The 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 horse racing, however, exists primarily because it is a major venue for legalized gambling [Sports Betting]. Horse racing 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 horseracing are harness racing, steeplechase racing, and Quarter Horse Racing.
Horse racing 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. The Jockey Clubwrote 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. The Jockey 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.
The British 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. The rapid 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 the corruption.