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 Horse Racing History


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  Horse Racing History


Horse Racing in Assyrian Kingdom, Babylon and Egypt

History of Horse Racing in Greco-Roman Era

The History of Horse Racing in England

Horse Racing in Spain, Italy, France and Scandinavia

Horse Racing History in United States


Horse Racing in the Ancient World

Archaeological evidence and historical artifacts prove that horse racing is probably 6000 years old. Harness racing with horses pulling chariots may be 3000 years old. Discovered carved shell cylinder dated earlier than 4000 B.C. shows Babylonian warriors driving horse-driven chariots into a battle. The horse racing in the Arab world can be traced to 3000 B.C. and earlier. Arabs trained their horses for racing by making them thirsty and letting them run to the distant water holes. The Metropolitan Museum in New York displays a statuette of an Egyptian horse and a jockey dated by 2000 B.C. Inscriptions on the tablets that belonged to the Hittites of Asia Minor and dated from 15000 B.C. give detailed instructions for training horses and the descriptions of the stables of the Assyrian kings. Organized horse racing was also conducted in ancient China, Persia and India. By 1000 B.C. selective breeding of horses with the purpose of producing the best racers was wide spread.

 Emperors Octavian and Vespasian sponsored horse races in Rome

History of Horse Racing in Greco-Roman Era

The earliest record of the mounted horse race known to us goes back to 624 B.C. when the horse race took place during 33rd Olympiad in Greece. Greeks used horses for chariot races around a circular or oval course about a mile long as well as for the horse races with riders. During the races riders often threw javelin or chased the ball playing the game similar to modern polo.

The popularity of horse races in Rome rivaled gladiator fights. Romans, as Greeks and Arabs before them, enjoyed horse racing and bet heavily on the outcome of the races. They bet money, slaves and women. The horse races included chariot races, mounted and “Roman races”. Roman horse races required a horse rider to use two horses standing with one foot on the back of each horse. During Octavian rule (27 B.C. to 14 A.D.) the Romans held a dozen horse races a day. When Vespasian came to power in 69 A.D. the number of horse races increased to 50 per day. 350000 people used to sit daily in Circus Maximus watching the races. Roman horse races were highly organized and developed. They had the racing officials supervising the games and declaring the results. The horse race tracks had the starting chutes for the horses. The Romans were also involved in the horse breeding and maintained the bloodline records and the records of the horse race results. Horse racing died out after the fall of the Roman Empire to be revived in the 12th century England by Richard I.

Horse Racing History in England

Horse racing in Britain originated during Roman invasion. The Arab horses brought in by the Romans were competing in chariot races against Celtic ponies of the local tribes. The first organized horse race in England mentioned in historical references took place at Smithfiled in 12th century. It was sponsored by King Richard the Lion-Hearted who offered forty pounds of gold for the first prize in the three-mile race. The King’s knights were the horse riders in that race. In the following centuries Kings Henry VII, Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I were interested in horse breeding and had elaborate stables but did not actively encourage horse races. King James I in the early 17th century became a great enthusiast of horse racing. He established horse racing in Epsom and Newmarket and funded prizes for the winning horse owners and jockeys. The grandson of James I – Charles II continued the interest of his grand father taking it to the new highs and the sport of horse racing really flourished during his reign. He even participated in the horse races himself and became known as the “father of the British turf”.

 King Richard I held first organized horse race in England

 King Charles II - the father of British turf

 Napoleon reestablished horse breeding in France after the French Revolution

Horse Racing in Spain, Italy, France and Scandinavia

In Scandinavian countries horse racing was not as popular as in the other European countries. Horses were bred to be war horses and to do a hard work. There is a written announcement dated 1511 by the Duke of Wurttemberg about a horse race but the interest for horse racing was very limited till 1800s, when the race track was built at Mecklenburg and the race horses were imported from England.

Horse racing in Spain was a popular sport in the medieval times. The horse breeding created famous Spanish breed- Andalusian, which was as fast as Arab horses and had as much endurance. Italian horse breeding produced the breeds, which were mostly the result of crossbreeding between Arab and Spanish breeds. Horse racing and horse breeding in the Middle Ages in France was as active and widespread as in England. The King Luis XIV was a great fan of horse racing and even offered to buy a champion racer by paying a sum of money equal its weight in gold. French aristocrats raced their studs on many racecourses in the country. French Revolution put an end to the “sport of kings”. After the revolution horse breeding was reestablished by Napoleon.

Horse Racing History in United States

The history of organized horse racing in America started in 1665 by Richard Nicolls. He was the first English governor of New York appointed by the father of British turf King Charles II. As soon as he arrived, Nicolls started the construction of the horse race track at Heampstead Plains, Long Island. The race track was called Newmarket after the course in England. The Newmarket horse races were held in the spring and fall. The silver cups were offered to the winners.

Before 1665 the informal horse races were popular in the South of the country. Many took place in the outskirts of Jamestown, Virginia. The horses that ran in the South of the country were mixes between Spanish Andalusian breed and Arab horses. The horses competing in the North of the country were mostly imported from England. Eventually horse race tracks with organized horse racing were built in the South at Williamsburg, Alexandria and Fredericksburg in Virginia and at Annapolis in Maryland. George Washington loved horse races and had his horses competing in Alexandria and Annapolis. He even served as a steward for Alexandria track Jockey Club.

The first half of the 19th century saw a great horse racing rivalry between the North and South parts of the country. The breeders from both parts of the country were trying to produce the fastest runners and win the first prize at the regular North-South horse races. Those races continued till the beginning of the Civil War.

In the second half of the 19th century the promoters of the horse racing sport began to build horse race tracks near the resort cities to have more spectators during the horse races. The first such track was opened in 1865 in Saratoga Springs, New York famous for its mineral waters. In 1869 the group of horse racing entrepreneurs built the Monmouth Park race track in Long Brand, New Jersey, which at that time was already a popular resort. The famous Kentucky Derby was established in 1875. The race track was built few miles outside of Louisville.

 Copyright Progress Publishing Co. 2006

Selected References:

John Scarne  New Complete Guide to Gambling The Gambling Times Guide to Winning Systems
Kelso Sturgeon  Guide to Sports Betting Alice Fleming  Something for Nothing/A History of Gambling
Carl Sifakis  The Encyclopedia of Gambling Alan Wykes   The Complete Illustrated Guide to Gambling