If ever there were evidence of how far human beings have progressed since the dawn of time, it can be found rustling in the joy we experience while watching different types of racing. Perhaps it stems from a preoccupation with speed or maybe it’s the result of a competitive primordial human instinct triggered by seeing others contend with one another. Either way, the unsophisticated sense of excitement we feel through watching sport in general is proof that our characters aren’t much different from our ancient ancestors’. That we still love horse racing, a sport remaining virtually unchanged since its origins thousands of years ago, is even more mesmerizing. Let us therefore take a look at the history of what, sprinting aside, could very well be the world’s oldest sport.
Since this sport is simply the practice of racing one another while mounted on a horse, it is probable that its history transcends back parallel with that of human beings. Factually, it is believed that the nomadic tribesmen of central Asia first domesticated the horse approximately 4500 years ago. As far as it being an organised sport however, ancient Babylon, Egyptian and Syrian archaeological records indicate the existence of horse racing.
As seen in the portrait, the Ancient Egyptians held horse races amongst youths. Most probably carrying incredible core strength and agility, these young men were able to stay on horseback and in full control, without the need of a saddle.
On a side note, the practice of horse racing has long been concurrent with the use of horses in warfare. Being able to ride a stallion exceptionally signalled an adept warrior and this most certainly heightened the appreciation of the sport. The same can be said in regards to horse racing and hunting.
Ancient Norse mythology, the origins of which, dates back to the prehistoric period, accounts a race between the god Odin and the giant Hrungnir. While Hrungnir mounted a horse called Gullfaxi, Odin possessed the fastest stallion in existence; the eight legged Sleipnir, of whom it was told, had the ability to fly through the air, glide over water and could even transcend from the realm of the living to that of the dead. Needless to say, Sleipnir won. Who wouldn’t lose to a horse like that?
Stone carved figure of Sleipnar
In Ancient Greece, horse racing was a popular attraction confined to the wealthy. This is because it was only the rich who had the means and sustenance to afford the training, equipment, riders and horses. During the Olympics, races were made with and without stirrups while courses were six laps of a track long.
Horse racing as we know it did not quite happen under the Romans. While chariot, four horse racing, and vaulting were prevalent, the Romans did not have major organised horse riding races.
Nonetheless the sport still existed worldwide within this period and throughout the centuries. It was during the time of the Crusades however, that the infamous thoroughbred type horse first emerged. A number of English knights returned from their battles with speedy Middle Eastern horses and these were soon bred with British stallions to combine their agility and pace with endurance.
By the 18th Century, horse racing in Britain had been turned into a professional sport. Whereas previously, races were two horsed and wagering on the presumed winner was done in private between the nobility; by the 1700s several contestants competed and betting became a popular public common practice. Racecourses emerged rapidly throughout the country, and the Jockey Club was introduced to impose regulations on the equalitarian sport.
The Grand National was soon introduced, thanks to a Liverpudlian called William Lynn who set up the event in his hometown. Despite the first race being in 1936, it remained a local race until three years later, whence developments in the railway allowed the event to become national. It has since developed into one of the sporting events of the year worldwide, attracting a television audience of some 600 million viewers.
Overall, there are now no fewer than 10,000 races in Britain today.
In the United States
Despite having her first racecourse track laid out on Long Island as early as 1665, America had to wait until after the Civil War for the sport to really take off. By 1890 there were 314 racecourses nationwide. Yet even after horse racing had become prominent in America, a strong antigambling sentiment which led to the illegalisation of wagering in almost every state, nearly completely wiped it off the scene. By 1908, there were a mere 25 tracks in the United States.
Since then however, the sport has seen resurgence in America, in connotation to a number of states adopting a more laissez-faire approach to gambling. The catalyst of the turnaround can be traced to the Kentucky Derby introducing pari-mutuel betting. The emergence and development of the Triple Crown has since help sustain the thirst for horse racing in America as events are held in Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes.
Sport is the physical expression of man manifested through the hustling of competition and need for entertainment. Its history is one that transcends parallel with that of human beings. The fact that despite the progression of time and great technological advances, we still enjoy the same entertainment as our earliest ancestors is a fascination. It becomes even more so, when put alongside the consideration of how simple horse racing is, in its essence. Of course nowadays, betting plays a huge part, with over £70bn generated in gambling proceeds worldwide. Yet, just as those living 3000 years ago enjoyed a watching an athlete mount a stallion and ride it ride for competition, the sport still remains prevalent today. All four continents have horse racing institutions and events, gathering large crowds of spectators. There is something truly beautiful in that.
Tahar Rajab is a freelance writer and historian