Horse racing is one of those rare sports where not much has changed in terms of basics from the time it was first started. This becomes even more amazing given that the sport has been around for many centuries. It has evolved over time, from being a showcase of strength and speed of two mighty animals to that of an entire field of them. And evolving technology in recent times has made its own significant contribution to modernizing the sport completely. One thing, however, hasn’t changed, and is not likely to change ever: the winner is the horse that comes in first, and to that horse and its owner go the spoils of victory.
So where did it all start? And how has the sport evolved over time? What are the different types of races you get to see nowadays? We will discuss all this and more on this page.
Early Days of Horse Racing
People have been riding horses from time immemorial. The first recorded instance of a horse race – both bareback as well as with chariots – was in the Greek Olympic Games between 700 and 40 BC. There is mention of horse racing in the Roman Empire as well. Horse racing in those times involved both chariots as well as riders on mounts. Horse riding and racing must also have been prevalent in Persia, Arabia, the Middle East in general and also North Africa, because horses from these regions – the Arabian, Turk, and Barb horses – came into Europe through the Crusades.
In England, the first purse for horse racing, a grand £40, involved knights riding a 3-mile course during the time of Richard the Lion-Heart. Henry VIII was responsible for importing horses into England from Italy in the 16th century, while James I was credited with sponsoring races in the country.
The Early Days of Organized Horse Racing
The father of the English turf is said to be Charles II. He was responsible for setting up Newmarket as the home of English racing. He inaugurated the Kings Plates, where six year old horses raced carrying 168 pounds. This form of racing was referred to as heat racing, as the winning horse was the one that won two heats of 4 miles. Over time, the age limit was reduced, as was the weight to be carried. By 1860, heat racing had been overtaken by dash racing, a race where the horse had to win one single heat to be declared the winner.
While this was happening in the UK, racing was also evolving in France as well as in North America. The first known instance of racing in France was in 1651. King Louis XIV put together a jockey club, and gambling-based racing was known to have happened during his reign (1643-1715). In North America, organized racing was initiated by Col. Richard Nicolls. The American thoroughbreds of that time were known for their endurance.
Modern Day Horse Racing
Modern horse racing is said to have begun with the English classics. These included the St. Leger race in 1776, the Oaks in 1779, and the Derby in 1780. Each of these involved three-year old horses indulging in dash racing. Other races that made this list included the 2000 Guineas in 1809 and the 1000 Guineas in 1814. Today, the combination of the St. Leger, the Oaks, and the 2000 Guineas together comprise the Triple Crown of racing in the UK.
There were classic horse races in France and North America as well. The French classic races include the Prix du Jockey Club (1836), the Grand Prix du Paris (1863), and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (1920). Similarly, there are classic races in America as well. These are the Belmont Stakes (1867), the Preakness Stakes (1873), and the Kentucky Derby (1875). Together, these three races comprise the American Triple Crown. Over the years, more and more countries launched their own races, further contributing to the global popularity of horse racing.