The sport of racing horses in competition is one of the world's oldest.
Horseracing's origins lie in Central Asia, whose diverse, often nomadic populations, were the first to domesticate the horse, and who raced competitively over 6000 years ago.
Later, horseracing became a feature of the Ancient Olympic Games after being introduced in 680 B.C. in chariot form. Some 32 years after this, horseback racing as we are more familiar with today was brought to the games, though neither saddles nor stirrups were used.
From here the practice of horseracing was spread, famously, to the Roman Empire. It became a popular event across the Empire's provinces; the Circus Maximus being a particularly famous venue. Indeed, in 210 A.D., the Roman Empire brought horseracing closer to home. At a Roman encampment in Wetherby, Yorkshire (where a racecourse can still be found today), local horses were matched against Arabian horses brought to England by the Roman Emperor Severus Septimus.
By the middle-ages, English knights themselves were bringing back horses to Britain from the Arabian Peninsular; horses that they had 'acquired' during the Crusades. With their introduction the origins of horseracing as we know it today were born.
Central to this were the three 'foundation sires', all foaled in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Their names were the Byerley Turk, the Godolphin Arabian and the Darley Arabian. All of today’s nearly 500,000 Thoroughbreds are descended from these three horses, and, indeed, recent research suggests that as many as 95% of male Thoroughbreds can be traced back to the last of these alone. Somewhat strangely, none of these horses ever raced competitively as far as we know.
It was in this same period that 'The Sport of Kings' had its only reigning monarch to ride a winner, as Charles II claimed Newmarket's Town Plate in 1671. The committment of the rest of the field is something lost to antiquity.
During the centuries that followed the foundation sires’ introduction more stallions were brought to Britain, and bred with the progeny of these three sires. One of the most famous, both as a racer and as a sire, was Eclipse, so called because he was foaled during the annular eclipse of the 1st April 1764.
In eighteen races he was never headed, let alone beaten, and never needed to be whipped or spurred. Retiring to stud in 1771, he sired three of the first five Derby winners.
The market for fast racehorses was clearly developing fast, and so too was the relationship that remains synonymous with horseracing today; that between the sport and gambling.
At first, matching was the overriding method with which to bet on race horses. One particularly fast animal would be challenged against another, and, for those that could afford it, a wager on such events proved a popular diversion. That the nobility were most able to do this contrbuted to the now famous sobriquet that racing acquired: 'the sport of kings'.
By the time of Queen Anne's reign (1702-1714), match-racing was gradually being superseded by races involving larger numbers of horses and greater numbers of spectators placing money on the outcome.
As horseracing became an increasingly large industry, it was decided that a regulatory authority was needed to administer the sport. In this capacity The Jockey Club was formed in 1750 (whose administrative duties are now rendered by this Authority).
By the end of the century, the first bookmaker, Ogden, was set up at Newmarket. Around the same time, the foundations of the five races we now call the Classics were being laid. The year 1776 saw the first running of the St. Leger at Doncaster (though it was not formally called this until two years later); 1779 was the inaugural year of the Epsom Oaks; 1780 the Epsom Derby; and 1809 and 1814 the first Newmarket 2000 and 1000 Guineas, respectively.
As the sport burgeoned in size, Weatherbys was formed in 1770 to keep a record of all thoroughbreds in the country. The results were published in the General Stud Book, which has been updated and re-printed ever since.
With the advent of state-of-the-art grandstands, sophisticated training facilities, and advanced camera technology, today's horseracing has clearly come a long way from its roots in antiquity, but its essential characteristic, as a thrilling sport with the chance of winning big, remains at the core of the sport's philosophy.