HOW OLD IS HORSE RACING

Horse racing is a sport which has been enjoyed by many for more years than there are in written history, but the question is, just how many?

Doncaster Racecourse, England, 1770

The First Days Of Racing

Ancient Greek texts tell of contests organised by Alexander the Great for his armies as they rampaged across Asia, although they say little of the actual nature of the contests and Roman historians also record races where the contestants, on horseback, competed to drive the severed head of captives across a winning line, (a far cry from today’s Melbourne Cup or Caulfield Cup). In later days, we have tales of racing mounted horses from point A to point B, in Gaul and Britannia, as a diversion and morale boost for bored legionnaires with nothing else to do other than drink wine and persecute the local population. No mention is ever made of the type of horse or the style of the races or the distances covered, simply that these events took place.

Indeed, when it comes to incomplete records, we even have documents in old Norse, describing how Vikings raced each other on the Shetland Isles on locally found steeds – which conjures up a wonderful picture, probably inaccurate, of great, hairy, horned helmeted men chasing each other on diminutive Shetland ponies. All of which goes to show that what has become known as the Sport of Kings has been around far longer than the Kings themselves.

Horse Racing Gets A Royal Injection

The first reported involvement of a King in horse racing comes in the early eleventh century, when king Athelstan of England received “a French running horse” as a gift from his Gallic counterpart to allow him “to improve the blood” of his own horses. Whether this gift actually made any difference is not recorded. What is noted is that, a few years later, William of Normandy, soon to become William the Conqueror and King of England, and his courtiers brought with them on their invasion, a number of French and, more significantly, Spanish stallions, again, supposedly, to improve the quality of the bloodstock which suggests that Athelstan's gift had been less than effective. The significance of the “Spanish” stallions is that they would almost certainly be of Barbary origin from North Africa, bred for speed and stamina by the nomadic Arab tribes of the region

Whilst horse races clearly were happening in the eleventh and twelfth century, there is little written down about the events, since breeding for speed and stamina took second place to breeding for strength and physique so that the animals were suitable for work in the fields as draught animals, or on the battlefields as chargers. Horses were often eighteen to twenty hands high and capable of pulling tremendous loads, but speed over five furlongs or a mile was not an important talent. The first official record of races is to be found in the middle of the twelfth Century, during the reign of Henry II, when an annual event, the St. Bartholomew’s horse fair, was held at Smithfield in London. Smithfield had already established itself as the main meat market for the city, and hosted a number of races over several days for prizes. It is suggested, although unsubstantiated, that the unsuccessful steeds disappeared into the market, never to be seen alive again.

Developing Racing Bloodstock

Over the next couple of centuries horse racing began to evolve into something like the sport we know today. Henry VIII imported stallions in considerable numbers from France and Spain for breeding purposes, again to improve the bloodstock and laid down certain rules governing how this breeding process was to be regulated. Annual race meetings were held at Chester, the oldest continually existing racecourse in the world, as well as York and Doncaster,  and both Henry and his daughter, the Queen Elizabeth I are noted as enthusiastic supporters, attending several meetings, when time and the affairs of state permitted. The first of the Stewart Kings, James I, was also fond of his horses and when out riding one day came upon the little village of Newmarket, which according to his own diary, had “conditions and fields ideal for the coursing of horses.” The Cambridgeshire village soon became the epicentre of the sport and the King devoted so much time to his hobby the Parliament petitioned him to return to London and attend to the matters of state. 

Now was the period of formal race meetings, with the horses’ names being recorded, their weights and jockeys' details and the distances over which the various contests took place, much as happens today. The very first of these races to be so recorded, was staged between horses owned by Lord Salisbury and the Marquis of Buckingham, over a straight mile for a wager of £100 - not a bad prize, when a loaf of bread at the time cost 0.25 of a penny! The sport of Kings, and nobles, was indeed booming, with money sloshing around in wagers in unimaginable quantities when the English Civil War broke out. The Roundheads, puritan in their beliefs were victorious, and racing came to a juddering halt. But what to do with the horses?  With racing curtailed, many were confiscated and taken into the army by Oliver Cromwell, who needed them as cavalry horses for his campaigns in Ireland. Sadly, many of these horses were either ruined by the military or lost without trace and horse racing declined in popularity for a period of twenty years or more.

Chester Racecourse in 1935

Following Cromwell's death and the removal from power of the Puritans, however, the monarchy was restored, and Charles II was enthroned as the new King. As a reaction to the puritan regime which had dominated every part of daily life, pleasure and jollification became the order of the day – at least for those who could afford it. Charles himself was an avid fan of horses and racing, and in 1664 established the Newmarket Town Plate, writing the rules and  regulations for the event himself - “Articles ordered by his majesty to be observed by all persons who 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 the reign of our Sovereign Lord, King Charles II, which plate is to be rid for yearly, the second Thursday of October for ever.” 

Formalising Rules and Regulations

Riders were strictly forbidden to lay hold of or strike other riders; if they did, they were not “allowed” to win. Each rider was required to give 20 shillings to the Clerk of the Course for distribution to the poor and a further 20 shillings so that the course could be kept “clear and clean and free from tree roots.” To re-enforce the “noble” nature of the race, no man was allowed to ride who was a “serving man or groom”. Interestingly, the race still takes place every year, as dictated by Charles, although the riders are now frequently amateurs rather than professional jockeys who normally compete on the track.

With support of the Kings and Queens of Britain, racing continued to prosper and spread to many more racecourses throughout the land. Of particular significance is the contribution of Queen Anne in the early 17th Century. Anne kept a stable of racing horses of over 50 steeds and was instrumental in creating the annual Royal Ascot meeting. The first race at the first meeting, and at every meeting since, up to the present day, is the Queen Anne Stakes, so named as a mark of respect for her patronage, and it is at this time we also see an increase in the number of races where prizes were awarded to the winner. Often these prizes were in the form of a cup or, less frequently, in simple cash, the earliest of these being a race, held at York in 1709 where a £50 gold cup was awarded to the first past the post. Indeed, the proliferation of racing and race meetings led to Parliament passing an act in 1740 to restrict such activities. It was largely ignored with courses at York and Newmarket leading the rebellion.

Arabian Influence In Bloodstock

At this time too, with the arrival in England of three Arabian stallions of superior bloodline and the characteristics of strength and speed, thoroughbred racing, as it had now become known spread to the Americas and France, resulting from the improved quality of horse through the breeding of these “Arabians.” Ireland, too, saw the establishment of a strong racing industry, based on the pattern of the sport now well-established in England. But it was the sport in England which continues to show the way to the rest of the world. In 1705 in response to the attempt by parliament to regulate the sport, and after much discussion and internal haggling, the Jockey Club was created as the controlling body for racing, a body to be emulated all over the racing world. A  similar body was created in Ireland,  and thereafter in every state where racing took hold, a jockey club, or turf club to act as the controlling organisation of the sport, sprang up. 

Another significant development which appeared during this period, and which was similarly emulated in all the horse racing countries of the world, was the emergence of races which would acquire the title of “the classics” - races which would attract only the top quality mounts and riders and offer the largest purses for the winners. The first of these “now” classic races was actually run for the first time in 1776, was unnamed, featured only five horses and took place at Cantley Moor outside the town of Doncaster. Present that day was the 2nd Marquis of Rockingham, whose lands were nearby, and who had recently twice served as the Prime Minister of Great Britain. It was he who “suggested”, that the race be moved to the main racecourse in Doncaster, Town Moor, be held every year, and be named after a local sporting legend, Lt.General Anthony St Leger. His suggestions were adopted and the first of the “classic” races came into being. Since that time, the St. Leger has been run every year in September except for 1939 when the outbreak of World War II rather inconveniently interfered!

Building A Triple Crown Framework

It is worth noting that at the time of the first running of the St. Leger, racing in America, had progressed little beyond the running of races from point to point, since few true racecourses existed. Racing in France had not at the time developed and the coming revolution would delay its development for many years, and in 1776 horses had only just arrived in Australia. However, all these countries, and others would soon catch up with the British scene. Hard on the heels of the St. Leger, came the second of British Classics – the Epsom Derby. Sponsored by the Earl of Derby, and run over a mile and a half, the race was first run in 1780 for a prize of slightly more than £1000. It was won by a horse called Diomed, who was exported in his later years to America for breeding purposes, thus setting up a strong bloodline with local steeds.

In 1809, the third and final classic, run over the same straight mile used by their Lordships Salisbury and Buckingham almost a century earlier, was set up by Sir Charles Bunbury, President of the Jockey club. It became known as the 2000 guineas – the value of the prize money offered to the winner by the Jockey club. With the creation of these three races, the establishment of the “triple crown” was complete, and it is worthy of note that only ten horses over a period of more than 200 years have succeeded in winning the three races in the same season. The last to achieve this being the renowned Nijinski, a Canadian bred horse, in 1970. 

In a similar fashion, other centres of horse racing have created their own triple crowns. For example, the Americans have their Belmont Stakes, first run in 1867, the Preakness stakes from 1873, and perhaps most famously the Kentucky Derby  in 1875, this latter race often claimed to be the richest in the world in terms of prize money. Ireland too has its’ classics, although less imaginatively named as the Irish 2000 guineas, the Irish Sweeps Derby and the Irish St Leger. The biggest development in the field of classic races, however, came later, in Australia, where not one but two “triple crowns” sprang up

Driving Global Development - Spring Racing Carnival

Because of the unique feature of the racing program in Australia, with its Spring and Autumn carnivals being key events, a trio of races emerged as the “classics” for each carnival. The spring meeting held in Victoria, boasts the Caulfield Cup, the Cox Plate, and, the jewel in the crown, the Melbourne Cup. The first Melbourne Cup winner in 1861, received a gold watch, said to be valued at 50 guineas. Four years later the winner was presented with a silver cup, manufactured in England, but local craftsmen complained that the Cup, or whatever prize was awarded, should have been made locally. As a consequence no prize was awarded for the next ten years – but still the race grew in popularity. No wonder, when horses of such outstanding quality as Makybe Diva, the only three time winner of the race, or Think Big or Phar Lap were competing.

The autumn carnival, held in New South Wales, has its own Triple Crown, the winning of which brings enormous prestige and not a little financial reward. The races are the Randwick, formerly the Canterbury Guineas, the Rosehill Guineas and the Australian Derby. Prize money for these races is said to be in excess of $1million Australian – a long way from the £100 of Salisbury and Buckingham but a spectacular indication of how the sport of kings has developed. And there is no doubt that there is still more to come when we read of events such as the Dubal World Cup. 



Twenty five years ago, no one could have imagined that a small desert kingdom on the Arabian Peninsula could create and develop facilities to host the most valuable race in the world with prize money of $12 million and more. Bearing this in mind, let's pose the question – where will horse racing be in another twenty five years time – in Antarctica? On the moon? Don’t rule it out completely – wait and see!

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