Horse racing has a long and distinguished history and has been practised in civilisations across the world since ancient times. Archaeological records indicate that horse racing occurred in Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Babylon, Syria, and Egypt. It also plays an important part of myth and legend, such as the contest between the steeds of the god Odin and the giant Hrungnir in Norse mythology.
Chariot racing was one of the most popular ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine sports. Both chariot and mounted horse racing were events in the ancient Greek Olympics by 648 BC and were important in the other Panhellenic Games.
It continued although chariot racing was often dangerous to both driver and horse, which frequently suffered serious injury and even death. In the Roman Empire, chariot and mounted horse racing were major industries.
From the mid-fifteenth, spring carnival in Rome closed with a horse race. Fifteen to 20 riderless horses, originally imported from the Barbary Coast of North Africa, were set loose to run the length of the Via del Corso, a long, straight city street; their time was about 2+1⁄2 minutes.
In later times, Thoroughbred racing became, and remains, popular with aristocrats and royalty of British society, earning it the title “Sport of Kings”.
Historically, equestrians honed their skills through games and races. Equestrian sports provided entertainment for crowds and displayed the excellent horsemanship needed in battle.
Horse racing of all types evolved from impromptu competitions between riders or drivers. The various forms of competition, requiring demanding and specialized skills from both horse and rider, resulted in the systematic development of specialized breeds and equipment for each sport.
The popularity of equestrian sports through the centuries has resulted in the preservation of skills that would otherwise have vanished after horses stopped being used in combat.
In Britain, horse racing became well-established in the 18th century. It continued to grow in popularity throughout the 18th and beyond. King Charles II (reigned 1649 to 1685) was an avid sportsman who gave Newmarket its prominence.
By 1750 the Jockey Club was formed to control the Newmarket races, set the rules of the game, prevent dishonesty, and making for a level field.Epsom Derby began in 1780. The five classic races began with the St Leger Stakes in 1776. The system was complete in 1814 with five annual races.
Newmarket and the Jockey Club set the standards but most of the racing took place for small cash prizes and enormous local prestige in landowners’ fields and in the rising towns.
The system of wagering was essential to the funding and the growth of the industry, and all classes participated from the poor to royalty.
High society was in control, and they made a special effort to keep the riff-raff out and the criminal element away from the wagering.
With real money at stake, the system needed skilled jockeys, trainers, grooms, and experts at breeding, thereby opening new prestigious careers for working-class rural men. Every young ambitious stable boy could dream of making it big.
Horse racing is one of the few sports that has continued during the 2020 COVID-19 crisis, with Australian and Hong Kong the two main racing jurisdictions to carry on, albeit with no crowds. The USA, United Kingdom and France were some of the more prominent racing bodies to either postpone or cancel all events.