Racing UK

History of horse racing

The history of organised, modern horse racing in Britain dates back to the 17th century. Prior to this date, evidence of the origins of horseracing is sketchy. There are records of horseracing during Roman times, and in the 12th century, racing is known to have taken place on public holidays at Smithfield in London, and at Chester, where records exist of Shrove Tuesday races.

Horse racing first came under royal patronage during the reign of James I, when the monarch had a royal palace built near Newmarket - then an obscure village. Members of the Royal Court, who had developed a passion for horse racing in Scotland, helped to establish Newmarket as the home of organised horseracing in Britain. Public races were soon set up all over England. Many of the events were held at Bell Courses. They got this name because the prize for most races was usually a silver bell.

King Charles I and Charles II maintained horse racing's royal patronage, and the royal association with Newmarket also continued. Charles II was perhaps the most enthusiastic racing royal. He competed in races himself, and founded a series of races known as Royal Plates. His connection with Newmarket survives to this day, because the Rowley Mile course near the town is derived from his nickname of Old Rowley - in turn after the name of his favourite hack.

As horse racing became all the rage thanks to its royal connections, the breeding of racehorses developed very rapidly too. This was mainly thanks to the import of Arabian stallions, with which British mares were bred to create the forefathers of the Thoroughbred racehorses we see racing today.

Around the middle of the 18th century, horse racing became the first regulated sport in Britain, thanks to the formation of the Jockey Club. Before this time, most horseraces took the format of match races (contested by just two horses), run over much longer distances then Flat racing today.

Gradually, the emphasis on stamina was replaced by racing younger horses over shorter distances. The late 18th century saw the establishment of the Classic races which are still run today. The St Leger, the Oaks and the Derby were all founded between 1776 and 1780.

The arrival of better transport links and other technological innovations in the 19th century led to horse racing becoming a sport watched by millions of people each year. Leading newspapers began to give horse racing far more coverage, and there was a marked increase in the volume of betting on races.

The arrival of professional on-course bookmakers into the sport brought with it different challenges. The Jockey Club reacted by establishing high standards of order, discipline and integrity to ensure the sport continued to prosper.

In the 20th century, horse racing was one of the only sports to continue during both world wars, albeit on a very limited scale. After World War Two, racecourses benefited from the introduction of many technical innovations, such as the photo finish (first used in 1947) and starting stalls for Flat races (1965). In 1961, betting away from racecourses became legalised, and the high street betting shop was born - dramatically increasing the volume of betting turnover.

The arrival of the mass medium of television in the 1950s and 60s put the sport into the nation's living rooms, as horse racing became a regularly televised sport. Even today, horse racing is the second most widely televised sport after football.

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