The History of the Horse Race

Horse race is one of the oldest sports, and while it has developed into a modern spectacle that requires massive fields of runners, sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment and enormous sums of money, its essential feature remains the same: two horses run against each other and the one that finishes first wins. From a primitive contest of speed or stamina between two animals, the sport has evolved into an entertainment industry that draws tens of millions of people to tracks each year. Its popularity waxes and wanes, influenced by economic prosperity, depression, war and peace, but when great horses like Secretariat and Seattle Slew win the Triple Crown, it can bring huge crowds to the races.

When the British arrived on the shores of the New World, they brought horses and the concept of organized racing with them. The first track was established on Long Island and organized racing blossomed until the Civil War when it began to decline. When tracks reopened after the Civil War, however, great horses such as Man o’ War and Seabiscuit brought back public interest in the sport.

In the earliest days of the sport, races were match races between two or more horses with their owners providing a purse for a wager and agreeing to forfeit half or sometimes the entire purse if the owner withdrew. Keeping track of these agreements became the responsibility of disinterested third parties who came to be known as keepers of the match books. In England, John Cheny published An Historical List of All Matches Run in 1729, the beginning of a series that eventually came to be known as the Racing Calendar.

The earliest match races were open, but by the mid-18th century rules were developed to limit participation in order to make betting more fair. Eligibility rules included age, sex, birthplace and previous performance. These rules led to the development of stakes races with larger pools and bigger purses.

Aside from the prestigious races with big purses, there are a variety of other types of races that are based on different criteria. These include sprints, which are short races with tight turns and short distances; middle distance, or distance races; and turf races, which are longer than the others. In some races, all horses are given the same weight to carry for fairness; in others, they are assigned a weight based on their ability, and this type of race is called a handicap race. The latter types of races have the highest purses and are generally considered to be the most prestigious. They are also the most difficult to win. The great Zenyatta, for example, was a winner of both handicap and turf races, and she is well known for her pre-race “dancing” routine, which was said to help release her energy. During her career, she won 31 races and set numerous records. These included being the fastest four-year old in history and winning a record-setting 14 of 18 stakes races.