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History Of Horse Racing

Lingfield Park, Surrey

Horse racing is, no doubt, as old as the domestication of horses, which took place in central Asia in prehistory. As far as Britain is concerned horse racing seems traceable to the twelfth century when returning crusaders brought back Arab horses with them, which were used to breed race horses. Then until the first part of the nineteenth century horse racing was a sport taking place on a local level, since it was difficult to transport horses any distance. Most courses only staged one race a year, usually associated with holidays and entertainments. Racing stables were set up at Lambourn and Newmarket during or soon after the reign of James I in the seventeenth century. The first formal racecourse was probably built in Chester, on the Roodeye. A track was laid at Lincoln in 1607. Then sometime around 1671 a formal track was laid out at Newmarket, and it was Newmarket which would become the administrative centre of horse racing. Newmarket was to benefit greatly from the patronage of Charles II. Following the period of Parliament's puritan rule under Oliver Cromwell, virtually all sport had been suspended. But in 1660 Charles II was restored to the throne, and this coincided with a whole new cultural scene. Charles loved women, socialising, the theatre and sports, particularly horse racing. He would disappear up to Newmarket whenever he got the chance. His influence is still seen in Newmarket today in the typical pub name of the Black Boy - Charles had a shaggy mane of black hair. But Charles's easy going ways were not approved of by all his subjects, and their ambivalence was reflected in Charles's favourite sport. Horse racing has always been a vehicle for gambling, and was unashamed in its acceptance of this, unlike other sports which pretended they were above such things. Charles II never tried to be someone he wasn't, and in many ways the same is true of horse racing.

 

 

Stable block at Lingfield

Most of the great races, the St Ledger (1760), the Oaks (1779), and the Derby (1780) began in the eighteenth century, but it was during the nineteenth century, in common with all other sports in Britain, that the fortunes of horse racing really changed. The vital factor was the development of railways after 1830. Railways allowed transport of horses, and of ever bigger crowds, to race meetings. The first horse racing special services were run by the London and Southampton Railway for the 1838 Derby. In changing to a national rather than local sport, economics of racing also began to change. Until the mid to late eighteenth century courses had unlimited access, with money being made from an entry fee to the grandstand. In April 1875 Sandown Park became the first race course in Britain to enclose its course and charge an entry fee. By 1900 most courses were enclosed, though some prestigious events had invisible barriers of privilege which kept them going as open courses - Ascot, Goodwood, Doncaster and York for example. With courses now acting as sources of income it was important to make them safe places to visit. Form the late eighteenth century firm measures were taken against gang fighting over control of betting income. Gambling was always a thorn in horse racing's side. And yet, ironically, in the years to come it would be gambling that would save the sport. During horse racing's glory years it was admittedly difficult to see gambling as a saving grace. In common with other sports, the First and Second World Wars were followed by surges in popularity for racing. Then not long after World War Two horse racing's popularity peaked and began to decline. Race crowds went down from an average of 11,964 per meeting in 1953 to 9,168 in 1961 (figures quoted in Sport in Britain, a Social History ed Tony Mason P121). It was at this point that horse racing was saved from terminal decline by gambling. From 1929 racing had taken a portion of the revenue generated by betting at a race meeting, known as the tote. Until 1960 gambling by law could only take place at race meetings, or via postal bookies, who were well known for being unreliable. This meant that punters who couldn't attend meetings were likely to go to an illegal street bookie, who, as Wray Vamplew points out, were much more likely to honour bets than the postal bookies- (see Vamplew's article in Sport in Britain, a Social History). With most punters using illegal bookies, a vast part of the gambling industry was black market, unregulated and untaxed, and of no benefit to the sport on which it depended. By 1960 the illegal street betting industry was so huge that government gave in to the inevitable and legalised high street betting shops. Now punters could watch a race on television in their home towns and bet on the races they watched. By 1968 there were 15,000 betting shops. With former black market revenue now controlled through betting shops, a portion of it could be directed back into the sport. Between 1961 and 1985 the Horse Racing Betting Levy Board put £195 million back into racing.

Horse racing, more than any other sport in Britain has accepted the role of money in its existence, but in conclusion it is important to emphasise that racing remains a sport rather than a business. This is clear in the way many people involved in racing do not put financial profit as their top priority, a typical feature of sport. Horse racing is often irrational as a way of making money. For many years race entry fees were used to provide prize money, which meant that race horse owners were competing mainly to win back their own money. It is also the case that owners have nearly always spent more on their race horses than they earned from them. By the 1960s prize money on average only contributed 23% of the total costs of ownership (figures quoted by Wray Vamplew). Most owners lose money, but are willing to bare these costs for the prestige of being involved in the sport. In the 1830s a third of owners were titled. Today the nobility have been replaced by super rich businessmen, who don't seem to care about the costs of participation. For them their sport is on a different plane to normal laws of profit and loss. As C.R. Hill said "racing is a multi-million pound sporting industry; there is a tension between the sporting and industrial aspects. But it is saved by being a sport" (The Times February 17th 1988). The age of the gentleman amateur might appear to be over in sport. And yet some of the most prominent people in horse racing, the most unashamedly commercialised of all sports, don't do it for the money.

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