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I have been going to horse racing tracks for a long time. But, recently, I was stumped by an old man who asked me, “why do the horses run counter-clockwise?” I had no idea, so I decided to research this question.
Horses race counter-clockwise because American racehorse owners didn’t want to conform to Engish standards and its horse racing establishment. Counter-clockwise running is also more natural for racehorses and is how the Greeks and Romans ran their horses at the advent of formal horse racing.
The directions horses run in a race isn’t something that’s frequently thought about. But for those of us who enjoy horse racing history, counter-clockwise racing has an interesting backstory.
The reasons horse races run counter-clockwise.
Ancient Greeks and Romans raced counter-clockwise, but in most of Europe, horses raced clockwise. Did the United States turn back the clock to follow the forebearers of racing? Or were there other reasons that determined counter-clockwise racing?
There are three primary theories why horses run counter-clockwise during a race. American patriots didn’t want to continue following English traditions, horses run more naturally, traveling counter-clockwise, and ancient horse racing traditions.
Counter-clockwise horse racing began as a protest against English tradition.
Counter-clockwise horseracing in the U.S. started in 1788. During the American Revolution, patriot emotion was high, and colonists sought to separate themselves from all English traditions.
So changing the running direction in the “sport of kings” made sense. But there are other theories why horses race counterclockwise in the United States.
Counter-clockwise horse racing in the United States can be traced to one person, William Whitley. Whitley was born in 1749 to Irish immigrants living in Virginia. He married and eventually moved to Kentucky with his wife.
In 1773 the English entered a pact with the local Indians, promising the land west of the mountains would be reserved solely for their use. The land Whitley lived on in Kentucky was included in the English and Native American agreement.
Whitely and his family had to move around the countryside and seek shelter and protection at area forts. Sometime during the 1780s, Whitley had returned to his home in Kentucky.
In 1787 he built a large brick home and added a horse racing track on the property the following year. Whitely’s track was the first one built in the United States after the revolution.
During the period Whitely created the track, Thoroughbred horse racing was very popular in England. Whitelys’ disdain for the British was so strong that he wanted to incorporate some features to distinguish United States horse racing from the English tracks.
- Clay track surface: Whitley’s track surface was clay. Up until this time, all English horse racing tracks were grass.
- Horses ran counterclockwise: This is the first horse track to run counterclockwise.
The house still stands and is open to the public in Stanford, Kentucky. You can click this link for more information or schedule a visit to the William Whitley House State Historic Site.
The race track built by Mr. Whitley provided a much-needed distraction for the locals. Life was trying on the frontier, and having an outlet such as horse racing was excellent for the local population’s morale.
Horse racing continued on the Whitely property until the Civil War. Whitley established a tradition of counter-clockwise racing on oval tracks that influenced other sports such as car racing and track and field events.
Interesting fact: Belmont Park was established in 1905. The horses raced running clockwise until 1921. Man o’ War won the 1920 Belmont Stakes running the course clockwise.
Counter-clockwise racing is natural for horses.
Some people believe the direction of horseracing evolved naturally, like other aspects of life.
The Coriolis effect
The Coriolis effect determines the direction a storm spins. North of the equator, the spinning motion is counterclockwise.
The Coriolis effect is how rotation affects a moving object by causing it to veer right in the Northern hemisphere and left in the Southern hemisphere.
The theory is the Coriolis effect would result in faster times for horses running counterclockwise in the Northern hemisphere. This theory doesn’t hold up too well.
International cycle competitions race counterclockwise, and some of the world records were set in the Southern hemisphere. The Coriolis effect doesn’t help speed.
How the heart reacts to running in one direction compared to running in a different direction. The supporters of this reasoning suggest that a horse’s heart will pump more blood by moving in one direction and therefore run faster.
From a scientific perspective, blood is brought through veins from left to right across the body. Counter-clockwise movement assists in moving blood faster because of the centrifugal force generated while running.
Running clockwise would have the opposite effect creating a more difficult transport of blood. Centrifugal force created by a horse running around a mile-long track?
I think the speed needed to generate any energy that could affect blood flow is way beyond any horse’s capabilities.
Most western languages are read from the left to write, so spectators are more comfortable and enjoy watching horses running from the left towards the finish line.
This theory discounts the languages read from top to bottom, like Chinese.
The ancient Greeks raced counter-clockwise.
The hippodrome was a Greek colosseum where horses and chariots were raced. Many were constructed around 200 BC. The average distance of the races was 2.5 miles, which took seven laps around the course to complete.
And the races were run counter-clockwise. It is thought that by racing counter-clockwise, charioteers would want to keep their dominant sword hand to the outside in case the weapon was needed.
Since the Greeks raced their horses counter-clockwise, some people believe this established the direction for horse racing today. But if the direction of racing horses was set in ancient Greece, why did all of Europe run horses clockwise for so many years?
Even today, most of Europe only races their horses in a clockwise direction. England has some races that run counterclockwise and some that run clockwise.
From the hippodrome races until Whitely built his track in Kentucky, horse racing was run clockwise.
Interesting fact: The word hippodrome is a Greek word that translates to a horse course. Hippos mean “horse” and dromos mean “course.” The French still use the word hippodrome to refer to horse racing tracks.
Do racehorses in Europe run counter-clockwise?
The British drive cars on the wrong side of the road, so it made me wonder if they run their racehorses in the wrong direction as well. So, I researched not only England but also other countries in Europe to find out.
At some racetracks in Europe, the horses run counter-clockwise. In England, horses primarily race counter-clockwise, but in Germany and France, racetracks go both directions, and there is no national standard.
In Germany and some other European countries, they call a clockwise track a right-handed track because all turns go to the right. A left-handed track is one with turns to the left.
Of course, a left-handed track would be a standard direction track in the United States. Germany seems to have an even number of tracks in each direction.
The French don’t seem to know which direction to race. In the YouTube video below, horses start in one direction, turn around, and run the opposite way; eventually, horses are running in every direction.
I’m not sure if having a similar number of tracks running in each direction was intentional or the way things played out. In England, they also have tracks designed to run in either direction.
Tracks in which horses run in a counter-clockwise direction are called anti-clockwise tracks in England. Many English courses, especially older ones, were designed around the landscape.
Some have slopes and turns in various directions. England has some race tracks that are intended for horseracing in either direction.
Do racehorses in Australia run counter-clockwise?
Australia is a country steeped in horseracing tradition that drives on the wrong side of the roads, but do they race horses counter-clockwise. I needed to find out.
In Australia, horseracing tracks go either direction. Like driving on the wrong side of the road, Australia again follows the lead of its Mother country England.
However, there is a slight variance; it seems they divide the directions the horses run by the state; in Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania, and Western Australia, horses race counterclockwise direction. In Queensland and New South Wales, horses run clockwise.
Do racehorses in Canada run counter-clockwise?
Canada falls under the English empire’s umbrella, so I assume they also follow British horseracing customs, but it said you shouldn’t assume anything. So, I decided to do some research to find the answer.
Canada, like the United States and the rest of North America, almost exclusively races counter-clockwise. Canada’s premier racetrack, Woodbine in Toronto, does have a 40 race meet running clockwise.
It’s used as a promotional stunt to try something new and give racing fans in North America a chance to see racing run backward. Although this is a fun experience, it also can be a dangerous event for horses and riders.
Most of the competitors have never raced in a clockwise race. It seems simple enough to just run a different direction for a person, but horses change leads based on their position in the turns.
Not having trained sufficiently could end up with a miss-step by a horse causing a crash with other horses.
After reviewing the literature and studying racing history, William Whitley’s hatred for the British is the most likely answer to the question, “why are horse races run counter-clockwise?”
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