Horse Racing History
Table of Contents
Ever since horses were domesticated many thousands of years ago, man has been using them for some form of sporting amusement. As we all know, charioteering was popular in the Roman Empire and that harnessed horse power but the art of racing horses against each other has been with us for much longer.
There is some conjecture on the subject but many reports trace horse racing back to around 4500 BC when the nomadic tribesmen of Central Asia began to compete against each other on horseback.
We’ve truly come a long way from those early days into a time when interest in horse racing is at its peak. Events such as the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Melbourne Cup and the Prix de L’arc de Triomphe carry global appeal but just how has the sport evolved over thousands of years? Let’s learn some more about horse racing history.
So we’ve established those early origins but we’re still some way away from modern day horse racing. How did the sport become organised to the point where horses and their horse racers, known as jockeys now compete against each other around a track? Aside from those early incarnations that we’ve already mentioned, it’s claimed that the early Olympics in Ancient Greece also featured chariot and mounted horse racing even before the Roman Empire.
We assume that the pastime of horse racing carried on in many forms across hundreds and thousands of years but we now need to take a leap into the 12th century. More specifically, we’re talking about the time when English knights came back from the crusades and were accompanied by some pacy Arab stallions. This was very much a game changer as far as horse racing sport was concerned as these imports were used to breed with British mares and soon, we had a new species of super horse that could outrun anything that had previously been seen.
Horse racing evolution continued and private racing started to thrive but we’re a few hundred years away from the sport as we know it today.
Keen horse racing enthusiasts will know that many of the top class races of the modern era can trace their horse racing history back for many hundreds of years. Taking the Epsom Derby as an example, this is an event that was first incepted in 1780, making it one of the oldest recognised sporting races in Great Britain.
In other parts of the world, the horse racing situation is similar and if we look at the Melbourne Cup in Australia, that’s a horse race that has been on the calendar since 1861. To consider the history of these, and other major horse races, we come from the 12th century to the 18th.
The introduction of those Arabian horses was undoubtedly an important move in the history of horse racing but little change once they had been established. Horse racing, in its form at the time, was very much an exclusive pastime of the nobility and it failed to move into the public mainstream.
All Hail the Queen
Modern day horse racing enthusiasts largely have betting to thank for the way in which the sport has broken into the public domain. In the modern day, the two have an unbreakable link and that bond began to grow under the reign of Queen Anne. This is a time when horse racing began to become a professional sport and the horse races themselves began to develop.
Up until this point, the majority of horse racing was carried out on a single match basis where two racing horses would literally compete against each other. Among the nobility, it was more about the skill of the rider than the beast and that’s partly why horse racing was restricted in this way. Wagering did exist but it was all about backing one horse or the other and while this was pleasurable and occasionally profitable, there was plenty of scope for change.
The obvious step up from this point was to include multiple racing horses in one event. More horses and jockeys were needed and this is where the sport started to turn professional. Many people saw the potential of this and from here, horse racing really started to evolve. Records indicate that organised horse racing had been held in York since the early 1600s and there were other, isolated horse races taking place in other parts of the country but this is the point when matters started to get serious.
By the start of the 18th century, we already had a number of established racecourses: all horse racing was banned by Oliver Cromwell in 1654, but after his rule, Newmarket had been established in 1667 and there were similar horse racing venues in existence but the first half of the next century saw a racecourse boom.
Along with the additional set of venues, more big horse races were established and placed on the sporting calendar. This was the largest period of significant growth for the sport but as horse racing started to burgeon, a governing body was needed in order to oversee it all.
The Jockey Club
Newmarket racecourse was to become a focal point for the sport in 1750 when the Jockey Club was formed. The organization still stands in the present day and it is there to uphold the rules of the horse racing sport and to aid with its further development.
In those early years, there was a need for the sport to be regulated and for all professional horse racing meetings to follow an agreed set of rules. The Jockey Club maintains those horse racing rules in the present and it has also overseen the question of breeding within the sport.
Over time, the sport of horse racing continued to develop and we’ll shortly look at how our modern day favourite horse racing meetings came into being. For now, while we’ve considered the evolution of the sport in the UK, it’s time to look at how horse racing progressed in other parts of the world.
The British remain at the forefront of horse racing development and settlers took the sport into many corners of the globe. If we take the United States as an example, we find that the first racetrack was opened on Long Island as early as 1665.
Horse racing continued in the US but there was a lack of organisation until the end of the American Civil War in 1868. It was around this time that the American Stud book was started and the sport began to develop from this point onwards. Horse racing went through something of a chequered history in the US that included legislation on gambling and the prohibition years and while sports betting is still outlawed in some parts of the country, horse racing remains hugely popular as a spectator sport.
The story involving the United States is similar to other countries around the world. In Australia, horse racing is said to have taken place in Sydney in 1790, not longer after the colony was actually settled. In France, as it was in England, royalty played an important part in early horse racing which can be dated back to the 17th century.
In the modern era, Ireland is an extremely vital hub for the horse racing sport. Here, we can trace things all the way back to 60 AD. Ancient Celtic documents tell us that Chariot Racing was held at an area known as the Curragh around this time and horse racing enthusiasts will know that The Curragh is now one of the most famous horse race courses in the world. Interest then spread from the UK in the 17th century and from this point, organised professional horse racing began to take place.
Great Meetings Develop
We’ve traced the early history of horse racing in certain parts of the world so let’s now take a look at how some of our most iconic horse racing meetings came into being. At the start of this round up, we mentioned that the Epsom Derby was first run in 1780 and this remains one of the most important flat races in the modern day.
The horse race was named after the Earl of Derby whose family was responsible for bringing horse racing to the Isle of Man. At the first running of the Oaks a year earlier, it was announced that the prestigious flat race would be held at Epsom Downs. It was to be named after either the 12th Earl of Derby or Sir Charles Bunbury and folklore has it that a toss of the coin determined the winner.
The Bunbury Cup at Newmarket was later incepted but this was very much a consolation prize. The Derby is by far the most famous of the two and is set to continue its long and illustrious horse racing history.
The Oaks and the Derby are part of the five ‘classics’ and they are joined by the St Leger, the 2000 Guineas and the 1000 Guineas races. In the UK, the most famous horse race of all is the Grand National but this didn’t come along until relatively recently in 1839.
Over the Jumps
The inception of the Grand National in 1839 also brings us onto the next important phase in the development of horse racing – the formation of the National Hunt Committee in 1865. Within the horse racing sport, there are two disciplines – flat racing, which simply involves running around a level track with no obstacles and National Hunt which includes fences.
There is some debate on the subject but many see the Grand National as the greatest National Hunt race of them all. It was a purpose built horse race and was the brainchild of one William Lynn who leased land at Aintree from the 2nd Earl of Sefton. The famous old horse racing course at Aintree was duly completed and officially opened in 1829.
As for the Grand National itself, there is a little dispute as to when the first running took place although the official version puts it at 1839. There were, however, three earlier incarnations but these have generally been discarded in the belief that they were held at nearby Maghull. In the 21st Century, the Grand National is one of the most important horse races for the bookmakers as it brings out the casual horse racing punter who might only place one bet per year. It’s a huge test of endurance for both horse and jockey and it brings the horse racing public to a halt whenever it takes place in early April.
The Greatest Festivals
The Epsom Derby and the Grand National are both examples of great one-off horse races but other top class horse runnings form part of a festival of racing. The Cheltenham Gold Cup is a fine example of this and here we have a horse race that many hold in higher prestige than the Grand National.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup is the pinnacle of four days of racing at the Cheltenham Festival, Held in March each year, there are seven horse races on each of those four days and there is an especially high density of Group One renewals taking place. The Champion Bumper, the Stayers Hurdle and the Queen Mother Champion Chase are just three of many group ones to be held at the festival.
The very first Cheltenham Festival was held in 1860 and it has developed in over 150 years to become one of the most important horse racing meetings within the sport.
Away from Cheltenham, racegoers will eagerly await the arrival of Royal Ascot which takes place in July of each year. The horse racing history of this festival dates back to 1911 when the third week of June was given over to Royal equine races.
At Royal Ascot, we have five days of horse racing and it’s estimated that some 300,000 people will pour through the gates in any given year. Starting on Tuesday with the prestigious Queen Anne Stakes, there is another high density of Group One renewals across those five days including the Coronation Cup, The Commonwealth Stakes and the Gold Cup.
Horse racing festivals are held up and down the UK and there are some top class events in Ireland too. There’s just too many horse races to mention but they all add up to form a rich horse racing tapestry.
The Big Ones Overseas
At the very start of this horse racing history review, we touched on two important horse races outside of the UK – the Melbourne Cup and the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe. Held in Australia and France respectively, they are world class renewals but they are just part of a historic racing landscape around the world.
Australians are mad about their racing and while most of the attention falls on the Melbourne Cup, there are many other high class horse races taking place right across the country. The Spring and Autumn horse racing carnivals are two big focal points and among the many important runnings, the Caulfield Cup, The Golden Slipper and – a new entrant – the Everest – are up there with the best.
But it’s the Melbourne Cup that captures the most interest and it’s been dubbed as ‘the horse race that stops a nation.’ The horse racing event dates back to 1861 and was originally contested by 17 runners. A test of endurance, often in searing heat, the winner is always guaranteed a place in Australian horse racing folklore.
The Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe – often referred to simply as the Arc – was first run in 1920 and through many of the early years it was backed by French government funding. It has also enjoyed a long run as the richest horse race in the world but in recent times that mantle has been passed to Australia’s The Everest.
The United States can also be added to this list through the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders Cup. The latter of those two horse racing events is a festival of racing across two days while the Kentucky Derby is a single horse running that takes place at Churchill Downs every year. First held back in 1875, the Kentucky Derby is known in the United States as the ‘most exciting two minutes in sports’ although clearly there is some dispute over this claim amongst other horse races around the world.
Elsewhere, other famous horse races include The Dubai World Cup, the Pegasus World Cup Invitational and the Japan Cup. Each one is a worthy addition to the list of top class events and they just add to this rich history of horse racing.
Betting Plays its Part
Horse racing has never been in a better place but it couldn’t have achieved this without the betting community to back it up. From those very early days of those gentlemen’s wagers, all the way through to the online bookmaking of the present day, finance generated from betting has helped the horse racing sport to thrive.
In fact, many neutral observers state that the sport wouldn’t have survived through some difficult times without the support of the gambling industry. In 1928, the Tote was formed and horse racing began to directly benefit from those who were staking at the track. At certain points in time, betting tax has also been applied but that doesn’t apply to individual horse racing bettors in the present day.
Another way in which the gambling industry directly benefits horse racing is through sponsorship. Many brands get behind the big horse races while others, with smaller budgets, look to sponsor the smaller horse racing events. Race courses also benefit from commercial partnerships with sportsbook operators and overall, this is a thriving sector.
Financial assistance of this kind helps to ensure the future of horse racing all over the world. It’s had a rich history and deserves to be preserved as we look ahead to many more years of thrills and entertainment on the track.
Horse Racing Sponsorship
The sport of horse racing has benefitted from sponsorship and other commercial partner deals for some time and there’s every reason to believe that this kind of support will continue. It’s a competitive market out there and with horse racing listed as the second most popular sport for the betting community – just behind football – there are hundreds of bookies battling for their share.
So, just who is getting involved and how does this all work?
In the modern, digital age, lots of sportsbooks look to sponsor race meetings and courses but the practise dates back many years – long before the birth of the internet. Operators who have been around for decades such as Ladbrokes, Coral and BetFred have been involved with commercial sponsorship and horse racing has benefitted as a result.
At one point in time, Coral have sponsored both the Welsh and the Scottish Grand Nationals and we also have the Coral Cup at the Cheltenham Festival. Ladbrokes, meanwhile, can include their winter festival and both operators have declared an ongoing dedication to support horse racing as much as they can.
Along with other bookies who started out in the field of physical betting shops, Ladbrokes, Coral and BetFred have backed horse racing from the 1970s through to the mid 90s when the first digital sportsbooks started to get involved with race sponsorship. They continue that backing in the present day but the difference is that there are more and more operators getting involved.
What are the Opportunities?
Those involved in the industry that want to know how to sponsor horse racing have a number of opportunities. In fact, these options extend beyond straightforward race sponsorship and they can extend to cover entire meetings or one specific racecourse.
There is also the opportunity to sponsor one big meeting that comes fully under the spotlight or, sportsbooks with smaller budgets can look at more modest options.
For example, at the start of January 2020 it was revealed that MansionBet had entered into an agreement with Horse Racing Ireland to cover no fewer than 60 events up and down the country. There were no major races under that umbrella but their race sponsorship would include many televised runs and that would gain attention among racegoers and those watching at home on TV.
If we move to Ayr which is a nice, professional race course but certainly not one with the highest profile, the operators run a page on their site detailing all the available racing sponsorship which Coral, amongst others, have taken advantage of.
If, however, we cross over to Cheltenham which can draw in tens of thousands during any given day of festival week, the available packages are considerably more expensive. They are, however, snapped up by the bigger operators within the industry including Unibet and Betway.
For those asking how to sponsor a race, there are lots of ways in which to do this. Most, if not all courses will have a race sponsorship page on their official site which details packages and there is also a central database listing contact information for those who are interested.
One thing looks certain; the trend for sponsorships seems set to continue and that can only help with the development and the continued growth of horse racing.