The History Of Horse Racing

With the emergence of online betting, the ‘Sport of Kings’ has attracted new audiences who, rather than standing trackside studying the form guide, would prefer to place their bets from the comfort of their own home.

Spread betting on horse racing has become a popular way of adding excitement to the big race but whilst a new type of punter is becoming immersed in the world of horse race betting, the history of the sport may be somewhat of an alien concept. There is evidence that horse racing became a professional sport in this country as early as the 12th century, when the English knights returned from the Crusades with Arab horses. This is the breed of horse that is used in horse racing today.

Records show that racing took place in that period, at Smithfield in London and at the famous Roodeye track in the centre of Chester. As racing became more and more popular through the ages, the breeding of racehorses developed with the continued imports of Arabian stallions. Every thoroughbred horse in this country now, can have his or her pedigree traced back to the three Arabian stallions, Godolphin Arabian, Byerley Turk, and Darley Arabian who bred with British mares, back in the late 17th and early 18th century.

From the early 1800’s only horses that could be called “Thoroughbreds” were allowed to race in this country professionally, and had to be listed in the General Stud Book which is still an important item today. Horse Racing is also known as the ‘Sport of Kings’. The nickname originated from the association of James I with the sport. The monarch had a palace built near a little known village called Newmarket. This town was beginning to become prosperous, especially after a neighbouring village called Exning caught a plague, and all week-end markets had to be moved to another nearby town which was called New market.

Newmarket became the home of organised horse racing in Britain, and during the reigns of Charles I and Charles II continued to grow in popularity especially with the masses. Most races were between two horses on private courses or open fields, with normally a ‘Silver Bell’ given to the winner. Under the reign of Queen Anne, horse racing started to involve several horses running against one another in races. Spectators were finally and publically allowed to place horse racing bets, and racecourses were founded throughout Britain. This included Ascot which was founded by Queen Anne in 1711. In 1750 horse racing’s elite met at Newmarket to form the Jockey Club. They wrote a comprehensive set of rules for horse racing and a code of conduct for horserace meetings throughout the land. In other words the Jockey Club were to oversee and control horse racing in England. This became the first regulated sport in this country. The late 18th century saw the certain races becoming the ultimate tests for racehorses. These were known as ‘Classic’ races and are still run today. The five races were for three-year-old horses.

The oldest classic was the St Leger which was founded around 1776, but the most famous and world renowned race is the Derby. The story of how the race was named is that Sir Charles Bunbury and the Earl of Derby tossed a coin for the naming of the race. The Earl of Derby won the toss, but by coincidence Sir Charles Bunbury won the inaugural running of the Derby in 1780 when owning the winner Diomed. Technological innovations in the 19th century led to horse racing becoming the most popular sport in the country with millions of people watching.

There was a marked increase in gambling and also in newspaper coverage. On course bookmakers had to adhere to a code of conduct from the Jockey Club which included discipline and integrity, which ensured the sport continued to prosper. The famous Admiral Rouse produced the first form of handicapping horses in races. This was supposed to result in all horses crossing the winning line together! Some of his methods of handicapping are still used today. Horse racing was one of only two sports that continued during both world wars. After the Second World War, technical innovations such as the ‘Photo Finish’ (1947) and starting stalls for flat races (1965) were introduced as horse racing continued as a thriving industry. In 1961 betting away from racecourses became legalised as the first ‘Betting Shop’ on the high street opened. This prompted the immortal quote from Scottish bookmaker John Banks ‘that betting shops were a licence to print money’. It however dramatically increased the volume of betting turnover. Today, online horse race betting continues to draw new audiences to the sport.

In the 1950’s and 60’s television brought horse racing into the nation’s living rooms and it is now only second to football as the most widely televised sport. There are now 60 racecourses in this country, and turnover on the Derby at Epsom in June, can reach nearly 50 million pounds. The highlight for many in the racing calendar is the ‘Cheltenham National Hunt Festival in March. This is racing over steeplechases and hurdles, and continues for four days, the highlight being the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The sport developed from the English and Irish past time of foxhunting, when hunters would test the speed of their mounts during the cross-country chase. Organised steeplechase racing began in 1830 and the most famous steeplechase in the world is the Grand National which started in 1839 and is run at Aintree in Liverpool.

Hurdle racing is often used for training horses that will later compete in steeplechases. Point to Point races are for amateurs and are run on over 100 courses throughout the British Isles. Originally run across the country from one point to another (hence the name) they are often found on farmlands with built-in fences.

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