The History Of Horse Racing

The History Of Horse Racing


In this article, we’ll delve into the history of Horse racing. An age-old sport that has been around for hundreds, even thousands of years.

It has changed over the years. Today we will discuss how it has changed over the years, and in what ways it has changed. 

There are many different types of horse racing. Although the one we usually refer to is Thoroughbred horse riding with a rider sitting astride the horse’s back. There are also Standardbreds with the horse pulling a conveyance with a driver. 

Types of Horse racing

These two types of races are known as racing on the flat and harness racing. Some races of the flat; known as steeplechase, point-to-point, and hurdle races, are races that involve jumps. 

The main type of horse racing we will cover today is the one everyone thinks of. Which is Thoroughbred horse racing on the flat without any jumps. It is also probably the most popular form of horse racing as well. 

Remember that it is not always Thoroughbreds who run these races, as other horse breeds will race. However, when it comes to the biggest competitions it is traditionally thoroughbreds. 

This is one of the oldest of all sports. Its basic concept has barely changed over the centuries it has been practiced. It is a sport that developed from the most primitive concept of contesting speed and stamina between the horses. Putting it into a large spectacle involving fields of runners. 

The Early History of Horse Racing

Let’s take a stroll down through the earliest memories of horse racing. It is worth noting that knowledge of the first horse race is lost to history. Some believe that it goes back beyond the Ancient Greeks and Romans, perhaps even into the Stone Age. 

Four-hitch chariot and mounted races were held in the first Olympic Games back in 700-40 BCE. These were well-organized public entertainment in the Roman Empire as well. But not only here, organized racing was also seen in other ancient civilizations. Such as the ones in China, Persia, Arabia, and other Middle Eastern and African civilizations. 

This is when Arabian, Barb, and Turk horses started to contribute to European racing as these horses became familiar during the crusades. 

Let’s not forget medieval England. When racing became big when horses were for sale. They would be ridden in competition by professional riders to display the horse to potential buyers. 

As you can see, horse racing has long been around, but what about the defined types?  

Organized racing

From 1660-1685, Charlies II ruled England, and became known as ‘the father of the English turf’. He inaugurated the Kings Plates, races for which prizes were awarded to the winners. His articles for these races were the earliest national racing rules. The horses raced were typically 6 years old, and they would carry 168 lbs. The winner was the first to win two 4 mile/6.4-kilometer heats. The patronage of Charles II was Newmarket, and the headquarters of English racing. 

In France, the first horse race documented was held in 1651 as the result of a wager between two noblemen. And during the reign of Louis XIV, racing based on gambling was exceptionally common. Then, from 1774 to 1793, Louis XVI organized a jockey club and established the rules of racing by royal decree. These rules included the requirement of a certificate of origin for horses and imposing extra weight on foreign horses. 

The first course

Finally, in North America, organized racing began with the British occupation of New Amsterdam. Which is now known as New York City, back in 1664. The commander of the British troops established organized racing. This was in the colonies by laying out a 2 mile/3.2-kilometer course on the plains of Long Island. Which we now know as Newmarket. He offered a silver cup to the best horses in the spring and fall seasons. 

From the beginning and up until the Civil War. The hallmark of excellence in Thoroughbred racing in America was stamina, not speed. They wanted to see which horse had the best endurance. Yet, after the Civil War, this changed and speed became the most coveted trait in the horses that raced. 

The earliest types of races that existed were known as match races. These races were held between two or three horses at the very most. The owners would provide the purse, it was a simple premise and a simple wager. Any owner who withdrew from the race would typically forfeit half of the purse, and later, the whole purse. Bets in this fashion would come under this same ‘play or pay’ rule that was enforced. 

Agreements between the owners would be recorded by disinterested third parties. These third parties would come to be known as ‘keepers of the matchbook’. 

There was one keeper at Newmarket, in England. His name was John Cheney, who began publishing ‘A Historical List of All Horse-Matches Run’ in 1729. It was a consolidation of matchbooks from varying racing centers. This work was then continued annually, each time with varying titles, up until 1773. In 1773 James Weatherby established it as the ‘Racing Calendar’. This was then continued from then on by his family. 

Match Races

Match races have given way to some of horse racing’s greatest and most memorable races. Of course, in the most recent years you have seen match races such as Man o-War vs Sir Barton. Nashua Vs Swaps, and also Seabiscuit vs War Admiral, in perhaps some of the greatest match races ever seen. Then harness match racing had Bret Hanover Vs Cardigan Bay.  

We cannot deny that there is nothing quite as intense as watching two great horses going after one another. The outcome, proving, once and for all, who is the better of the two horses.

However, in the past match racing was a big event. Yet the notion seemed less sturdy when Seabuscuit beat War Admiral in 1938. Although the urge to determine who is the superior competitor is great. Outcomes like this race have people feeling as though the race is artificial. Since this occurrence, match racing has lost its magic and is not seen with the adoration it once was. 

Open field racing

Open field racing became something not long after match racing had kicked off. As, by the mid-18th century, the demand for more public racing produced open events with much larger fields of runners. Eligibility rules started to be developed. These rules covered factors such as the age sex, birthplace of the horse and the performance of the horses previously as well as the qualifications of the riders. 

Races were created in which owners were riders. Which the field was restricted geographically to a township or a counter. This meant that only horses that had not won more than a certain amount would be entered. 

An act of Parliament in Britain in 1740 provided that horses entered had to be the bona fide property of the owners. This would prevent ‘ringers’ i.e. a superior horse entered fraudulently against the odds of inferior horses. This also meant that horses needed to be certified as to their age and there were penalties for rough riding. 


Accounts would not identify jockeys until the second half of the 17th century in England, and even later in France. However, their names were not officially noted at first. 

Only the names of winning trainers and riders would be first recorded in the Racing Calendar. However, by the 1850s this changed and all were named thereon out. 

The neglect of the riders in this aspect is explained when races were to consist of 4 mile long heats. The winning of two heats was required for a victory. The individual rider’s judgment and skills were not so vital in this type of racing. 

This ended up leading to what is known as ‘dash’ racing. Which is one heat, and as this happened the rider’s skill and judgment in coaxing their advantage from their horse became more important. At this point, jockeys were seen as a more vital part of the whole horse racing sport. To be a jockey was seen as more of a talent than an owner-based field.  

Bloodlines and studbooks

Bloodlines and studbooks became more significant in the horse racing scene after this point. And all horse racing on the flat, except from quart-horse racing involves Thoroughbred horses This is a horse breed that evolved from a mix of Arab, Turk, and Barb horses with native English stock. 

Since the early 17th century, there have been private studbooks, although these were not all that reliable. However, in 1791, Weatherby published ‘An Introduction To A General Studbook’, as well as the pedigrees being based on earlier Racing Calendars and Sales Papers. 

Eventually it was updated annually, and this is the main way that breeders and experts in the field can keep track of descendants of previous winners. 

Thoroughbred horses are all said to be the descendants of three Oriental stallions, these were the Darley Arabian, the Godolphin Barb, and the Byerly Turk, which were all brought to the United Kingdom in 1960 to 1730. They would also be a descendant of one of 43 royal mares which were imported by Charles II. 

The preeminence of English racing and thanks to the General Stud Book from 1791, there has been enough information provided to allow a standard for correctly judging a horse’s breeding and its racing qualities based upon its ancestors. 

French Classes

In France, they have their own studbook which began in 1838, which included two classifications, one of which was ‘Orientale’, coming from Arab, Turk, and Barb, and Anglais, which were mixtures according to the English pattern. However, they were later reduced into one class, which can be translated as being horses of pure English blood. 

The American studbook started in 1897, includes foals from Canada, Puerto Rico, Mexico and horses from the United States. 

The long-term standardization of studbooks among various countries was broken in 1913 by the Jersey Act which was passed by the English Jockey Club, which disqualified a series of Thoroughbred horses that were bred outside of England or Ireland.

This was to protect the British Thoroughbred from infusions of North American thoroughbreds and therefore sprinting blood. They did not want to mix horses of endurance with horses of speed. 

However, after a series of victories in prestigious English races by French horses that had American ancestry in the 1940s, the Jersey Act was rescinded in 1949. 

Evolution of races

Horse racing has come far since its beginning back in the organized horse racing events of the 1600s. The original King’s Plates were standardized horse races, all were specified for six-year-old horses carrying 168 lbs at 4-mile heats. A horse had to win two heats to be judged as being the winner. 

However, beginning in 1751, five-year-olds carrying 140 lbs and four-year-olds carrying 126lbs were also admitted to racing in the King’s Plates, and the heats were then reduced to 2 miles. 

Other racing for four-year-old horses was then established as well. This is also the time when a race for three-year-old horses carrying 112 lbs in a singular 3-mile heat was run, back in 1731. 

Heat Racing

Heat racing for four-year-old horses was continued in the United States until around 1806. However, by this time, heat racing was long overshadowed in Europe by dash racing. Dash racing was a type of racing that included only a single heat, and the result was judged in this one heat, regardless of what the distance was. This was often assumed to be a better form of racing and completely took over. 

This is the type of racing we see now, and is regularly much more exciting to watch than heat racing. 

Now, if you were to talk about heat races in horse racing, the word heat is now known for another term. In fact, type ‘heat, horse racing’ into Google and you will find that all the results that come up pay reference to the term ‘Dead Heat’ which is when two horses tie at the finish line. It no longer has reference to the term it used to. 

The Modern Age Of Racing

Since horse racing is a sport that has been going on for so long, it makes us wonder when it really became ‘modern’ per se. One could argue that organized races started to take place, as this was the official beginning of horse racing being popular.

Or, you could say that it was as horse racing became a more popular event among people of all classes. However, the known beginning of modern horse racing is considered to have been in the inauguration of the Classic English races.

Races such as St. Leger in 1776, the Oaks in 1779, and the Derby in 1780. All of these were dashes for three-year-old hoses. Later on, we saw the Two Thousand Guineas in 1809, and the One Thousand Guineas in 1814.

In the 19th Century races of this pattern spread around the world, and we started to see the surface of the French classics such as the Prix du Jockey Club in 1936, the Grand Prix du Paris in 1863, and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in 1920, which is now one of the biggest horse races in the world. 

The American classics started to surface around this time as well, although slightly later than the French and English, with the Belmont Stakes in 1867, the Preakness Stakes in 1873, and the Kentucky Derby in 1875. These three now make up the American Triple Crown, one of the most respected horse racing events in the world. 

Racing authorities and jockey clubs

Newmarket was founded in 1750 by the Jockey Club of Britain, and they wrote their own rules of racing. They were different to the earlier known King’s Plates rules, as these new rules took into account different kinds of contests involving horses of varying ages. This meant that these rules were more detailed. 

They originally only applied these rules to Newmarket, however, when they were printed, they served as a model for rules throughout Britain. 

The Jockey Club then later got their hands on the ‘General Stud Book’ and they came to control all of English racing in the 19th Century. Their regulatory power came to an end in 2006, as this is when the Horse racing Regulatory Authority took power. This formed a merger between the Horse racing Regulatory Authority and the British Horse racing Board. 

In France, the France Galop is the organization that governs horse racing. It was an organization crafted in 1995 from the merger of three former horse racing authorities. 

In the United States, the governance of racing resides in state commissions, and track operation is private. The North American Jockey Club, which was founded in 1894 in NYC, was once at wide control of American racing, though. 

In the 19th Century, English racing spread over to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa, as well as India. Many of the governing bodies of these countries emulate the English one. 

Handicap racing

Any horse racing enthusiast will have heard of handicap races, as this is one of the most major types of Thoroughbred horse racing. In this type of racing, the weights the horses must carry during the race are adjusted in accordance with their age. With this system, a two-year-old horse will compete with less weight to carry than a horse who is three years old or more. 

In general, a horse is believed as being fully grown at five years, and so they are handicapped accordingly. 

There are also sex allowances for mares/ fillies, and they will carry slightly less weight than a male will. 


Weight penalties are also provided on the basis of a horse’s past performance too. These handicaps are set centrally where racing is so controlled, or via an individual track. The goal is to take the horses all equal, or as equal as they can possibly be, thus making the race more even, giving no horse advance over others in any way other than their own individual skillset and training. 

This type of race represents the repudiation of the classic concept that the best horse should win. Handicaps are assigned with the objective that each horse has an equal chance of winning the race regardless of age, size, or sex. 

There are some incredibly famous handicap races. One of the most well-known is the Melbourne Cup, a race that was inaugurated back in 1861. It is the most important race in the Southern Hemisphere. 

In the Northern Hemisphere, we have the Metropolitan, Brooklyn, and Suburban Handicaps, in the United States, all of which were started in the 19th century. These were once the most valued American events, and they are still very comparable to the races even today. 

There is also the Santa Anita Handicap, this race was first to run back in 1935, and it pioneered among these races, with a purse value over $100,000 making it a truly coveted win!

Purse money and stake fees

If you have ever been to a horse race, there is a chance that you will go and bet on a horse. While there is magic in seeing these horses race down the field and the skill of both horse and rider, the most of the glory in these races is in the betting action. 

Betting has long driven horse racing, and it is more than half the reason why it is still a widely circulating sport around the world. Everyone knows this. However, what we do not know so well is how this works. And even more, we are not entirely sure how these races fund the purse that the winner takes home. 

Sponsored races, in which a majority of the purse money is put up by commercial firms, include races such as the King George VI, the Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and the Durban July 

In the United States of America, a majority of the money for the richest events, which offer purses up into the millions of dollars, is often provided by the stakes fees of the owners. 


Purses were winner-take-all in the early days when racing first became as big as it is now. However, as the racing of fields of horses came to predominate, a second prize started to be offered, then third and fourth were added in too. And occasionally we would see fifth added in as well. 

On average, modern-day purses are allocating about 60 percent of the stakes to the winner, 20 percent to the second-place horse, 12 percent to the third, 6 percent to the fourth, and 2 percent to the fifth. This is still a lot of money that these placeholders take home. As we know, in the U.S., it can be into the millions, and knowing this, a fifth placeholder is still taking home a lot of money. Should the purse be $1,000,000, a fifth placeholder is still taking home $20,000, while the winner of the race takes home $600,000. It is a big gap, but it is an improvement in the races that the runners-up also get a share.


Earlier on we were talking about how horse racing betting is a massive driver of the industry and a big part of what has kept the sport alive today. Who wants to bet that Julius Cesar himself bet on his favorite horseback in those times? 

Wagers have changed over the years, though, and horse race betting has evolved with the races and with the evolution of how the purse is handled. 

In early horse races, you could only bet on a horse to win. While modern horse races can allow you to bet on the first three horses which are known as win, place, and show bets

When it comes to private bets, wagering was extended in the 19th century to bookmaking. This is betting through bookmakers who are a professional in this side of the sport, they set their odds to a percentage that works in their favor. 

Later in the 19th century, betting began to be taken over worldwide by racetrack management in the form of the pari-mutuel. The parimutuel is a common betting pool in which those who bet horses finishing in the first three places share the total amount bet, minus a percentage for the management. 

The totalizer

This was a concept perfected with the introduction of the totalizer in the 20th century. This is a machine that mechanically records all bets and can provide an instant reflection of betting in every pool. This also displays the approximate odds to win on each horse, as well as the total number of wagering on each horse in each various betting pool. 

These customary pools we are talking about are win, place, and show. Although, you can also get specialty wagers such as winners of the first two wagers known as the daily double, win and place winners in order in a single race, and so on.  

Eventually, you saw governments entering wagering with offtrack betting, which was very beneficial to racing in many places. However, in the U.S., illegal booking off-track became an organized crime, and legal offtrack betting parlors proliferated during the late last century. However, online gambling made this less popular and so did the decline in the popularity of this age-old sport.

Racing ages

We know about so many aspects of horse racing, but unless you are really into the sport, or even participate yourself, understanding the requirements of a horse to be a racehorse is no easy feat. There is a lot that goes into making a racehorse. One of these things is understanding age. 

Racehorses will reach their peak ability at five years old, but the classic ages of three years, and the escalating size of purses, as well as breeding fees and sales costs, have led to fewer races with horses beyond the age of four. 

There are notable exceptions to this, however, we generally note that a majority of racing horses will be around 3 or 4 years old. 

Breeding Theory

We would talk all day about the breeds and breeding processes of horses, but we are sure you have a race to get to, or to bet on soon, so we won’t keep you. However, to understand the concept of breeding a racehorse, there are some key points you want to note. 

For a horse to be registered as a thoroughbred, the foal must be the product of a ‘liver cover’ ; this means that there must be a witness of a natural mating between a stallion and a mare. 

Although artificial insemination and embryo transfer are possible and not uncommon in other breeds of horses, with thoroughbreds it is banned. 

This also means that the population of Thoroughbreds is also controlled, which assures a high value for these horses, and hence our previous point about the costs of these horses bodes true. 

Each foal is assigned the official birthdate of the 1st January, as these facilities the age groups that define the races, and it is important that a mare should foal as early as possible in the calendar year as this will assure maximum development time for the foal before they train and race. 


There is so much to know in the history of horse racing. It is such an old sport that goes back centuries, perhaps even millennia. While we have told you so much today, there is still so much to know about horse racing and horses, too.  

What is worth remembering, though, is that despite the rise and fall in the popularity of this sport, it will never disappear, horses will always be racing somewhere around the world. While we love watching cars race, bikes race, and people too, nothing quite beats the exhilaration of a day at the races and hearing that thundering of hooves as each horse pines for first place. It always has been, and it always will be, as sure as you will breathe air. 

A sport of Kings, a sport of Queens, and most definitely, a sport of the ages!