newmarket to name a few. Even if Jockey Club was an elitist organisation, it is fair to say that horse racing wouldn’t have reached the success it had in Britain without it.

The Classic & Flat Racing

Until the mid-1800’s only flat racing was considered to be a professional sport. This was due to the types of horses used (which were younger and faster) and also due to the flat nature of South-England where the majority of courses were taking place.

The Jockey Club managed to standardise the rules and thanks to this more and more courses were born across the UK. This helped with the establishment of five ‘Classics’ flat races dedicated to 3 yrs old thoroughbreds in 1815:

The Epsom Derby Stakes & Oaks Stakes

Racing started here in 1778, but by 1815 the two races were the central focus of the Epsom Fair which was very popular and followed by many in the south of England.

Newmarket 1000 & 2000 Guineas

The 2000 Guineas was created by Charles Bunbury in 1809 and 5 years later it was followed by the 1000 Guineas. The race was for 3 yrs old colts and fillies and had the price of 2000 Guineas. Five years later a rate for fillies only was launched and had prize money of 1000 Guineas. Both are since part of the Newmarket festival which is hosted once a year.

St Leger

This race was established by army officer and policeman that were living near Doncaster. The first race took place in 1776 and was opened to colt and fillies.

History Of National Hunt Racing

History of Grand NationalNational Hunt as it is currently known was originated in Ireland where jump racing is traditionally preferred to flat racing. These races need to have stronger horses that have to be more matured compared with flat racing: lots of flat horses progress to jump later in their life. Jump races are also significantly longer than flat races.

Since it originates in Ireland jump racing has always been seen closer to the working class then flat. National Hunt also has some flat races that are called bumpers where beginners horses and jockeys start to get familiar with this type of racing. Jump racing is divided into steeplechases and hurdles.

Races started in the 1700s and were called ‘pounding races’ as it usually was a race between just two horses. Horses would run over long distances and try to overcome any obstacles in their way. Races of this kind happened in 1752 in County Cork in Ireland with horses racing from a church steeple in one town to another town.

More organised steeplechases began in England at the beginning of the 19th century and came with the Irish. The St Albans steeplechase was the first place wherein 1830 racing took place over local obstacles: this is, therefore, the first major British steeplechase. Aintree Grand National, which is the world’s most famous steeplechase, was firstly run in 1839.

Jump Racing Was Seen In Bad Light by Upper Class

Jump racing has always been seen in a bad light by the upper class because was imported and close to the working class. In 1860 there was the formation of the National Hunt Committee, and National Hunt started to appear in many racecourses like Aintree, Derby, Leicester, Sandown and more.
The first Cheltenham meeting was held in 1904 and 1905, and over the years it became the most important and famous festival in the world for jumping. By 1920’s top races like Cheltenham Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle and Aintree Grand National pushed National Hunt to an entirely new level regarding popularity.

National Hunt racing popularity has now overcome flat racing. Jump racing, however, is happening during the winter while flat racing during the summer and this has helped the two forms of racing to continue to exist both. Since jump racing is for most horses the continuation of flat racing career, the two types of the sport have now well amalgamated.

Gambling & Betting Relationship With Horse Racing

It is not easy to establish a precise moment when gambling started the relationship with horse racing. The Romans, for example, used to gamble on chariot racing even though it was completely unregulated and informal.

In modern times, the standardisation of horse racing made gambling possible: scheduled races were introduced, and rules established by Charles II allowed punters to understand the sport better and also make predictions on horse racing.

When thoroughbred horses started to be used together with weights systems betting on horses become very popular indeed. At the very beginning, it was only the elite that would take part on a horse race. The sport however opened up to a lot more social classes in the 19th century and this allowed the arrival of private bookmakers that were taking bets on the different race courses.

1928 Betting Act

Even though gambling was illegal under the Victorians, it was virtually impossible to stop it. In 1928 the UK government decided to create the racecourse betting act that permitted bookmakers to accept bets at the racecourse and also established the Horserace Totalisator Board also known as The Tote. This game ensured that the government could get a piece of the betting action with the taxes.

The Betting Levy Act was created in 1961 to combat the illegal betting halls. With this act for the first time, off-site betting was allowed, and lots of bookmakers started to open shops on the high street: it was, therefore, possible to bet on any race everywhere in the UK.

The working class started to bet regularly on horse racing, and the popularity of the sport increased in the nation. With the arrival of the new millennium, online betting began to take over, and the relationship between horse racing and betting continued to be very strong: it was now possible to bet from the comfort of your home on any race in the world and even watch it in live stream.

Horse Racing Nowadays

Betting on CheltenhamToday we are all very much spoilt when it comes to betting on horse racing. With online betting, we can watch and bet on horse racing nearly 365 days a year. In addition to betting online, you can, of course, make a visit to the race courses with the industry that in the UK is worth around £5 billion. Surely horse racing is part of British culture.

With the British empire horse racing has been introduced in other parts of the world: depending on the location you will find many different tracks and distances. Lots of big races around the world are called with names that remember the British Classic: for example the Kentucky Derby and others.

What is the Future Of Horse Racing?

It is not entirely true that horse racing is just a traditional sport that is not impacted by technology. Of course, jockey and horse haven’t changed in the last 300 years, but if we take a look behind the scene, the sport has completely changed in recent times. Today horses are bred to an entirely new level with studs that are worth millions of pounds. Horse racing is a massive business, and it is here to stay.

Although there was a drop on track attendances in the 1980s and 90s the situation has completely reversed: more than 1,000,000 are attending Cheltenham Festival and Aintree every year making these some of the highest attended sports events in the whole globe.