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It has been nearly four centuries since formal horse racing was developed and over this time, there have been some amazing horse racing facts that you might not know about but should. I’m going to share with you critical information about horse racing, racing personalities, and the most important players in the game – thoroughbred horses.
1. Horse Racing Began over 5,000 years ago
The origins of pitting horses against one another are as mysterious as the evolutionary changes we can see in the horse’s anatomy. From the fox-sized prehistoric animal that roamed the plains to the elegant thoroughbreds we see racing today; indeed horse and horse racing have both come a long way.
However, there is little debate that the first horses were domesticated horses on the Western Eurasian Steppes approximately 6,000 years ago. People first used them for meat and milk. However, it wasn’t long before they mounted them and rode from village to village.
Because of the competitive nature of humans, it wasn’t long before horse owners challenged each other to race their steeds. Thus the first horse races likely occurred over 5,000 years ago on the Western Eurasian Steppes in what is now known as Kazakhstan.
A horse gallops with its lungs, perseveres with its heart, and wins with its character.
2. The earliest organized horse races were held in Rome.
The earliest organized horse racing matches trace their roots to the early Roman times, but no documented records were found to provide the exact date. The Encyclopedia Britannica states that chariot and bareback races may have occurred during the Olympic Games between 700 and 40 BCE.
Archeologists found depictions of chariot races in ancient Greek pottery inscriptions, and the tragic poet Homer (8th Century BCE) wrote about horse racing in his poems.
3. Modern horse racing in England began in 1679
The thoroughbred horse breed originated in England by crossing Arabian Studs with mares native to the English Isles. These horses grew fast and strong and established England as a horse racing Mecca. Although the Brits raced horses since 200 AD, it wasn’t organized as we know it today until much later.
Horse racing may have been taking place in England for centuries, but it was not until 1679 that horse racing was first documented and reported in the London Gazette. William Osmer – author of “A Dissertation on Horses,” points out that horse racing existed long before this time; however, the earlier events were never officially recognized or recorded.
The British Queen is very fond of horse racing and has owned many thoroughbreds over the years. The oldest horse race that still takes place annually is the Kiplingcotes Derby.
It is held in Yorkshire, England, and has been taking place since 1519. Tradition dictates that it be held each year or canceled forever! When the pandemic hit in 2020, just two riders participated in it.
Origins of horseracing in countries around the world
- In India, horse racing is over 200 years old. The first horse racecourse was set up in Madras (Chennai) in 1777.
- China was slightly late in taking up this sport. The country’s Race Club was first established in 1850.
- Australia’s obsession with horseracing started in the 1790s. In the early days, the country did not even have racehorses and used workhorses for racing. They only started bringing in thoroughbreds in the 1800s.
- France’s history of horse racing is very interesting. It began as a wager between two noblemen, and the first documented horse race was held in 1651.
- Japan has 25 racecourses across the country, with two of them in Tokyo.
4. The first horseracing track in America was established in 1665.
During the time of colonial America, the horses on the continent were a mix of breeds; however, with little entertainment, the settlers often raced horses. These matches eventually led to the establishment of the first horseracing track.
Horse racing in the United States has a long and celebrated history that dates back to 1665. In this year, New York’s colonial government established a course on what is now called Hempstead Plains of Long Island. The first races were held when America was still under British rule.
However, the sport of horse racing didn’t gather national attention until after the Civil War – around 1868. During the Great Depression, some states went on to legalize horse racing to boost the economy. However, in the period between World War II and the 1970s, horse racing saw a dip in popularity.
A racehorse is the only animal that can take several thousand people for a ride at the same time!
5. The first Kentucky Derby was held in 1875.
Kentucky’s mild climate, lush vegetation, and bluegrass meadows have made it one of the most important states for horse breeding and racing. The state has produced some of the greatest racehorses of all time and hosts the most famous horse race in the world, the Kentucky Derby.
The first Kentucky Derby was run on May 17, 1875, and the winner of that race – Aristides, completed the one and half mile course in 2 minutes and thirty-seven seconds. The chestnut thoroughbred competed against 14 other horses in front of over 10,000 fans at Churchill Downs.
Kentucky Derby is always held on the first Saturday in May and is the first leg of the triple crown series. This tradition was changed only twice since it began – once in 1945 during World War and the second time in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Kentucky Derby Traditions
There are many traditions associated with the Kentucky Derby:
- A grand Derby breakfast is served on the first day.
- The winning horse’s owner is invited to a party hosted by the president of Churchill Downs.
- People also drink the traditional mint julep drink
- The song “My Old Kentucky Home.” is played, and people can even bet on how long it’s played.
- Since 1932, each winning horse of the Kentucky Derby has worn a blanket of red roses sewn on it. For this reason, the race is also called the Run for The Roses.
Interesting Kentucky Derby facts:
- 19 past thoroughbred winners of the Kentucky Derby have names beginning with the letter ‘S.’
- Famous horses that won the Kentucky Derby include Seattle Slew, Secretariat, Smarty Jones, and Citation.
- The Kentucky Derby Cup trophy weighs less than 4 lb.
- Only three fillies have won the Kentucky Derby.
- The Kentucky Derby was the brainchild of Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., who was inspired by England’s Epsom Derby.
- People consume massive amounts of food at the Kentucky Derby: over 140,000 hot dogs, 18,000 sandwiches, and more than 13000 lb. of beef!
- The Derby has never been canceled, even due to inclement weather.
6. Secretariats’ heart weighed 22 pounds
Secretariat is one of the most famous thoroughbred horses. His record of winning the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, and Preakness Stakes still stands today. His average speed was 37.7 mph, and he finished the 1973 race in under 2 minutes.
Unfortunately, Secretariat had to be put down in October 1989 due to laminitis. When they performed his autopsy, they found that his heart weighed 22 lb. The normal weight of a racehorse’s heart is just eight lb. So, Secretariat had a large heart indeed!
The greatest horse races rely on the greatest horses!
7. The largest purse in horse racing is 12 million dollars.
The biggest prize in this sport is the Pegasus World Cup held in Hallandale Beach, Florida, at Gulfstream Park. It is a mile-and-one-eighth competition run on dirt. Its inaugural race was on January 29, 2017, and it had a purse of nearly $12 million! The second richest horse race is the Dubai World Cup.
8. All racehorses have the same birthday
Thoroughbred racehorses have the same birthday to make it easier for breeders, racing authorities, and owners alike. Their breeding cycle established the birth date, leading horses into two categories based on this phenomenon: Northern Hemisphere (having January 1 as their Birthday or Southern Hemisphere counterparts determined to be August 1st).
Horse races are restricted to age groups, so the establishment of a common birthday allows racing commissions to easily keep up with horses’ age to schedule races. To learn more about this interesting rule, check out my article, Why Do Thoroughbred Racehorses Have the Same Birthday?
9. Horseracing contributes almost 3.7 billion to the UK economy
Horse racing maintains its title as the Sport of Kings. It is a billion-dollar industry and remains a popular gambling sport. Annually, there is almost a $100 billion bet on it. The sport contributes nearly £3.7 billion to the UK’s economy.
10. Australia has more horse racing tracks than any other country.
The Australian racehorse industry is one of the most vibrant in the world, producing some of history’s greatest equine athletes. Names like Pharlap, Winx, and Black Caviar are forever etched into our minds as proof that this land can produce beautiful horses and champions.
The Australian thoroughbred horse racing industry is a large part of the country’s culture, with more than 300 racecourses across Australia. In comparison, the United States has less than 150 race tracks, and Canada doesn’t even come close.
Australia hosts many prestigious horse races, but the Melbourne Cup is the most famous. It has been running since 1864 and takes place on the iconic Flemington Racecourse. The competition features some of the best turf racing horses in the world.
More Fun Facts about Race Horses
- Shergar, the winner of the 1981 Epsom Derby, was stolen by masked gunmen in 1983. He was never seen again.
- Red Rum’s comeback – where he won the Grand National from 30 lengths behind – is considered one of the most thrilling sporting events.
- An Irish racehorse named Arkle was so good that authorities invented new weight systems for the races he was in. Even when he carried 2 ½ stone more than the other horses in the Irish Grand National of 1964, he still won.
- Frankel is considered one of the fastest horses of all time. He won every one of the 14 races he participated in. At the end of his racing career, his value was $165 million.
- Aristides was the first winner of the Kentucky Derby.
- A horse’s racing life is typically 4-5 years. Some top winners like Man of War and Sea Biscuit raced for only two years before retiring. A racehorse in good health can run in 18 races a year.
- British racehorse Humorist won the 1921 Derby in Britain. It was discovered soon after that he had tuberculosis and had been training and winning despite having just one healthy lung!
- As per the Guinness Book of Records, the highest speed recorded by a horse is 43.9 mph, clocked by Winning Brew in 2008.
- The most expensive racehorse ever sold is the Fusaichi Pegasus, bought for $70 million by one of the world’s biggest breeders – Coolmore Ireland.
- Only nine colors are recognized in thoroughbred racing horses: bay, black, chestnut, palomino, white, grey/roan, dark bay/brown, grey, and roan.
- All thoroughbred horses have to have a purebred dam and sire. This is why we can trace the ancestry of all thoroughbreds to one of three founding stallions (the Byerley Turk, the Darley Arabian, and the Godolphin Arabian). These were imported from the Middle East into the UK.
- In the past, thoroughbred horses had lip tattoos for the sake of identification. It consisted of the horse’s age and registration number with the Jockey Club. These days, they use a microchip instead.
- The oldest living Thoroughbred is a horse named Prospect Point, born in 1978.
- Only 13 horses have won the American Triple Crown. The last one was in 2018 – by a thoroughbred named Justify.
- Most racehorses run with their tongues tied.
Interesting horse racing facts.
- The most exciting horse race ever is the one between Quashed (winner of the Oaks in 1935) and Omaha (winner of the 1935 US Triple Crown). Both horses went eyeball to eyeball in the final yard of the Gold Cup. This was during a time when they had no TV coverage or photos, and there were tense moments before the winner was declared on the frame – Quashed won by a short head.
- The world’s oldest classic horse race is Ledger Stakes – it is held in September every year.
- Belmont Stakes is known as the Test of the Champions. It is the longest race in the Triple Crown.
- In the UK, the Queen Alexandra Stakes at Royal Ascot is the longest race in the British racing calendar; it measures 2 miles and 6 furlongs in distance.
- The Grand National is considered the toughest horse race and tests the rider and the horse. There are 30 fence obstacles over a distance of 4 miles in it, and they are considered rather brutal. Many accidents have been known to have occurred during this race.
- Pony horses accompany racehorses from the paddock to the starting gates in the U.S. but not in Europe.
“Barrel Racing is not an event – it is a way of life”.
Unique Facts about Horse Racing Tracks
- In the United States, horse race tracks are oval and flat. English tracks, on the other hand, vary like American golf courses. They may be U-shaped, pear-shaped, triangular, etc.
- Horse races in America are run counter-clockwise as they are easier for the righties. However, before 1821, the Belmont Stakes was run clockwise like its European counterpart.
- The Churchill Downs of the USA and the Epsom Downs of the UK are the most famous tracks.
- The Mongol Derby is the longest horse race track, with over 1000km extending through the Mongolian Steppes.
- The oldest racecourse – documented by the Guinness Book of World Records – is the Chester Racecourse in the UK – also called Roodee.
- The oldest horse race track in America is the Pleasanton Fairgrounds. It dates back to the early 1850s.
- Horse races are measured in furlongs. One furlong is 220 yards or 1/8th of a mile.
- Horse race tracks have different colored poles on the inside rails. These are placed at different distances; every color means a certain distance. For example, the green pole is 1/8th of a mile while the black is 1/16th of a mile.
“the spirited horse, which will try to win a race of its own accord, will run even faster if encouraged.”Greek scribe Ovid
Interesting Facts about Horse Race Jockeys
- Jockeys in the Kentucky Derby are very lightweight – some weigh less than 120 lb. No height requirement exists, but all jockeys are rather short and lightweight. Considering these statistics, you can imagine what an impressive feat they achieve: controlling a 1000 lb. horse running at a speed of 40mph!
- Jockeys are small people; the lowest-weighing jockey weighed just 49 lb. The current record for the lightest jockey is held by Giovanni Porte, who weighs just 88lb.
- The tallest jockey on record is Australian Stuart Brown at nearly 6 feet, 3 inches.
- The first female jockey was Diane Crump (1969). Only six women have ever participated in the Kentucky Derby.
- The highest-earning jockey is John Velaquez, whose earnings stand at a reported $380 million.
- Russell Baze is considered the greatest jockey of all time. He started his racing career at 16 and has 12,717 wins in 53,111 starts to his credit. Another mention-worthy jockey is Mike E Smith, who has 26 wins in the Breeder’s Cup with career earnings of over $305 million.
- A jockey named Frank Hayes suffered a heart attack mid-race but stayed astride on his horse named Sweet Kiss. He was declared dead but still won the race. His horse later came to be known as the Sweet Kiss of Death.
- Jockeys do not make as much money as one would expect them to. Most average a salary between $35,000 to $45,000 a year. Ones that do not win only get a fee of $100.
- Aristides, the first horse to ever win the Kentucky Derby, was trained by an African American -a former slave. Aristides’ jockey was also African American.
- Jockeys are supposed to wear the horse owner’s silks. The horse owner has to register the silk’s color with the racing commission, which helps identify the horse.
- The youngest jockey to win the Kentucky Derby is Alonzo ‘Lonnie’ Clayton, who was just 15!
As can be seen, there are hundreds of interesting facts about horse racing, thoroughbreds, and derbies. The sport is enjoyed all over the world and has a long history. I hope you enjoyed the above fun facts on this topic!
I love animals! Especially horses, I’ve been around them most of my life but I am always learning more and enjoy sharing with others. I have bought, sold, and broke racehorse yearlings. I have raised some winning horses and had some that didn’t make it as racehorses, so we trained them in other disciplines.