A brief history of horse racing in the United States

Pick Pony |April 1, 2024, 6:20 p.m.

Ancient horse racing

An ancient Olympic sport

It’s impossible to know precisely when organized horse racing first began. We know that horse racing was part of the Olympic Games in Greece as early as 700 BC. Its popularity carried over into the Roman Empire and throughout the world, with accounts of ancient horse race events coming from China, Persia, Arabia, the Middle East, and North Africa. In fact, it is from these regions that the Arabian, Barb, and Turk horses originated, the three studs that are believed to be the ancestors of all modern-day thoroughbred racehorses.

Medieval horse racing

The establishment of Newmarket in Suffolk

In medieval England, professional riders were hired to race horses to showcase their speed to potential buyers. The first known race involving a purse ($40) occurred during Richard the Lionheart’s reign in 1190. The race covered three miles and used knights as riders.

A few hundred years later, Henry VIII imported horses from Italy and Spain and set up studs at various locations around the country. In 1649, Charles II had a stud of 139 horses.

Charles II (1660-85) is known as the “father of the English turf”. He started the King’s Plates races, which operated under a formal set of rules, and he awarded prizes to winners. The races took place at Newmarket, Suffolk and consisted of two 4-mile heats. This established Newmarket as the main hub of English racing (the Newmarket Racecourse is still operating today).

The history of horse racing in the United States

The establishment of Newmarket in the United States

In 1664, Richard Nicolls, a British colonel and the first English governor of the New York province, created a 2-mile course on Long Island (then known as Salisbury) that he named Newmarket after the British racecourse. This longer race valued stamina over speed (it wasn’t until after the Civil War that speed took prominence).
The Newmarket races involved wagers between 2-3 horses. The owners kicked in the prize money. They lost half of the prize money if they withdrew their horse before the race. Bookmakers (known as “keepers” at the time) recorded these agreements. One keeper, John Cheny, began publishing matchbooks from Newmarket in An Historical List of All Horse-Matches, run in 1729. The book was published until 1773 when it was renamed the Racing Calendar.

The US’s Newmarket became the cornerstone around which all horse racing revolved in the United States. Champions Sir Archy, Boston, and Planet raced at Newmarket, and prominent horseman William R. Johnson, known as the "Napoleon of the Turf," based his stables here. In 1750, horse breeders in Newmarket formed the Jockey Club to create regulations for racing, racecourses, and breeding.

Thoroughbreds arrive in the US

In 1788, Messenger was imported from England to the United States. Messenger was a descendent of the Darley Arabian and is considered the foundation sire of the Stadardbred. Shortly after, Diomed was imported from England to Virginia. Failing as a stud in England, he saw his best days in the United States. He ultimately sired so many children, he is considered by many to be the father of American thoroughbreds.

It was at this time that the first studbook for Thoroughbreds was founded. It consisted of 387 mares, all of which traced to one of the three founcation horses. It was kept privately by James Weatherby and is still overseen by the company Weatherby and Sons for the Jockey Club.

As new tracks opened throughout the country, he added their results to the book. Tracks opened in the early 1800’s included Union Course, the Fashion, Centerville Course and the National Course. By 1890, there were 314 tracks operating around the country.

Earliest horse racing tracks in America

Early horse racing tracks in the United States included:

  • Saratoga Race Course, Saratoga Springs, NY (1863)
  • Pimlico Race Course, Baltimore, MD (1870)
  • Churchill Downs, Louisville, KY (1875)
  • Fair Grounds Race Course, New Orleans, LA (1872)
  • Belmont Park, Elmont, NY (1905)
  • Golden Gate Fields, Berkeley, CA (1941)
  • Del Mar Racetrack, Del Mar, CA (1937)
  • Santa Anita Park, Arcadia, CA (1934)
  • Monmouth Park Racetrack, Oceanport, NJ (1870)
  • Arlington International Racecourse, Arlington Heights, IL (1927)