Horse racing has been around for thousands of years, and competitions involving horse racing can be traced back to as early as the time of the Greek, Babylonian, and Roman empires. Norse mythology also has mentioned of horse races, especially the races between the mounts of Hrungir, the giant, and Lord Odin.
Racing events in the Greek, Roman, and other civilizations involved mostly chariot racing and horse racing. This was highly exciting and also highly dangerous to both the mount as well as the rider, because in the absence of safety gear in those times, a small mishap could mean grievous injury and even death. And that is what also made chariot racing highly popular among the audience back.
In ancient Greece, horse and chariot racing were part of the Greek Olympics in 648 BC. The Romans loved horse racing and chariot racing too: from the middle of the 15th century till about 1882, a horse race was the closing event for the spring carnival in Rome. The track for this event was the straight stretch of road in the city that was Via del Corso and the duration was all of two and a half minutes approximately. It involved about 20 riderless horses imported from North Africa’s Barbary Coast.
Recent Horse Racing History
So when did horse racing begin to get organized into an actual sport? The first documented instance of a horse race in the USA was in 1665. That was the year in which the Newmarket horse racing track was constructed in Salisbury Plains of Long Island, New York, with the Colonial Governor of New York officiating in the first race there.
By the year 1868, more than 200 years after that first race in 1665, horse racing was slowly becoming an organized sport in the USA. The development from there was rapid: there were more than 314 tracks built by 1890, by which time the American Jockey Club was also formed. In the UK, the first instance of horse racing officially was about 300 years ago when Queen Anne bought the land where a major UK racing track, Ascot, sits today.
There were dark days around the corner as well, with betting in horse racing being banned in most states of the USA in the 1900s. That led to an enormous loss of popularity for the sport, because a huge attraction of horse racing for the public was the fact that anyone could bet on a race. This led to an amendment in the laws in 1908; anyone could bet during a race, but not against the house. This led to a gradual increase in popularity until the Second World War. Endurance racing took off in the USA in 1955, in the form of the Tevis Cup, a 100-mile race from Squaw Valley, Placer County to Auburn.
Globally, horse racing is a very popular sport today with a multi-fold increase in reach thanks to the advent of the Internet and online betting. Today, horse racing is today considered the second most attended sport in the USA today, and its popularity continues to grow worldwide.