The Origins of Horse Racing and Betting in the UK

origins of horse racing and betting in the uk

Horse racing is one of Britain’s oldest and second most attended sports after football. Competitions occur at 59 hippodromes in the country, bringing more than four million pounds to the treasury annually. An industry not only rich in history, but fortune too, when we start talking about betting on horse racing it leads us to believe it could be much more risky and complicated than tether gambling at an online casino from your mobile phone, for example. Still, it never loses its popularity or relevance and continues to thrive in many countries around the world.

Horse racing has been around since ancient times. It’s hard to believe, but even in the middle of the fifth millennium BC, the nomadic tribes of Central Asia began to hold competitions on horseback. Over time, such races became the entertainment of rulers and their entourage. Nowadays, horse racing is a gambling sport that is legally played in many places and also very popular in many countries: the USA, Canada, Ireland, Australia, the countries of the Middle East, South America, and, of course, Great Britain. Let’s learn a bit more about the history behind this tradition. 

First horse competitions and bets

Even at the very dawn of human history, equestrian competition in all world civilisations was an organised sport. Still, the beginning of modern horse racing only came about in the 12th Century. The Crusaders, returning home from their campaigns, brought home Arabian horses. England began to breed and import this breed of horses in the next four centuries. Arabian horses were distinguished by their endurance, speed, beauty, and grace. 

The ancient Romans were very fond of horse racing. The equestrian sport was brought to Rome by the Greeks, which at the time looked like a competition of small chariots. Chariot races were especially exciting but also dangerous. A chariot was a two-wheeled carriage driven by a charioteer and sometimes his assistant. Two horses were often harnessed to the chariots, but there were also four-horse teams. Chariot racing was an elite and prestigious sport. The best coachmen could count on fame and wealth as well as the admiration of the emperor himself. As a result, they became famous people in Rome.


Roman racing was of two types: competitions to find out in practice which horses were better and horse racing as a sport. The first option was used as a way to assess the quality of the racehorses, most often when buying them in large quantities (for the army, for example). No awards were made, only a good order to the owner. 

However, in the Middle Ages, horse racing was no longer a chariot race but a solo competition between riders. Also, bets were now popular entertainment for the peasantry, the townspeople, and the nobility.

The first known horse races in Britain were among them: in the legionary camp, suppliers thus tried to evaluate which horses were better, local or Arabian, delivered to the camp shortly before. Unfortunately, history has not preserved the winner, but the records, although extremely fragmentary, have survived.

But what about the bettings? It’s almost impossible to say when the first bet was made, but horse racing has always caused great emotions, followed by interest in gambling. We know that the first bets on horse racing were made even before our era when Roman patricians bet with plebeians about which chariot would be the fastest during the games organised in the eternal city. 

How horse racing became a professional sport in England

In the Middle Ages, in England, horse competitions were already held. Still, they were part of knightly tournaments and served not so much to compare horse speed but to show off in front of the lady of the heart. And, of course, knightly honour did not allow any bets or stakes.

The 16th century brought about change that mirrored that of today’s horse racing practices. The first such competitions were held in 1512; they were held at the annual fair in Chester. There was so much public (and money) that there were several more races over the next few years. One of them – Kiplingcotes Derby held in the East Riding of Yorkshire, opened in 1519 and still exists today. It’s now well known as being the oldest race in history.

Racing in Chester soon became an integral part of the city’s fair; by 1540, it had become an annual event and even acquired its own wooden hippodrome.

You might not know that, but King Henry VIII greatly contributed to the development of racing: he loved horses, so he issued several laws on breeding race breeds, limited their sale abroad, and even opened his own stables for breeding race breeds at Hampton Court Palace and Epsom.

By the reign of Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, horse racing with wagers and stakes had become a universal and very popular entertainment, which the Queen herself attended. But the real heyday came after the ascension of King James I to the throne in 1603. The reason is simple: the country was headed by a “horseman,” and the business acquired a national scale. Moreover, the king did not just love horseback riding – he adored horses as such, was fond of everything connected with them, including horse racing, and made great efforts to develop his favourite hobby.

For the sake of the horses, he went to the town of Newmarket to the stables and finally began spending so much time there that Parliament turned to him several times, demanding less stable work and more government. However, it did not work out to influence the king, and based on royal passion, Newmarket turned into the leading horse racing centre of the world, remaining such to this day. The first big races took place there in 1622, and in 1636 the first big hippodrome appeared.

When Queen Anne came to power in England at the beginning of the 18th century, equestrian competition became a professional sport. Small competitions turned into multi-runs. Hippodromes began to be built all over England. Moneybags invested a lot of money in this, and many of them have made their fortune by breeding horses and racing them. Equestrian sports began to expand rapidly, and there was a need for centralized management of equestrian sports. In 1750, the first meeting of the racing elite took place. They met in Newmarket and formed the first jockey club. It still exists today and regulates horse racing in the UK.

The first organization to regulate the industry

The jockey club set the rules for racing. It also authorized hippodromes where horse races would be held. Gradually, certain standards were introduced that determine the quality of racing. Horses were also classified. The jockey club began to regulate the breeding of horses for racing. Pet owners have been required to track the entire pedigree of a horse in the UK.

James Weatherby kept such records. In 1791 he published a report on his work. Since 1793, his family members have written down the data on every thoroughbred horse in a special book. From the beginning of the 19th century, only the horses listed in this book could participate in the races. Such horses began to be called “thoroughbreds.” Each horse from the list can be traced back to the founder of the family. One of these ancestors of thoroughbred horses was the Arabian horses Bayerley and Darley.

According to some sources, Harry Ogden is one of the first bookmakers known by name in the world. Hence, he is often considered the father of sports betting. It started its activity in 1795 in Newmarket, Great Britain. He based his bets on horse racing. So, following the example of Roman patricians and medieval townspeople, Ogden also decided to take up bookmaking. This time, however, he institutionally announced that he could take a bet on any horse. Other bookmakers of the period also started offering bets on horse races. Over time, however, they expanded their offer, including other sports.

By the 17th century, bets had become an obligatory part of the race, and titled spectators quickly learned to lose huge amounts of money on them. For example, the first documented races in Newmarket were between the horses of Lord Salisbury and the Marquis of Buckingham, and the wager between them was 100 pounds, at that time, gigantic money.

There were also prizes for the winning rider. At first, at fairs, the prize was purely symbolic – like a flower wreath or a free mug of beer. Then they began to offer the jockey an award with a material price. The first traditional version of recognition of the winning horse was a bunch of silver bells hung on a horse harness at that time. Later they began to give silver plates, goblets, and candlesticks. Gold was not used, as it was too expensive, but silver “took root” – both traditionally and, if necessary, can always be sold.

Breading and racing criteria 

The first rules for participants were written in 1619; they limited horses’ breed, age, and weight. A century later, the initially short list of rules was overgrown with clarifications and additions. All of them were aimed at two goals: to eliminate the “unfair game” and equalize the chances of the jockeys to win. And if the first was done from ancient times, the second is an innovation born due to the spread of the tradition of monetary rates.

The 18th century brought the biggest innovations: racehorses began to be bred in Britain. By that time, the country had become the world center of horse racing, and it was from here that the passion for horse racing spread throughout Europe. The new fashion required new breeds, lighter and faster, with strong tendons and bones while maintaining not too much mass. Breeding began all over Britain since there were always enough “horsemen.” Previously, only the Arabs, who bred their famous horses, were so attentive to the racing qualities. But in England, things went so well that soon the world began to buy not Arab but English horses.

In the Victorian era, racing took on a modern look and has not changed much since then. As before, completions are divided into flat races and steeplechases. The horses run along a flat circular race track in the first case. Steeplechase is more about rough terrain or artificial obstacles over which horses are invited to jump. In the old days, it was understood that horses for riding compete in “flat” races, and special breeds for horse hunting compete in steeple chases, but over time the difference has smoothed out.

Even now, the horses are selected by sex, age, breed, weight, and many other indicators, and for admission to the races, each of them is meticulously evaluated according to these criteria – to equalize the chances of winning. With this, it would be more interesting to make bets – especially for spectators who actually have expert knowledge and are in most races.

Modern Horse Racing

It’s amazing how many horse races are now run; there’s a jam-packed schedule each year for punters to enjoy, with the most famous of them ran at a certain time every year. The most prestigious are Royal Ascot, Cheltenham Festival, Grand National, Epsom Derby, 2000 Guineas Stakes, 1000 Guineas Stakes, and The Oaks, and you will see the royal family on the majority of them. 

It’s also not a surprise that the racing season in Great Britain lasts almost a whole year, with a break only for the Christmas and Easter holidays. Snow and mud, sun or rain, won’t stop British people from cheering for their favourite horse! Although fresh air and gambling is the main reason for such events to be so popular, the British build a solid professional network while drinking tea and holding their betting tickets. 

Horseback riding and racing is a beautiful sport, and with a spark of gambling is not just entertainment – it’s a part of British history and culture, with its etiquette, rules, and even dress code, not to mention the economic benefits. So don’t miss the chance to witness it with your own eyes next time in Britain! 

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