The History of Horse Racing

We may associate the Kentucky Derby with horse racing in the modern era, but horse racing has a rich history that dates back right to the ancient times when nomadic tribesmen in Central Asia began to domesticate horses somewhere in 4500 BC. Ever since, horse racing has been the favorite pastime of the royalty. Competitive horse racing can be termed as mankind’s most ancient sport. In the modern times however, horse racing has had a great influence in the world of betting. In the US, horse racing is the second most commonly attended sport. It is also a major sport in UK, Ireland, Western Europe, Canada, Australia, South America, South Africa and New Zealand.

Horse racing takes on various forms like Thoroughbred Racing, Harness Racing, Steeplechase Racing and Quarter Horse Racing. Thoroughbred racing which involves racing of mounted Thoroughbred horses over flat race courses for distances ranging from three-quarters of a mile to two miles is perhaps the most popular of the races.

Chariot racing and mounted horse racing were a part of the Greek Olympics by 638 BC. The sport was a public obsession for the Roman Empire. The evolution of modern
Horse racing can be traced to 12th century England when English knights returned from the Crusades with fast Arab horses. From then on, for the next four hundred years, Arab stallions were imported and bred with English mares. This breeding created a generation of Thoroughbred horses that were known for their speed and endurance. Two horse races for private wagers became a popular recreational activity for the nobility during this time.

The English Connection

The advent of the professional sport of Horse racing began during the reign of Queen Anne from 1702-1714. Several horses were used in the races and spectators wagered on different horses, racecourses were established all over England and large purses or cash prizes were offered to draw the best horses into the race. People began breeding and owning horses as a profession, which also led to the rapid expansion of the sport.

Soon the influential people of the horse racing fraternity got together and formed the Jockey Club as the governing body for the sport in 1750. Even today, the Jockey Club has control of the English Horse Racing. The Jockey Club created the standards defining the quality of races, wrote the complete rules for horse racing and also sanctioned race courses. Five races have been designated as ‘Classics’ since 1814 and are open to five-year-old horses. The English Triple Crown consisting of 2000 Guineas, The Epsom Derby and The St. Leger Stakes is meant for male horses or colts. For the fillies or female horses, there are two races namely, the 1000 Guineas and the Epsom Oaks.

James Weatherby, accountant at the Jockey Club was given the job of tracing the family history of each race horse in England. Introduction to the General Stud Book, published in 1791 was the result of his research. The subsequent volumes of the Stud Book have records of all the foals born to race horses right from 1793 till the present.

Horse Racing Goes to America

With the foundation of the New World, the British settlers brought the sport of Horse racing to the Americas. The first race track was laid out in 1665 in Long Island. After the American Civil War, the local pastime of horseracing became an organized sport. Gambling on race horses and horse racing became quite popular for the next several decades in America and by 1890, there were 314 race tracks all over the country. In 1894, the country’s important stable and track owners met in New York to form the American version of the English Jockey Club. The American Stud Book was started in 1868.

In the beginning of the 1900s, all American states banned bookmaking due to the anti-gambling sentiment. In 1908, the pari-mutuel betting for Kentucky Derby was introduced and it turned around the public sentiment and horse racing was again in the forefront. Pari-mutuel betting was being legalized by many states in exchange for a share of the wagered money. After World War I, people began to visit race tracks and horse racing became popular till the beginning of the World War II. The sport’s popularity decreased during the 1950s and 60s but it came back with a vengeance in the 1970s perhaps due to the popularity of the great horses like Secretariat, Affirmed and Seattle Slew.

The Pari-Mutuel System of Betting on Horses

In the United States, the main focus is on Thoroughbred Races, namely the Triple Crown and the Breeder’s Cup, since these offer the highest prizes up to $1,000,000. The ability to wager on the outcome of a horse race has been a matter of great appeal to horse racing fans. Today in America, the betting follows the pari-mutuel system developed by Pierre Oller in the late 1800s. Under this betting system, about 14-25% of the total sum wagered is retained for racing purses, track maintenance and taxes. The balance is divided among the bettors by dividing the total amount of money bet on the race by the total number of bettors, which determines the payoff. This payoff or odds as they are called are in fact determined by the gambling public itself. So, the more number of people betting on the winning horse, lower is the payoff, since the pool will be divided among many people. In the present age of computers, the odds are calculated by high speed electronic calculators known as totalizators or tote boards to post up-to-the-minute betting patterns, before each race.

The pari-mutuel system of betting is the accepted form of betting at horse racing tracks all over the world. This betting procedure is also used in greyhound racing and jai alai games. In horse racing, people can wager on the horse to win, place or show; that is, they can bet on the horse to finish first (win), finish first or second (place) or finish first, second or third (show). Other popular bets include the daily double, the exactas, the quinellas and the pick six.