The Cultural Significance of Horse Racing in North Carolina

Historical Context

Horse racing has deep roots in North Carolina, dating back to the colonial era. Historical records indicate that one of the earliest documented races took place in New Bern in 1774, attracting spectators from across the colony. Prominent figures like Willie Jones and Jeptha Atherton owned horses participating in these early events. These races typically involved quarter horses running short sprints down main streets or cleared paths.

The 18th and 19th centuries saw horse racing as a popular pastime among the state’s elite, with races held on plantations and in towns across the state. Sir Archy, an influential sire in American racing history, stood at stud in North Carolina in the early 1800s. His progeny dominated southern United States racing for decades, contributing to the development of the American Thoroughbred breed.

Modern Developments and Institutions

Despite a decline in live horse racing in the 20th century, North Carolina maintained connections to the sport. The Pinehurst Harness Track, established in 1915, became a notable training facility for Standardbred horses. Over the century, at least 10 Standardbred champions, including the renowned pacer Niatross in the 1970s, trained at this facility.

Steeplechase racing has remained a significant event in North Carolina. The Stoneybrook Steeplechase, held annually in Southern Pines from 1949 to 2016, attracted between 15,000 and 20,000 spectators regularly. The event was more than just horse racing; it encompassed social gatherings and tailgating, becoming a cherished tradition. Continuing this legacy, the Queen’s Cup Steeplechase has drawn substantial crowds since its inception in 1995 near Charlotte. The 2023 event saw over 30,000 attendees and featured purses totaling $165,000 across six races.

Recent legislative changes have opened new possibilities for the sport. In June 2023, Governor Roy Cooper signed a bill legalizing sports betting in North Carolina, including pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing. This development has led to discussions about potentially reviving live racing in the state.

Economic and Social Impact

The horse-related industry in North Carolina has a considerable economic impact. A 2022 economic study commissioned by the North Carolina Equine Industry Association found that the industry contributes $2.1 billion annually to the state’s economy and supports over 26,000 jobs. The study suggested that expanding horse racing opportunities could significantly increase these figures.

Public attitudes towards horse racing in North Carolina are varied. A 2023 survey by Elon University revealed that 47% of residents supported the legalization of horse race betting, while 37% opposed it, and 16% were unsure. Support for legalized betting was higher among younger respondents and those living in urban areas. Additionally, some North Carolina universities have programs related to equine studies and the racing industry. For example, North Carolina State University offers courses in equine science and management, while the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has conducted research on the economic impacts of horse racing in other states.

Several museums across North Carolina also preserve the state’s horse racing heritage. The National Sporting Library & Museum in Southern Pines houses a collection of equestrian art and literature, including items related to North Carolina’s racing history. The North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh occasionally features exhibits on the role of horses and racing in the state’s development.

Future Considerations

The potential return of live horse racing in North Carolina has sparked debate regarding its economic and social impacts. Proponents argue that it could boost tourism and create jobs, particularly in rural areas. A 2024 study by the North Carolina Center for Economic Research projected that a major racetrack could generate $150 million in annual economic activity and create 1,500 jobs. On the other hand, critics express concerns about gambling addiction and animal welfare. For instance, the North Carolina Problem Gambling Program reported a 15% increase in helpline calls in the first quarter of 2024 following the legalization of sports betting. Animal rights organizations have called for stringent oversight of any potential racing operations.

Environmental concerns are also relevant to the discussion. A 2023 report by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality indicated that large-scale horse racing facilities could impact water quality and land use. The report recommended comprehensive environmental assessments for any proposed racetracks.

The cultural significance of horse racing in North Carolina is evident in literature and art. North Carolina author Kaye Gibbons’ novel “Charms for the Easy Life” includes scenes set at a rural racetrack, capturing the atmosphere of mid-20th century racing in the state. Artist Bob Timberlake, known for his realistic depictions of North Carolina life, has created several works featuring horses and racing scenes.

In North Carolina, the annual Carousel Festival in Burlington includes a painted horse race, where local artists decorate carousel horses that “race” to raise money for charity. The 2023 event raised over $50,000 for local nonprofits. This event encapsulates how horse racing culture extends beyond the track and permeates various aspects of local culture.


Horse racing has had a longstanding presence in North Carolina, deeply embedded in its history and culture. While its popularity waned in the 20th century, recent legal changes, historical events, and economic assessments signal a potential revival. The sport’s impact extends across economics, public opinion, academic programs, cultural events, and the arts. As North Carolina considers the future of horse racing, balancing economic benefits with social and environmental responsibilities will be crucial. Reviving live racing could not only bolster the state’s economy but also reconnect with its rich equestrian heritage, ensuring that horse racing remains a vital part of North Carolina’s cultural landscape.