Horse racing (often called "racing") is an equestrian sport that exists in a number of forms including harness racing and endurance racing. The term is generally applied to what is technically called thoroughbred racing, involving horse and jockey in races over short to moderate distances run at a fast pace.
Horse racing is one of the world's oldest sports and, by the end of the 18th century, it had become one of three major professional sports being contested in Great Britain. The other two were cricket and boxing aka prizefighting. All three developed through the interests of gambling and patronage but, unlike cricket and boxing, racing retained very close links with the gambling industry to the extent that they are now completely reliant on each other. Racing is also closely associated with the horse breeding industry and successful horses can make huge sums for their owners in the provision of stud services, the aim of which is to breed future champion racehorses.
Modern horse racing developed in Great Britain and Ireland. British and Irish racing have two classes: flat racing and National Hunt (aka steeplechasing). A flat race is run over a set distance without obstacles. A National Hunt race is run over a set distance but with a number of hurdles or fences to be negotiated. In other countries, flat racing predominates.
Note. All are flat races unless stated otherwise.
- Champion Hurdle (National Hunt)
- Champion Chase (National Hunt)
- Cheltenham Gold Cup (National Hunt)
- Grand National (National Hunt)
- 1,000 Guineas Stakes
- 2,000 Guineas Stakes
- Epsom Derby
- Epsom Oaks
- St Leger Stakes
- King George VI Chase (National Hunt)
Development of racing in Great Britain and Ireland
It is generally believed that the first races to take place in England were organised by soldiers of the Roman Empire in Yorkshire during the 2nd century. The first definitely recorded race dates from 1174 during the reign of Henry II at a fair in Smithfield, London.
In 1512, there is evidence of a trophy being presented to the winner of a race at a fair in Chester; it was a small wooden ball decorated with flowers. Around the same time, Henry VIII imported a large number of stallions and mares for breeding, but it was not until the 17th and 18th centuries that modern methods of thoroughbred breeding were introduced.
In 1605, Newmarket became known as the home of horse racing in England after its discovery by James I who was touring the area, which already had a long association with horses going back to the time of Boadicea. By 1634, spring and autumn race meetings had been introduced at Newmarket and the first Gold Cup event was held that year.
Racing was briefly impacted when it was banned in 1654 by the republican government of Oliver Cromwell. Many horses were requisitioned by the state. Racing recovered and flourished after the Restoration in 1660. In 1664, Charles II instituted the Newmarket Town Plate and wrote its rules himself:
Articles ordered by His Majestie to be observed by all persons that put in horses to ride for the Plate, the new round heat at Newmarket set out on the first day of October, 1664, in the 16th year of our Sovereign Lord King Charles II, which Plate is to be rid for yearly, the second Thursday in October for ever.
In 1711, Queen Anne, who kept a large string of racehorses, organised racing at the village of East Cote, now known as Ascot, near Windsor Castle. She founded the Royal Ascot meeting where one of the main events each year is still called the Queen Anne Stakes.
In 1740, the British Parliament introduced an Act "to restrain and to prevent the excessive increase in horse racing", though it was largely ignored. In 1752, the Jockey Club was founded to establish rules for British racing. It remained the governing body of the sport until 1993 when it handed over control to the new British Horseracing Board.
Also in 1752, the first recorded steeplechase took place in County Cork over a distance of 4.5 miles between the towns of Buttevant and Doneraile. The name of this type of race was derived from the practice of racing the horses across country by going from church steeple to church steeple. In 1758, the Society of Sportsmen of the Curragh, a precursor of the Irish Turf Club was founded.
In 1776, the first "classic" race took place with the introduction of the St Leger Stakes, run annually at Doncaster. The first winner was Allabaculia. In 1779, the inaugural Epsom Oaks was run at Epsom and won by Bridget. A year later, Epsom Derby was introduced and won by Diomed. 1809 saw the first running of the 2,000 Guineas Stakes at Newmarket, won by Wizard; and the last of English racing's classics, the 1,000 Guineas Stakes was introduced at Newmarket in 1814 and won by Charlotte.
The world's most famous steeplechase traces its origin to 1836 with the inaugural running of the Great Liverpool Steeplechase at Aintree in Liverpool. Three years later, it became the Grand National. The first winner was The Duke, ridden by Captain Martin Becher, after whom Becher's Brook would be named.
Racing's first "wonder horse" was Formosa who, in 1868, became the first winner of four classic races in a single year, although one was a dead heat. Formosa, a three year-old filly, won the 1000 Guineas, the Oaks and the St Leger outright but dead-heated with Moslem in the 2000 Guineas.
The first great steeplechaser was The Lamb, the first horse to win the Grand National twice: in 1868 and 1871.
The first Cheltenham Festival was held in 1902 at Prestbury Park, Cheltenham. Held every March, it is National Hunt racing's greatest showcase and is hugely popular with Irish racegoers. In 1904, a race called the National Hunt Steeplechase was introduced and, in 1924 when it was won by Red Splash, this became the Cheltenham Gold Cup which is the world's most prestigious steeplechase in terms of the racing industry, although the Grand National is still the most popular event. The Gold Cup was the first of the Cheltenham Festival's four Championship races: the Champion Hurdle was introduced in 1927, the Queen Mother Champion Chase in 1959 and the Stayers Hurdle in 1972.
The King George VI Chase is the second most prestigious chase in England. Open to horses aged four years or older, it is run at Kempton Park over a distance of about 3 miles (i.e., 4,828 metres) with 18 fences. First held in 1937, when it was won by Southern Hero, it traditionally takes place on 26 December (Boxing Day). Two horses, Desert Orchid and Kauto Star, have won it four times.
Probably the greatest steeplechaser ever, Golden Miller won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in five successive years from 1932 to 1936. In 1934, he also competed in the Grand National and won in a then course record time. Golden Miller was owned by the eccentric Dorothy Paget who also had the double (1932–33) Champion Hurdle winner Insurance.
Golden Miller's main challengers for the title of greatest-ever steeplechaser are Arkle, the Irish horse who won the Gold Cup three times from 1964 to 1966 and the Irish Grand National in 1964; and Red Rum, a Grand National specialist who won three times and was second twice in his five attempts between 1973 and 1977.
Among the greatest flat racers in British and Irish racing have been Nijinsky II, Sir Ivor, Brigadier Gerard and Dancing Brave. The greatest jockeys have arguably been Gordon Richards and Lester Piggott on the flat and Tony McCoy in National Hunt.
Development of racing in North America
The first recognised race meeting took place in 1665 at another course named Newmarket, which was on the Salisbury Plains section of what is now Nassau County, New York on Long Island. The American Stud Book was started in 1868 and it initiated organised racing. There were 314 tracks operating in the United States by 1890 and in 1894, the American Jockey Club was formed.
However, the first North American classic was the Queen's Plate which was initiated by the Toronto Turf Club in 1859 to be run for the first time in June 1860. The Queen's Plate is run over 1¼ miles by 3-year-old thoroughbred horses foaled in Canada and is the oldest race for thoroughbreds in North America. The first winner was Don Juan.
On 3 August 1863, Saratoga racecourse opened at Saratoga Springs, New York and claims to be the oldest organised sporting venue of any kind in the United States. The Travers Stakes for three year-olds was first run there in 1864.
The oldest of America's "Triple Crown" races, the Belmont Stakes was first run in June 1867 at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York. The winner was Ruthless. The Preakness Stakes was introduced in 1873 at Pimlico racecourse in Baltimore and won by Survivor. The Kentucky Derby was first held in May 1875 on Churchill Downs near Louisville, Kentucky when the winner was Aristides.
In 1919, Sir Barton was the first winner of the complete Triple Crown, winning all three races.
The Breeders' Cup is an annual championship series operated by Breeders' Cup Limited, a company formed in 1982. Inaugurated in 1984, it now takes place over two days and is held at a different venue each year.
Development of racing elsewhere
In 1861, the inaugural running of the Melbourne Cup in Australia was won by Archer. The Melbourne Cup is a race for three-year-olds and above, over a distance of 3,200 metres (approximately two miles).
The Japan Cup was introduced in 1981 when it was won by Mairzy Doates (USA). It is held annually at the end of November on Tokyo racecourse in Fuchu over a distance of 2.4 km (about 1.5 miles). It is the world's richest race that is run on turf.
The Dubai World Cup has been held annually since 1996 at Nad Al Sheba in Dubai. The first winner was Cigar (USA). It is run on a dirt track and, with a prize of $10 million (i.e., USD) in 2010, is the world's richest race.