competitive racing of horses is one of humankind's most ancient
sports, having its origins among the prehistoric nomadic tribesmen
of Central Asia who first domesticated the horse about 4500 BC.
For thousands of years, horse racing flourished as the sport of
kings and the nobility. Modern racing, however, exists primarily
because it is a major venue for legalized gambling.
is the second most widely attended U.S. spectator sport, after
baseball. In 1989, 56,194,565 people attended 8,004 days of
racing, wagering $9.14 billion. Horse racing is also a major
professional sport in Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Western
Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and South America.
By far the
most popular form of the sport is the racing of mounted
THOROUGHBRED horses over flat courses at distances from
three-quarters of a mile to two miles. Other major forms of horse
racing are harness racing, steeplechase racing, and QUARTER HORSE
By the time
humans began to keep written records, horse racing was an
organized sport in all major civilizations from Central Asia to
the Mediterranean. Both chariot and mounted horse racing were
events in the ancient Greek Olympics by 638 BC, and the sport
became a public obsession in the Roman Empire.
of modern racing lie in the 12th century, when English knights
returned from the Crusades with swift Arab horses. Over the next
400 years, an increasing number of Arab stallions were imported
and bred to English mares to produce horses that combined speed
and endurance. Matching the fastest of these animals in two-horse
races for a private wager became a popular
diversion of the nobility.
began to become a professional sport during the reign (1702-14) of
Queen Anne, when match racing gave way to races involving several
horses on which the spectators wagered. Racecourses sprang up all
over England, offering increasingly large purses to attract the
best horses. These purses in turn made breeding and owning horses
for racing profitable. With the rapid expansion of the sport came
the need for a central governing authority. In 1750 racing's elite
met at Newmarket to form the Jockey Club, which to this day
exercises complete control over English racing.
Club wrote complete rules of racing and sanctioned racecourses to
conduct meetings under those rules. Standards defining the quality
of races soon led to the designation of certain races as the
ultimate tests of excellence. Since 1814, five races for
three-year-old horses have been designated as "classics." Three
races, open to male horses (colts) and female horses (fillies),
make up the English Triple Crown: the 2,000 Guineas, the Epsom
Derby (see DERBY, THE), and the St. Leger Stakes. Two races, open
to fillies only, are the 1,000 Guineas and the Epsom Oaks.
Club also took steps to regulate the breeding of racehorses. James
Weatherby, whose family served as accountants to the members of
the Jockey Club, was assigned the task of tracing the pedigree, or
complete family history, of every horse racing in England. In 1791
the results of his research were published as the Introduction to
the General Stud Book. From 1793 to the present, members of the
Weatherby family have meticulously recorded the pedigree of every
foal born to those racehorses in subsequent volumes of the General
Stud Book. By the early 1800s the only horses that could be called
"Thoroughbreds" and allowed to race were those descended from
horses listed in the General Stud Book. Thoroughbreds are so
inbred that the pedigree of every single animal can be traced
back father-to-father to one of three stallions, called the
"foundation sires." These stallions were the Byerley Turk, foaled
c.1679; the Darley Arabian, foaled c.1700; and the Godolphin
Arabian, foaled c.1724.
American Thoroughbred Racing
settlers brought horses and horse racing with them to the New
World, with the first racetrack laid out on Long Island as early
as 1665. Although the sport became a popular local pastime, the
development of organized racing did not arrive until after the
Civil War. (The American Stud Book was begun in 1868.) For the
next several decades, with the rapid rise of an industrial
economy, gambling on racehorses, and therefore horse racing
itself, grew explosively; by 1890, 314 tracks were operating
across the country.
growth of the sport without any central governing authority led
to the domination of many tracks by criminal elements. In 1894
the nation's most prominent track and stable owners met in New
York to form an American Jockey Club, modeled on the English,
which soon ruled racing with an iron hand and eliminated much of
In the early
1900s, however, racing in the United States was almost wiped out
by antigambling sentiment that led almost all states to ban
bookmaking. By 1908 the number of tracks had plummeted to just 25.
That same year, however, the introduction of pari-mutuel betting
for the Kentucky Derby signaled a turnaround for the sport. More
tracks opened as many state legislatures agreed to legalize
pari-mutuel betting in exchange for a share of the money wagered.
At the end of World War I, prosperity and great horses like Man o'
War brought spectators flocking to racetracks. The sport prospered
until World War II, declined in popularity during the 1950s and
1960s, then enjoyed a resurgence in the 1970s triggered by the
immense popularity of great horses such as Secretariat, Seattle
Slew, and Affirmed, each winners of the American Triple Crown--the
KENTUCKY DERBY, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes. During the
late 1980s, another significant decline occurred, however.
tracks exist in about half the states. Public interest in the
sport focuses primarily on major Thoroughbred races such as the
American Triple Crown and the Breeder's Cup races (begun in 1984),
which offer purses of up to about $1,000,000. State racing
commissions have sole authority to license participants and grant
racing dates, while sharing the appointment of racing officials
and the supervision of racing rules with the Jockey Club. The
Jockey Club retains authority over the breeding of Thoroughbreds.
science has been unable to come up with any breeding system that
guarantees the birth of a champion, breeders over the centuries
have produced an increasingly higher percentage of Thoroughbreds
who are successful on the racetrack by following two basic
principles. The first is that Thoroughbreds with superior racing
ability are more likely to produce offspring with superior racing
ability. The second is that horses with certain pedigrees are more
likely to pass along their racing ability to their offspring.
Thoroughbreds (stallions) have the highest breeding value because
they can mate with about 40 mares a year. The worth of champions,
especially winners of Triple Crown races, is so high that groups
of investors called breeding syndicates may be formed. Each of
the approximately 40 shares of the syndicate entitles its owner
to breed one mare to the stallion each year. One share, for a
great horse, may cost several million dollars. A share's owner
may resell that share at any time.
produce foals for sale at auction are called commercial breeders.
The most successful are E. J. Taylor, Spendthrift Farms, Claiborne
Farms, Gainsworthy Farm, and Bluegrass Farm, all in Kentucky.
Farms that produce foals to race themselves are called home
breeders, and these include such famous stables as Calumet Farms,
Elmendorf Farm, and Green-tree Stable in Kentucky and Harbor View
Farm in Florida.
the outcome of horse races has been an integral part of the appeal
of the sport since prehistory and today is the sole reason horse
racing has survived as a major professional sport.
at American tracks today is done under the pari-mutuel wagering
system, which was developed by a Frenchman named Pierre Oller in
the late 19th century. Under this system, a fixed percentage (14
percent-25 percent) of the total amount wagered is taken out for
track operating expenses, racing purses, and state and local taxes.
The remaining sum is divided by the number of individual wagers to
determine the payoff, or return on each bet. The projected payoff,
or "odds," are continuously calculated by the track's computers
and posted on the track odds board during the betting period
before each race. Odds of "2-1," for example, mean that the bettor
will receive $2 profit for every $1 wagered if his or her horse
tracks, bettors may wager on a horse to win (finish first), place
(finish first or second), or show (finish first, second, or third).
Other popular wagers are the daily double (picking the winners of
two consecutive races), exactas (picking the first and second
horses in order), quinellas (picking the first and second horses
in either order), and the pick six (picking the winners of six
difficult art of predicting the winner of a horse race is called
handicapping. The process of handicapping involves evaluating the
demonstrated abilities of a horse in light of the conditions under
which it will be racing on a given day. To gauge these abilities,
handicappers use past performances, detailed published records of
preceding races. These past performances indicate the horse's
speed, its ability to win, and whether the performances tend to be
getting better or worse. The conditions under which the horse will
be racing include the quality of the competition in the race, the
distance of the race, the type of racing surface (dirt or grass),
and the current state of that surface (fast, sloppy, and so on).
The term handicapping also has a related but somewhat different
meaning: in some races, varying amounts of extra weight are
assigned to horses based on age or ability in order to equalize
of horses in harness dates back to ancient times, but the sport
virtually disappeared with the fall of the Roman Empire. The
history of modern HARNESS RACING begins in America, where racing
trotting horses over country roads became a popular rural pastime
by the end of the 18th century. The first tracks for harness
racing were constructed in the first decade of the 19th century,
and by 1825 harness racing was an institution at hundreds of
country fairs across the nation.
popularity of harness racing came the development of the
STANDARDBRED, a horse bred specifically for racing under harness.
The founding sire of all Standardbreds is an English Thoroughbred
named Messenger, who was brought to the United States in 1788.
Messenger was bred to both pure Thoroughbred and mixed breed
mares, and his descendants were rebred until these matings
produced a new breed with endurance, temperament, and anatomy
uniquely suited to racing under harness. This new breed was
called the Standardbred, after the practice of basing all
harness-racing speed records on the "standard" distance of one
racing reached the early zenith of its popularity in the late
1800s, with the establishment of a Grand Circuit of major fairs.
The sport sharply declined in popularity after 1900, as the
automobile replaced the horse and the United States became more
urbanized. In 1940, however, Roosevelt Raceway in New York
introduced harness racing under the lights with pari-mutuel
betting. This innovation sparked a rebirth of harness racing, and
today its number of tracks and number of annual races exceed those
of Thoroughbred racing. The sport is also popular in most European
countries, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.
Steeplechase, Hurdle, and Point-To-Point Racing
are races over a 2- to 4-mi (3.2- to 6.4-km) course that includes
such obstacles as brush fences, stone walls, timber rails, and
water jumps. The sport developed from the English and Irish
pastime of fox hunting, when hunters would test the speed of their
mounts during the cross-country chase. Organized steeplechase
racing began about 1830, and has continued to be a popular sport
in England to this day. The most famous steeplechase race in the
world is England's Grand National, held every year since 1839 at
Aintree. Steeplechase racing is occasionally conducted at several
U.S. Thoroughbred race tracks. The most significant race is the
U.S. Grand National Steeplechase held yearly at Belmont Park.
a form of steeplechasing that is less physically demanding of the
horses. The obstacles consist solely of hurdles 1 to 2 ft (0.3 to
0.6 m) lower than the obstacles on a steeplechase course, and the
races are normally less than 2 mi in length. Hurdling races are
often used for training horses that will later compete in
steeplechases. Horses chosen for steeplechase training are usually
Thoroughbreds selected for their endurance, calm temperament, and
races are held for amateurs on about 120 courses throughout the
British Isles. Originally run straight across country (hence the
name), these races are now conducted on oval tracks with built-in
fences, often on farmland.