On The Flat: A Brief History of How Horse Racing Came to Be in the United States of America

In order to properly trace the history of horse racing in the United States of America, we must, just as the horses themselves did, take the long way round.

The Famous Three

Although thoroughbred racing began in England, the origins of the horses themselves can be found in the Middle East, and in particular, in the Arabian breed. The Arabian breed is renowned for its grace, spirit & endurance, and it is from just three stallions that all thoroughbred racehorses now descend.

The oldest is the Byerley Turk, a Turkish stallion and former war horse. In addition, there is the Darley Arab, born in Syria, of which 95% all thoroughbreds can trace their ancestry back to. Finally, the third forefather is the Godolphin Arabian, who was foaled in Yemen.

Where There’s A Will, There’s A Way

As horse racing became more popular in England during the 12th century, competitors were looking to gain every possible advantage. At the time, the majority of race horses in the United Kingdom were heavy, and so, racing proponents looked overseas in order to introduce an outside influence that would keep the original stamina but also breed a lighter horse.

The story of the Darley Arabian is one of pure human will, and demonstrates just how much he was wanted in England. He set off from the Syrian desert outside Aleppo on January 4th 1704, arriving in Ireland in early May without a single stop at another port, before making the short trip to England across the Irish Sea.

The Modern Horse

It is from this bloodline that the modern thoroughbred race horse originates. When bred with English mares, a horse that possessed incredible speed and endurance was produced. From there, horse racing became a professional sport, racecourses began popping up all over the country and in 1750, the Jockey Club, an organization that still defines the rules and regulations to this day, was formed at Newmarket.

They’re Coming To America!

British settlers were also hard at work in America, introducing thoroughbred horses as well as the sport of horse racing itself in the late 1600’s, with the very first racetrack appearing on Long Island, New York in 1665. Despite some early momentum, the popularity of the sport struggled during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. However, with the industrial expansion that followed, the sport re-emerged and soon caught the attention of the masses. This is best illustrated by the fact that by 1890, there were a total of 314 racecourse tracks in operation within the USA.

A Close Call

The early 20th century signalled the anti-gambling sentiment, which resulted in almost all states introducing a ban on betting. For horse racing, a sport in which betting is at the core of, this came as a major blow and almost eliminated the sport in America entirely. Thankfully, the concept of pari-mutuel betting caught on, meaning that state legislatures would allow bets to be placed in an exchange for a cut.

It is no surprise that the introduction of pari-mutuel betting re-energised the sport. Unlike many sports where gambling is secondary, placing a bet on the outcome of horse racing was the original concept behind the sport and is one of the main reasons that it is still in existence today. The Internet Age has only further fuelled the global popularity of the sport, and thanks to smartphones and sportsbet horse racing sites, the sport is more accessible to a wider audience than ever before.

The Resurgence

Once pari-mutuel betting was introduced in 1908, the sport began its resurgence in the USA up until World War II stopped it in its tracks. However, the 1970s saw horses such as Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed winning the American Triple Crown, which caused spectators and punters to flock back to the tracks.

In order to win the Triple Crown, the same horse must win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. The incredible talent and success of the aforementioned Triple Crown winners was exactly what was needed to once again popularise the sport, with the USA now being home to some of the most prestigious races in the world, including the Pegasus World Cup Invitational, the Preakness, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the Belmont Stakes and perhaps the biggest of them all, the Kentucky Derby.