Only football attracts more spectators in the UK than horse racing with over 6.1 million people attending racing events at British racecourses in 2015. It is a huge industry with 86,000 employees and it contributes over £3.5 billion to the UK economy. It is also a sport with a long and illustrious history which I will be outlining below.
There are unsubstantiated reports that horse racing took place in Britain during the 3rd century. It is also claimed that racing took place in the United Kingdom in the 12th century when knights brought home Arab horses. Horses for sale were ridden by professionals to display their speed to prospective buyers.
Some sources suggest there was a major race that took place in the late 12th century during the reign of Richard the Lionheart. The race is believed to have featured knights riding horses over a 3-mile course for a purse of £40; a huge sum of money at the time. Over the next few centuries, a variety of English kings were said to have kept “running horses”.
The Real Beginning
In reality, a lack of written records means a lot of early accounts should not be taken at face value. This changed during the reign of Henry VIII as better information is available from that era. The king passed a host of laws relating to the breeding of horses and he even kept a stud. Records show that the winner of a horse race at the Chester Fair in 1512 was given a trophy.
Seven years later, the Kiplingcotes Derby is said to have been run and it is still an annual event to this day! It should be noted that reliable records for this race only date back to 1618. Incidentally, Sam Osborne rode Mad Professor to victory over the 4-mile flat track in 2016. According to the rules, if the race does not take place during any year, it can never be run again!
The popularity of the sport dwindled during the reign of Elizabeth I but was rekindled in 1605 when King James I discovered a small town called Newmarket. He started to race horses and spent a lot of his free time there. Race meetings took place in locations such as Yorkshire and a gold cup event was held at Newmarket in 1634.
It was during this era that horse racing earned the name ‘the sport of kings’. It received the sobriquet because if you were a member of the nobility you simply had to be part of the racing scene.
A Short Ban
Just when it seemed as if the sport was gaining momentum, the Civil War occurred and when the puritanical Oliver Cromwell emerged victorious, he banned horse racing in Britain in 1654. He used horses for war although he kept a stud for himself! The ban was short lived because the sport was reinstated once Charles II became king. He enjoyed hosting events where two horses were raced against one another around private courses or open fields. The winner received prizes.
He commissioned the Newmarket Town Place in 1664 and wrote a list of rules. Riders were not allowed to strike or bring down other riders and the winner actually had to pay 40 shillings towards course maintenance and charity!
During the reign of Queen Anne at the beginning of the 18th century, racing really took off all over Britain. She absolutely loved racing and regularly attended events around the country. After visiting Ascot, Anne decided that it was the perfect place for horse racing and commissioned the first race called Her Majesty’s Plate in 1711 which had a prize fund of 100 Guineas. This is why the major annual race meet in June is called Royal Ascot.
The Rise of Professionalism
Horse racing was very much a professional sport by the mid-18th century. There was an increase in the number of open events with larger fields of runners. There were even ‘eligibility rules’ put in place based on previous performance, gender, birthplace and age.
The British Parliament passed a law in 1740 whereby all horses in a race had to be the property of their owners. This law was designed to prevent people from using ‘ringers’; this was the practice of illegally entering a high-quality horse against significantly inferior opposition.
In 1750, a number of high society groups joined together to form The Jockey Club. It was to become the single most significant association in the sport. In 1752, it leased land in Newmarket and ultimately purchased the freehold which was to become the location for the Jockey Club Rooms. The association was to form the Rules of Racing and actually remained in charge of the daily running of the sport until 2006. Some race meetings were moved to Newmarket around this time which helped the town cement its place as ‘the home of racing’.
The General Stud Book
Thoroughbred horses evolved from a mix of Arab, Barbarian and Turk horses which were bred with English horses. While there were private studbooks available since around the start of the 17th century, they were deemed unreliable.
Weatherbys published An Introduction to a General Stud Book in 1791 and updated it on an annual basis. As it transpires you can trace the lineage of every Thoroughbred you see racing in the UK today from just three horses: The Darley Arabian, The Godolphin Arabian and The Byerley Turk. Indeed, in an estimated 95% of Thoroughbreds, the Y chromosome can be traced back to The Darley Arabian.
The General Stud Book provided a standard for horse breeding and from the early 19th century onwards, only horses that were listed in the Stud Book could be called Thoroughbreds. Horses not in the book were not allowed to race in the UK.
The Modern Era of Horse Racing
The rise of horse racing in the UK led to the formation of the 5 English classics over a 38 year period from the late 18th century to the early 19th century:
- St Leger: Founded in 1776 by Anthony St. Leger, this race was the first of the Classics to be run.
- Epsom Oaks: First ran in 1779, one year after a race was ran at The Oaks estate east of Epson which was hosted by the 12th Earl of Derby.
- Epsom Derby: First ran in 1780, it was devised during another party held by the Earl of Derby after the 1779 Oaks.
- 2,000 Guineas: It was founded in 1809 by Sir Charles Bunbury and The Jockey Club.
- 1,000 Guineas: It was founded in 1814 by Bunbury and The Jockey Club and is only for fillies.
National Hunt Jump Racing is formed
Flat racing dominated the scene until the early 19th century when jump racing was brought to Britain by the Irish. The first major jump race in Britain took place in 1830 when the St. Albans Steeplechase was held over local brooks and obstacles.
The world’s most famous National Hunt race, The Grand National, took place in 1839 at Aintree although historians now dispute this date. Research suggests that the first three Grand National races (1836-1838) may have taken place at Aintree and not Maghull as previously believed.
Jump racing continued to be seen as a ‘working class’ form of racing and was frowned upon by nobility who preferred flat events. Jump racing in Britain received a massive boost in the 1860s when the National Hunt Committee was formed. It helped clean up corruption in jump racing and held events at courses such as Derby, Aintree, Newmarket, Sandown and more.
By the early 20th century, Cheltenham racecourse came to prominence and held the National Hunt Chase in 1904 and 1905. While it was held at Warwick for the subsequent five years, it returned to Cheltenham in 1911 where it remains to this day. The Gold Cup was first run at the course in 1924 and it is the second most famous jump race in the world behind the Grand National.
20th Century Onwards
The sport continued to grow throughout the early 20th century as dozens more racecourses were opened. At present, there are 59 racecourses in Britain with Chelmsford City the latest course (it was opened in January 2015). Chelmsford City was originally known as Great Leighs and was forced to close less than a year after its initial opening in April 2008.
Interestingly, at that time it was the first entirely new course in Britain since Taunton was opened in 1927. However, Ffos Las was opened in 2009 and Hereford racecourse is set to reopen in October 2016.
While no new courses were opened for most of the 20th century, the sport did undergo a number of changes. In 1928, the Tote was established as the only UK organisation allowed to run pool betting on horse racing. In 1947, the photo finish was introduced during the flat season. By the 1950s, television began to popularise horse racing to add to the already impressive level of newspaper coverage.
In 1961, punters no longer had to be at the racecourse to bet as betting shops away from the ground were legalised thanks to the Betting Levy Act. This started an avalanche of bookmakers in the UK as an incredible 10,000 opened within 6 months! Horse racing betting became a huge industry and it further expanded in 2000 when the first online betting shops opened.
The Jockey Club enjoyed immense power in the sport until the late 20th century. The British Horseracing Board (BHB) was formed in 1993 to govern British horse racing although The Jockey Club retained its regulatory powers and still organised events. It lost this power in 2006 when the Horserace Regulatory Authority (HRA) took over the role of regulator. In 2007, the BHB and HRA merged to form the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) which is now the major decision maker in UK racing.
Horse racing has been enjoyed in Britain for centuries but what does the future hold? Although things look good, the chief executive of the BHA, Nick Rust, is warning against complacency. He points out that the average returns for trainers are falling, as is the number of horses in training.
Rust has outlined a number of targets that the BHA wants to meet. In particular, he hopes attendances at racecourses will reach 7 million by 2020. There is also a move towards getting punters to invest in a share of a horse. It is possible for as little as £30 a month according to Rust.
With a growing interest amongst the general public, more betting options than ever before, increased prize money and more fixtures, it seems as if racing in Britain has a bright future. This is especially the case if the BHA continues to work hard to improve the sport and move it forward.