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Why Do Horses Race Counter-Clockwise? Left is Right

Last updated: February 26, 2024

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

During my visits to horse racing tracks, I’ve been captivated by various facets of this exciting sport. A question from an elderly spectator, “Why do horses race counter clockwise?” prompted me to delve into the sport’s deep-rooted traditions. Surprisingly, the racing direction isn’t a minor detail but reflects a rich history that defies English norms and aligns with the natural tendencies of horses.

Originating in ancient Greece and Rome, this practice offers insight into the cultural and physical elements that define horse racing. Let’s explore this overlooked yet intriguing aspect of the sport’s legacy together.

Picture of Ancient Roman chariot races. During this period horses race counter clockwise.
Roman chariot races.

The Historical Origins of Counter-Clockwise Horse Racing

The practice of racing horses counter-clockwise has deep historical roots, tracing back to the Greeks and Romans. These cultures didn’t just race for sport; it was a celebration of speed, strength, and the gods’ favor.

Greek Traditions:

  • Horse racing was introduced to the Olympic Games in 648 BC by the Greeks, who preferred the counter-clockwise direction due to their beliefs and the design of their racetracks, known as hippodromes.

Roman Chariot Races:

  • The Romans, known for their spectacular chariot races in the Circus Maximus, also embraced this tradition. The layout of this massive arena was specifically designed for counter-clockwise racing, offering a strategic advantage and a better view for the predominantly right-handed population. Learn more about Roman horse racing.

The American Revolution’s Impact on Horse Racing Direction

The period of the American Revolution was pivotal, not just politically but also for horse racing. American racehorse owners began to deviate from English norms, adopting counter-clockwise racing as a form of defiance.

  • Cultural and Recreational Rebellion: This wasn’t merely a rejection of political control but also an opposition to the cultural and recreational impositions by the English. Racing counter-clockwise became a powerful symbol of American independence and a clear statement of the nation’s unique identity, deliberately contrasting the English tradition of clockwise racing.
By Theodore Webb – Library of Congress, https://commons.wikimedia

William Whitley’s Revolutionary Impact on American Horse Racing

  • Pioneering Spirit: William Whitley is a foundational figure in American horse racing history. Not just a racehorse owner, Whitley was a visionary in the early racing landscape of America.
  • Innovative Racetrack Design: In 1788, he established one of the first American racetracks in Kentucky. Unlike its English counterparts, Whitley’s track was designed for counter-clockwise racing. This choice paid homage to ancient racing traditions and boldly declared American independence.
  • Introducing Track Innovations: Whitley didn’t stop with the racing direction; he also innovated the track surface. Moving away from the grass surfaces typical in England, he introduced clay tracks, marking a significant departure in racetrack design.
  • Legacy: Whitley’s influence was profound, shaping the early development of Thoroughbred horse racing in America. His contributions laid down a standard for the sport that has endured for centuries, cementing his place as a key figure in the history of American horse racing.
Picture of horses racing at the Fairgrounds racecourse in New Orleans.  The horses are racing counter clockwise.
Horses racing counter-clockwise at the Fairgrounds race track.

The Science and Physiology Behind Horse Racing Directions

The choice of racing direction, seemingly simple, is deeply rooted in science and the art of horse racing, reflecting the sport’s nuanced considerations.

The Coriolis Effect: A Scientific Perspective

  • Global Forces: This phenomenon explains how Earth’s rotation affects object movement, potentially influencing horse racing dynamics.
  • Speculative Influence: While intriguing, the Coriolis Effect’s impact on horse racing, especially regarding speed and stability, remains more theoretical than proven, with its effects more pronounced in larger systems like weather patterns.

Horse Physiology and Racing Dynamics

  • Dominant Sides: Horses, like humans, often have a dominant side, affecting their balance and flexibility. Racing counter-clockwise caters to right-side dominant horses, potentially enhancing their comfort and efficiency.
  • Physical Adaptations: The direction of racing might also influence a horse’s cardiovascular system. For example, the centrifugal force during counter-clockwise racing could affect blood flow and oxygen distribution, possibly improving endurance and speed.
  • Training Implications: Understanding these physiological aspects allows trainers to develop tailored programs that address a horse’s dominant side and promote balanced muscle development, leading to healthier, peak-performing racehorses.

Interesting Fact: Belmont Park, established in 1905, featured clockwise racing until 1921. Man o’ War, one of the most celebrated racehorses, clinched the 1920 Belmont Stakes running clockwise. Discover more about Man o’ War.

Picture of racehorses.

Exploring Cultural and Regional Variations in Horse Racing

The direction of horse racing showcases the sport’s dynamic nature, shaped by historical traditions, cultural preferences, and evolving practices. This diversity underscores horse racing’s global appeal and ability to adapt and thrive over time.

Racing Directions Around the World

  • Varied Traditions: Racing direction isn’t merely about tradition or convenience; it reflects deep cultural and regional preferences. While counter-clockwise racing dominates in the United States, the standard isn’t universal.
  • United Kingdom: Horse racing in the UK shows a mix of directions. Iconic tracks like Ascot and Epsom feature counter-clockwise racing, but others opt for clockwise. This variation stems from each track’s historical development and local landscape. Explore UK racing results.
  • Australia’s Regional Differences: Racing directions in Australia vary by state, showcasing the country’s unique horse racing evolution. Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania, and Western Australia favor counter-clockwise racing, while Queensland and New South Wales prefer clockwise, highlighting historical and regional distinctions.
  • Global Practices: In other parts of the world, including Europe and Asia, horse racing practices vary. Japan, for instance, generally follows the American standard of counter-clockwise racing, whereas some European countries lean towards clockwise racing.

In the YouTube video below, horses start in one direction, turn around, and run the opposite way;

YouTube video

Modern Adaptations and Changes

The direction of horse racing has balanced between preserving steadfast traditions and embracing significant changes. While some regions have maintained their directional practices for centuries, others have adapted to modern needs, including standardization, safety, and the demands of international competition.

Globalization’s Impact: The international nature of horse racing has prompted a shift towards standardizing aspects like track direction. This move aims to create a level playing field, ensuring fairness and familiarity for competitors worldwide.

Prioritizing Safety: Safety considerations have increasingly influenced the sport. Research on how racing direction impacts injury rates, and performance has led to reevaluations of traditional practices.

In some cases, this has resulted in changes to track surfaces and designs, including alterations in racing direction, to enhance safety for horses and riders.

Picture of a horse running
Horse racing counter clockwise

Expert Insights and Opinions

To gain deeper insights into the significance of racing directions, I reached out to some experts I know that have experience with horses racing counter clockwise and clockwise. Their perspectives shed light on the nuances and complexities of this aspect of the sport.

Eric Frenchy, Veteran Trainer: “I began training racehorses in Europe and now work in the U.S. I’ve noticed the direction of the track can subtly influence a horse’s performance. I find training them on a counter-clockwise track aligns with their natural inclination.”

Kevin Huzak, Racehorse owner and historian: “The counter-clockwise tradition in American horse racing is a fascinating blend of rebellion and practicality. It’s a clear departure from English norms, but it also harks back to ancient practices. This blend of the old and the new is what makes horse racing history so rich and varied.”

Picture of horses racing on the turf at Churchhill Downs
Turf race at Churchhill Downs

The Impact on Modern Horse Racing

The direction of horse racing, steeped in history and tradition, continues to evolve, potentially ushering in new trends and adaptations. This evolution reflects the sport’s ongoing dialogue between its past and its future.

Influence on Racing Strategies and Training

The racing direction significantly affects training strategies and race tactics, necessitating adjustments in preparation based on the track’s orientation. This includes:

  • Training Techniques: Tailored training programs focus on strengthening the horse’s side most used in the predominant racing direction, enhancing balance and agility for optimal performance.
  • Race Strategy: Jockeys adapt their strategies to the track direction, positioning their horse to exploit the most efficient path, which varies between clockwise and counter-clockwise races. These strategic nuances are crucial for competitive edge.

The Future of Horse Racing Directions

Several factors may shape the future of racing directions:

  • Global Standardization: With the internationalization of horse racing, there’s a trend towards standardizing track directions to ensure fairness in global competitions.
  • Technological Influence: Advances in track design and maintenance could introduce more versatile circuits, accommodating both racing directions and adding strategic depth to the sport.
  • Equine Welfare and Research: Continued research into horse health and physiology may guide future direction preferences, prioritizing equine well-being.
  • Cultural Shifts: Changing preferences of new trainers, jockeys, and fans might influence racing directions, balancing tradition with innovation.
Picture of a horse race at the Hippodrome in Pyatigorsk, Northern Caucasus, Russia.
Horse race at the Hippodrome in Pyatigorsk, Northern Caucasus, Russia.

FAQ Section

Why do horses in the US race counter-clockwise?

In the US, horses race counter-clockwise as a historical defiance against English norms and to align with ancient racing traditions.

Are there countries where horses race clockwise?

Yes, in some countries like the UK and Australia, horses race clockwise, depending on the track and regional traditions.

Does racing direction affect a horse’s performance?

Yes, racing direction can influence a horse’s balance, strength, and comfort, especially considering their natural side preference.

Conclusion: Why do Horses Race Counter Clockwise?

In our exploration of the direction of horse racing, we’ve traveled through history, culture, and science. From the ancient chariot races of Greece and Rome to the patriotic choices of post-revolutionary America, and through the lens of modern scientific understanding, we see that the choice of racing direction is far from arbitrary. It reflects a deep interplay of tradition, physiology, and strategy.

The counter-clockwise tradition in American horse racing, a blend of historical defiance and practical adaptation, has shaped not only how horses are trained and raced but also how they are perceived in the cultural imagination. The ongoing discussions about the potential for standardization or the preservation of regional diversity add another layer to this fascinating aspect of the sport.

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Author Bio

As a seasoned horse racing enthusiast and writer, I bring years of experience and a deep passion for the sport. My journey in the world of horse racing has taken me from historic tracks to conversations with leading experts, enriching my understanding of this thrilling sport. Through my work, I aim to share insights and stories that celebrate the rich heritage and exciting future of horse racing.

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