History of Horse Racing

historyPeople have kept and run horses for over 50,000 years. Horse racing likely predates the written word and we have examples of horses used in sport and entertainment going back to the Egyptians and further.

In this article you can find out how horse racing developed from a preparation for battle to the pursuit of high society in chivalrous England. Discover the origins of the first recorded races commissioned by Charles II to the creation of Ascot by Queen Anne and the formation of the Jockey Club. We also tell you about the banning of racing under Oliver Cromwell, the origins of the British Classics and where National Hunt jump racing came from.

Egyptians, Syrians, Romans and Ancient Greeks

history of horse racingHorses and people have a longer shared history than any other domesticated animal. A rider mounted on a horse has an advantage of greater speed, height and momentum against their prey or enemy. Early horses were used for hunting and in battle but they were also proudly used in celebrations, entertainment and combat events through ancient history. The Egyptians, ancient Greeks, Babylonians and Syrians were all known to domesticate and ride horses.

The prevalence of the animal in myth, legends and religion of the time is testament to the importance of the horse. On the whole at this time the horse was used as a working animal (to hunt or carry loads) or as a maker of superiority, only the rich and powerful could own and ride a horse to get about. For this reason, early horses tended to be more muscular and hard wearing, with generally shorter legs and greater relative upper body strength. Horses were also still bred out from wild populations that still roamed in the world, this meant much more variation in physical and mental temperaments than we would see today.

It was the Greeks, Romans and the Byzantines who first started breeding horses properly and using them more for speed than physical strength. Chariot and mounted racing were both popular sports of the time and were included in the original Olympic games by around 650BC. These were highly dangerous but also very popular with entire industries built around them. I suppose if they were not so dangerous the sports would not have caught on with the Romans.

Racing in the Middle Ages and Medieval Times

horse racingFollowing the death of the Roman empire the interconnected global world in the west fractured, this meant structured sporting events involving horses all but disappeared. Although not used for sport the relationship between humans and the horse continued to grow all over the world. The Mongolians used teams of horses to maraud across the Asian planes, without which they would not have come close to conquering China. Horses were effectively used anywhere where large distances needed to be covered due to the stamina of the animal.

In the west horses remained synonymous with the rich and powerful as a means of covering distance and fighting battle. The idea of an early English king not riding atop a horse would seem bizarre to us, so integrated the relationship became. The more prestige you had the better your horse would be and this is part of what lead horses and humans back towards the more sporting pursuits. In the age of chivalry across Europe nobility would compete in contests involving the horse, including jousting events and the reintroduction of chariot racing. Over time horses were bred for these activities and with now reduced numbers of wild horses specific breeds of horse began to emerge, each with their own desirable features.

At the same time the crusades of the 12th century in Arabia introduced European to Arab animals. The inevitable consequences were new breeds of horses that are believed to be the direct descendants of the modern thoroughbred.

The first races to be recorded in England took place under King Athelstan's reign in the 9th century. For centuries later kings and nobles bought and owned 'running horses' that were used for leisure or hunting, in the same way you may go for a Sunday drive today. Horse race meetings didn't exist as such although informal horse racing tended to be part of all major local fairs and festivals.

The 16th Century, Henry VIII and the Sport of Kings

sport of kingsBy the 1500s warfare in Britain had begun to change. On one hand England was now a more settled land and there was not as much threat of invasion. On the other hand the new weapons of war, early cannon, war ships, heavy duty castles and forts, etc., meant the use of horses in open battle was decreasing. This lead to horses being used more for sport and status. Henry VIII passed several laws in relation to horse breeding as well as importing thousands of horses from abroad. The king set up stables at Grenwich where his horses were trained and their stamina and speed honed.

The first horse racing meetings were established at this time. In 1512 it is recorded that a trophy was awarded to the winner of the Chester fair and the world's oldest running horse race, the Kiplingcotes Derby (a small town in Yorkshire), was first held in 1519. In 2019 this will be the first ever race to reach the 500 milestone.

17th Century James I and Newmarket

During Elizabeth I reign in the latter half of the 16th century horse racing declined, although the reason for this is unknown it is perhaps due to people of the time following the fashions of their Queen, of which horse racing was not one. This flipped back in 1605 when James I, out hawking, discovered Newmarket, a small village in Suffolk, and began to race horses there. The king spent so much time there that Newmarket is now known as the original home of horse racing, parliament in fact petitioned the king on several occasions to return to London to get on with the job of running the county rather than racing horses.

newmarket raccecourse history

On the back of Newmarket regular race meetings now began to crop up across the country with races for silver bells held in Yorkshire, Enfield and elsewhere. In 1634 the first gold cup event was held at Newmarket and the sport continued to thrive under Charles I.

Racing at this time became a sport that you simply had to be involved with if you were a royal or noble, hence the new emerging name of 'the sport of kings'.

Oliver Cromwell bans Racing, Charles II Brings it Back

racing bannedFollowing the civil war England became a puritan republic under Oliver Cromwell. He immediately banned horse racing in 1654 for two main reasons. Firstly as a puritan he believed that men should pursue 'useful' sports like archery and combat rather than race horses or play with balls. Secondly Cromwell needed a new army to follow his own ambitions in Ireland and elsewhere as well as keeping the Royalists and Catholics at bay in England.

Cromwell requisitioned many horses from the gentry into the state for use as war horses, however rather hypocritically Cromwell kept his own studs for horse running.

With the death of Cromwell Charles II was restored to the throne and England became a monarch once again.  Charles commissioned the Newmarket Town Plate that took place for the first time in 1664, King Charles even wrote the rules himself. The rules included:

  • No man should hold, strike or bring down another rider.
  • The winner is to give 20 shillings to the be distributed to the poor and 20 shillings to the clerk of the course for maintenance.
  • No serving men or groom men are allowed to compete (i.e. it's only for the top brass)


synthetic trackHorses have been bred together for 50,000 years by humans selecting for the traits that suited them at that time (build, strength, speed, stamina, etc). Many horses were selected from wild populations for their features but non-wild breeding was rare.

The Romans were the first to breed non-wild populations on any significant scale although it wasn't until the late 17th Century under Charles II in England that the modern thoroughbred came about. Horse racing had become serious business under Charles and with more 'King's Plates', prizes and money to be won breeders and owners became serious about what features they wanted from their horses.

All modern thoroughbreds descend from three horses imported in the early 1700s, Byerley Turk, Darley Arabian and Godolphin Barb. These horses, named after their owners Thomas Darley, Lord Godolphin, and Captain Robert Byerly. These Arabian stallions, known for their long necks, large frames and high tails, were mated with British mares. The result was a breed of horse that was perfect over a medium distance at a fast pace, this balance between speed and endurance made then perfect animals for racing.

The 18th Century, Queen Anne and Ascot

flat horse raceFollowing Charles II death in 1685 it was his brother James II that took over as Charles had no legitimate children. Its was the daughter of James II, Queen Anne, that took horse racing to a new level in Great Britain when she took the throne in 1702.

Queen Anne kept a large number of horses and attended races across the country. In 1711 she was integral in the founding of Royal Ascot when the Queen identified Ascot as a perfect place for racing and issued the first face, 'Her Majesty's Plate'. The race has a prize pool of 100 Guineas for which 7 horses competed in three 4 mile heats.

This began a love affair that would eventually go beyond the elite and infiltrate the lower classes. By 1813 Parliament had issued an Act to preserve the racecourse for public use with grandstands and viewing areas for one and all. The Queen Anne's Stakes' was first run in 1840 named in honour of Queen Anne.

1750 - The Jockey Club

By the mid-1700s horse racing was very much a professional sport. In 1750 several high society groups came together in the Star & Garter Pub in London's Pall Mall to set up The Jockey Club to regulate the sport. Jockey comes from the medieval word for horsemen "yachey".

Subsequent meetings moved to Newmarket in 1752, the home of horse racing, from where the club both issued rules and regulated British horse racing. The Jockey Club was in fact still in charge of the day to day running of British racing up until 2006. Regulation is now provided under the British Horseracing authority.

jockey club origins

The Jockey Club own many classic British courses including Aintree, Newmarket, Epsom and Cheltenham as well as other estates, stables and breeding centres.

Despite the fact the Jockey Club was, and still is, an elitist organisation, it is safe to say Britain would not be synonymous with racing without it.

Flat Racing and The Classics

flatIn Britain only flat racing was classed as a professional until the mid-1800s. This is party to do with the types of horses used (young sprinters) and partly to do with the flat nature of the south of England where most courses were based.

The formation of the Jockey Club and the standardisation of the rules allowed races to be sanctioned at various courses across the country. This lead to the designation of five flat races for three-year-old thoroughbreds as 'Classics' by 1815:

The Epsom Derby Stakes and Oaks Stakes

Epsom was a course leased by the 12th Earl of Derby, he would invite friends for party's where they would run horses. In 1778 the Oaks Stakes, a race for 3-year-old fillies, was devised and first run in 1779. Following the success of the Oaks, a year later the Derby Stakes, a race for three year fillies and colts, was first run. The Derby was named after the Earl himself on the flip of a coin, the other candidate was Charles Bunbury, a steward of the Jockey Club at the time. By 1815 these two races had become the central focus of the larger Epsom Fair, attended by thousands that would come down from London to Epsom in Surrey.

Newmarket 1000 and 2000 Guineas

The 2000 guineas pre-dates the 1000 by five years. The 2000 Guineas was established by Charles Bunbury in 1809, Charles by this time was a director of the Jockey Club. The race was open to three-year-old colts and fillies and as the name suggest carried a prize fund of 2000 Guineas. Five years later a race for fillies only was launched with a prize money of 1000 guineas. Both became part of the Newmarket festival hosting the first two classic races of the year.

St Leger

This race was devised by army officer and policeman who lived near Doncaster, Anthony St Leger. This race, first run in 1776, was also open to both colt and fillies and was first named 'the 25 guineas sweepstake' but was renamed after its founder at a dinner party a year later.

History of National Hunt Jump Racing

racing paintingJump racing, or National Hunt racing as it is referred to in the UK, originates from Ireland where jump racing is traditionally more popular than flat racing. These races require older stronger horses, most horses will begin their career as flat racers and then progress to steeplechases and hurdles later in life. Jump races are also longer (2 to 4 ½ miles) than flat races (under 2 miles).

Due to its Irish origins jump racing has far less pomp about it and is generally seen as more working class than its flat racing counterpart. Confusingly National Hunt meetings also have flat races, known as bumpers, but on the whole most races involve jumping obstacles, these races are split into steeplechases and hurdles.

Early races came about in the 1700s and were known as 'pounding races', this was a race between usually just two horses. The horses would run over a long distance through open country and jump any obstacles that lay in their way. Races of this type are recorded in County Cork in Ireland in 1752 racing from a church steeple in one town to another, this is where we get the term steeplechase.

Organised steeplechases started to be arranged in England by the turn of the 19th century, brought over by the Irish. The St Albans steeplechase was first held in 1830 involved racing over local obstacles and brooks and is known as the first major British steeplechase. The worlds most famous jump race, the Aintree Grand National, began in 1839, dominated by Irish horses in its early years.

Jump racing was seen as imported impostor to flat racing and was frowned upon by the upper classes in particular. In 1860 there was a breakthrough with the formation of the National Hunt Committee and the National Hunt Meeting which moved around various racecourses in the country to its own calendar on courses such as Aintree, Newmarket, Derby, Leicester Sandown and many more.

Cheltenham hosted the National Hunt Meeting in 1904 and 1905 and following a five-year intermission in which the meeting was held at Warwick it returned to Cheltenham to become the most famous Jump racing festival in the world in the Cheltenham Festival. By the 1920's races such as the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle combined with the Aintree Grand National propelled National Hunt racing to a new level.

National Hunt racing continued from strength to strength and many would say its popularity has now exceeded flat racing. Jump racing is traditionally held over colder winter months and flat racing over the summer, this helps the two forms to coexist. The progression of horses from flat races in early years to jump racers later has also aided the amalgamation of the two forms of racing.

Gambling and Betting on Horse Racing

old track side betting image at a horse race

There is no way to pinpoint a moment when gambling became part of horse racing. In all honesty it probably predates money itself, early tribes likely used running horses to gamble for food, women and resources. The Romans in particular would often gamble on chariot racing and mounted racing although all of this was of course informal and unregulated.

It was the standardisation of horse racing that made structured gambling possible. The introduction of scheduled races with defined rules and prizes by Charles II and later monarchs allowed punters to better understand and predict racing events. The use of thoroughbred horses with defined weighs was also integral to the growth of betting on horses.

To begin with it was only the elite few that would attend and bet on a horse race, these were usually the owners of the horses themselves. As the sport became more open in the 19th Century several private bookmakers would operate at the various courses taking bets. Despite this type of gambling having been made illegal under the Victorians there was little to stop it and little anyone could do if someone ran off with your cash.

In 1928 the UK government created the racecourse betting act that allowed on course bets to be taken, this created the Horserace Totalisator Board, or the tote. This form of pari-mutuel betting ensured fair practice and also ensured the government could get a slice of the betting action in taxes.

By the 1960s it was clear due to the rise of illegal betting halls that on course betting alone was insufficient. The Betting Levy Act in 1961 allowed off site betting for the first time, later that year bookmakers shops opened on the high street and now it was possible to suddenly bet on any race anywhere in the country. This opened betting on horse racing to the working classes that only further reinforced our love affair as a nation. By the new millennium online betting had begun to take over, it is now possible to bet on any horse in pretty much any race in the world from the comfort of your own home.

Horse Racing Today

jumpIn the modern day we are positively spoilt when it comes to the availability of horse racing. We can visit, watch and bet on racing pretty much 365 days a year. Racing has also remained a great day out for friends and families from all walks of life and the industry in the UK alone is believed to be worth over £5 billion. Many would agree horse racing is part of being British.

The historical profile of Britain and its old empire means that horse racing has proliferated around the globe. There are many different forms, distances and tracks but many of the breeds and rules come from the origins in Britain. Many famous races around the world are named after British classics, for example the Kentucky Derby is named after the Epsom Derby Stakes.

The Future of Horse Racing

horse racing grassIt is a misconception that horse racing is completely traditional with minimum technology. Yes, it is true that looking at a jockey and horse not much has changed in 300 years. When we consider the development that now goes into these animals and their riders behind the scenes it is actually like a new sport. Modern horses are bred to a level unknown in any other sport. Top studs can go for tens of millions of pounds and the winners of the top races can take home millions in prize money. Horse racing is big business and is not going anywhere soon.

Following a drop in on track attendances in the 1980s and 90s this has now more than reversed. Attendances at the Cheltenham festival and Aintree can easily reach 1,000,000 over the festivals making these some of the highest attended sporting events in the world.