Horses have an extensive history, with the first “horse-like” animal dating back over 50 million years, before even world-famous jockeys Lester Piggot and Willy Carson were born.
However, the history of horse racing itself goes back a long way, it is worth noting that the ancient Greeks were racing horses over 2,500 years ago. It is also interesting to note that horses have been or are being raced in all four corners of the globe, in countries such as South Korea, Mongolia, China, Australia, America and of course Europe.
When we think of ‘horse racing’, we do not associate that with the famous 15 mile “races” of Mongolia. The history of horse racing in the UK and Australia, as it plays out daily from Ascot to Aintree, Bangor to Bath and Perth to Plumpton, really began in the 17th century.
At the start of that century Newmarket was turned from a small village into the centre and birthplace of racing when King James I took a liking to the area and established a royal palace here. This acted as a holiday home while it was also a stable and hunting lodge and soon following the set up of Newmarket, races were set up all around the country. With its royal associations, the “Sport of Kings” grew rapidly in popularity as what James I had started was continued by his son Charles I and then Charles II after him.
In the early 1700s, as breeding advanced, Arabian horses were brought to Britain to sire future race horses. All English thoroughbreds are, amazingly, descended from three stallions: Byerley Turk, Darley Arabian and Godolphin Arabian.
Next, around the middle of the century came the Jockey Club, and with it racing became the first regulated sport in the country. Racing was changing, with the long distance, stamina- dependent match races, between just two animals, giving way to shorter races that we see on a daily basis now in the UK.
Between 1776 and 1780, as the USA was being founded, the British were concerning themselves with more pressing matters: the establishment of the Classics. The St Leger, Oaks and Derby were all created in that period and are all still contested today.
Technological advancement, notably improved transport, brought the sport to a wider audience and racing grew swiftly during the 19th century. The media, as it was, covered the major races and betting became commonplace. With the arrival of professional jockeys – prompted by the increased interest and money that was brought into the sport – came new challenges for the Jockey Club. They responded by introducing various rules and codes of conduct to maintain the integrity of the regal sport. And still it continued to grow.
Not even the two World Wars could halt the racing wagon and whilst the FA Cup was put on hold, racing, albeit in a limited form, continued. Technology continued to evolve, more money came into the sport and it continued to blossom.
As a sign of the decade, in 1961 off-track gambling was legalised, bringing yet further financial gains to the sport, while the government were also more than happy as they taxed all money.
The advent and spread of television around this time brought racing, with all its thrills and spills, to a wider audience still. Changes in betting regulations, the ever-evolving media and the greater affluence of society mean that racing is now more popular and more successful than ever.
The sport, like all others, faces challenges from drugs and corruption, and also from animal rights groups. Yet in its 5th century it continues to enthral and delight and seems set to do so for many more years to come.