16 Sep 2019

The History of Horse Racing

The History of Horse Racing
Racing horses is a pastime as old as the wheel. Ever since humankind first sat astride a horse, we’ve been fascinated with racing. In fact, the history of horse racing is said to date as far back as 4500 BC when the nomadic tribes of central Asia domesticated the wild horse. 

Since then, it’s been such an integral part of society throughout the world that it’s quite possibly one of the oldest known sports aside from some forms of athletics such as wrestling and, of course, running cross country.

The Roman Races 

We’ve all seen the old films such as Ben Hur with that epic chariot race. And the truth is, that this is perhaps where the modern age of betting on horse races began. The crowds would gather in the stands and place bets on their favourite horseman who would then race at breakneck speeds around the arena.

It gave the people a taste for equine sports and the Romans being the Romans, they then took their ideas to the rest of the civilized world. However, this was not the beginning of horse racing but it did give us a taste for placing the odd wager on a race.

Horse racing in the UK 

During the crusades of the 11th -13th centuries, English knights returned home with Arabian, Barb, and Turkish horses. These foreign animals were a considerable improvement on the breeds available locally and soon became prized possessions. Owners began to breed the foreign mounts and sell them at a premium to local lords and knights.

It’s thought that thoroughbred horse racing began in England at this time. Breeders would race horses against each other in a bid to impress potential buyers. This became a common occurrence and during the reign of Richard the Lionheart, the first purse was offered for a race over a 3-mile course. 

By the 17th century, organised horse racing had become commonplace with horses and riders competing for the King’s Plates. These were the prizes introduced by Charles II and earned him the moniker ‘The father of the English Turf’. 

King Charles brought in the first known sets of rules to horse racing. He determined that horses must be the same age (six years old) and that they must carry a similar weight. It seems like a common-sense rule in this day and age, but incredibly, prior to Charles racing articles, there were no regulations regarding a rider’s weight. 

Racing quickly became a national pastime with events taking place all across the UK.  Fast forward to today and we now have live horse racing events across the globe, many of which were, in fact, inspired by the races championed by King Charles.

Horse racing becomes a global sport  
The History of Horse Racing
Horse racing events can now be found all across the globe

The sport quickly took root in France where the first documented horse race took place in 1651. This first race was a result of a wager between two nobles but it started a trend and in a few short years, betting on horse races was prevalent among all the classes. By the 18th century, King Louis XVI created a jockey club and imposed rules on any organised racing event. 


Around the same time that the French were getting carried away by the racing bug, the colonists of America introduced the sport to the nation. What was then known as New Amsterdam that we now call New York was where the first track was built. It was a 2-mile course on Long Island that the commander of the British Troops named Newmarket after the home of British horse racing

In the mid-19th century, British residents in Japan organised a racing event in the new port of Yokohama. These were informal races, but the locals were intrigued and just a few years later a dedicated race track was built. While the track was initially intended for expatriates, the local community were so enamoured by the sport that it became a thriving hub of activity with races held every week. The sport spread throughout the country and soon became one of the most popular athletic events in Japan and it remains so to this day. 

The rise of horse racing may have taken a couple of centuries to get where it is today but it is now one of the most recognized sports in the world. With organised events in such far-flung locations as Dubai, Melbourne, and Tokyo, racing has at long last become a truly global sport. Sure, we may not have thoroughbred races in every nation in the world, but in time, we most likely will.

Photo credits: Clarencealford & Marcelkessler