The History of Horse Racing

min read
BetMGM Sep 15, 2021, 2:33 PM

Horse racing is one of the oldest and most thrilling of all sports. Originally, it was a contest of stamina or speed between two horses. In time, the sport became a multi-million-dollar spectacle with large fields of runners monitored by sophisticated electronic equipment. Today, the races have crossed over into online sports betting. But the basic concept of the “sport of kings” has remained unchanged over the centuries: the first horse to finish is the winner. Read on to find out how this great sport started and where it’s headed.

Ancient origins

Wild horses were first tamed on the steppes of Central Asia some 6,000 years ago. Over time, people developed chariots, wagons, cavalry, and horse archery, as well as technological innovations such as the bridle, bit, and stirrup. The civilizations of Egypt, Greece, and Rome incorporated these techniques into their military forces, as well as their entertainment.

Chariot races and bareback mounted races featured in the Olympic Games of Ancient Greece over the period 700–40 BCE, and they were also popular with the crowds in the Roman Empire. These are the oldest recorded horse races in history, and it’s very probable that Greek and Roman spectators gambled on the outcomes.

The modern sport of harness racing echoes the ancient Greek and Roman chariot races. Horses pull a two-wheeled cart called a “sulky” or a “spider” over a distance of one mile.

The first horse racing odds

Racing took off in Europe after the Crusades. Crusading knights brought back fast-paced Arabian, Barb, and Turk horses, and breeders organized professional races to showcase their horses’ speed to buyers. The first known racing purse was £40 (worth approximately $40,000 today) for a three-mile race during the reign of Richard the Lionheart (1189–1199), in the time of Robin Hood. But it was Charles II (1660–85) who founded the King’s Plate – the first organized race where winners received prizes. Horses had to be 6 years old and run two 4-mile heats.

In France, Louis XVI (who reigned from 1774 to1793) set up a jockey club and introduced rules for racing. Horses had to have certificates of origin, and foreign horses were subject to a weight handicap. Interest in the royal sport was cut short by the French Revolution, but the sport revived under Napoleon and has flourished ever since.

North American racing got started in 1664 when the British occupied New Amsterdam (now New York City). The British commander laid out a 2-mile racecourse on Long Island, with a silver cup on offer for the best horses.

The beginning of modern horse racing betting

Public demand for more racing events caused the sport to evolve. By the 1750s, people could attend open events with larger fields of runners. Modern horse racing betting got into full swing with the original English classic races. The St. Leger (1776), the Oaks (1779), and the Derby (1780) were all dashes for 3-year-old horses carrying level weights. The Two Thousand Guineas race followed in 1809 and the One Thousand Guineas in 1814. The St. Leger, Derby, and Two Thousand Guineas are British racing’s Triple Crown.

English classic horse race betting spread worldwide. France instituted a Triple Crown consisting of the Prix du Jockey Club (1836), the Grand Prix du Paris (1863), and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (1920). The American Triple Crown classics are the Belmont Stakes (1867), the Preakness Stakes (1873), and the Kentucky Derby (1875). Many countries have instituted their own Triple Crowns since then.

The golden age of racing

American racing underwent a massive boom after the Civil War, with 314 racetracks operating in almost every state by 1890. That stopped when anti-gambling coalitions passed legislation outlawing odds quoting and bet soliciting. Only 25 racetracks were left by 1908. 

This all changed when the Kentucky Derby introduced pari-mutuel betting, developed by the Frenchman Pierre Oller in the late 19th century. Under this system, a fixed percentage of the total amount wagered is deducted for purses, track costs, and taxes. The remainder is divided by the number of individual correct wagers. This determines the horse racing odds, or projected payoff, on each bet.

Many state legislatures saw the pari-mutuel system of horse racing betting as a golden opportunity to increase their tax revenues, so they agreed to legalize pari-mutuel betting in exchange for a share of the proceeds. More tracks opened, and spectators flocked to racetracks to watch the great horses like SeaBiscuit and Man o’ War.

By the 1950s, horse racing was big business. Fields of twelve or more horses became common, and more races were scheduled. Breeders bred more horses, and training got more intense. The public fell in love with the great Triple Crown winners such as Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed. At the same time, purses grew. The Arlington Million was the first million-dollar race in 1981, and the purses of today’s high-profile races often top $10 million.

Modernizing the races

In recent years, the sport has declined. Major events such as the nationally televised Triple Crown races still draw big crowds, but many tracks have closed down. 

But the racing industry has already done much to restore the sport’s reputation. Modernization is key. Belinda Stronach, chair of the 1/ST ownership group, made horse racing news with an open letter that partly read: “The sport of horse racing is the last great sporting legacy platform to be modernized. If we expect our sport to grow for future generations, we must raise our standards.”

Stronach recommended safety and welfare regulations such as making veterinary records more transparent, banning some race-day medications and reducing many others and banning jockeys from using riding crops except for safety reasons. The California Horse Racing Board accepted these proposals, while PETA called them “a historic moment for racing.”

Further measures include motion detection and facial recognition technologies to catalog every horse workout. High-resolution cameras track gait and stride length and function as an early-warning system for potential injury. 

Online sports betting: Racetrack sportsbooks

Sports betting is another reason to be optimistic about the races. In 2018, Delaware and New Jersey opened race track sportsbooks, while Arkansas approved casino gaming and sports betting at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort, the state’s lone thoroughbred horse track. Other states that allowed horse tracks to offer casino gaming include Pennsylvania, Indiana, and West Virginia, with Ohio set to follow suit. Horse track operators like Penn National invested billions in sports betting, while the Stronach Group could open its first racetrack sportsbooks at Laurel Park or Pimlico (home of the Preakness Stakes) later this year.

Sports betting is also changing betting patterns. Tracks are considering “fixed-odds” wagering instead of pari-mutuel betting. Bettors are learning how to bet on horse racing the same way they would bet on team sports. Fixed-odds betting allows for horse racing picks that pari-mutuel betting doesn’t offer. Bettors can use their mobile devices to wager on horse finishes, comparisons to other horses, and many other options. 

Find the best horse racing picks at BetMGM

For the best online sports betting opportunities, simply sign up at BetMGM. Discover how to bet on horse racing and many more sports betting markets. You don’t have to take time out to visit the races because our online sports betting platform is mobile-friendly. Watch the races on the big screen at home and do your horse racing betting on your phone or tablet.

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Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.

Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.