The thrill of the race is one of Britain’s favourite pleasures. From the skill of the jockey, to the esteem of the breed, to the rush of cheering them on – we just can’t get enough. Today, horseracing is the second biggest spectator sport in the country. And it’s been part of our identity for hundreds of years.
In its oldest forms, the sport was enjoyed by Egyptians, Syrians and Ancient Greeks. But it was the Romans who brought the idea to our shores. Although we already had a profound love for the animals, and used them for transportation and warfare, it wasn’t until around 200 AD that soldiers organised the first competitions.
By the 10th Century, the sport had become quite popular, with historic accounts coming from the quills of Anglo-Saxons like King Eadred. Prestigious racehorses were common gifts for royalty, and English monarchs consistently had a soft spot for them. Kings like Henry VIII and Charles I set breeding laws, standardised rules and embedded the sport’s importance in our national heritage. Even our very own Queen Elizabeth II has owned and bred horses that went on to win at Royal Ascot and Classic races.
When James I set eyes on the village of Newmarket in 1605, he knew it was destined for equestrian greatness. Since then, it’s been known as the home of horseracing in England. And a little over 100 years later, Queen Anne made a similar discovery when riding on the heaths near Ascot. We still commemorate her find today with the Queen Anne Stakes – the opening race at Royal Ascot.
Between these two revelations had been a period when horseracing had actually been banned. In 1654, Oliver Cromwell outlawed the sport, along with wrestling, gambling and many other things that the public enjoyed but he deemed sinful (even though he kept a stud for himself during this period). Needless to say, Charles II cleared up this mess as soon as he claimed the throne, and introduced the Newmarket Town Plate, which he went on to win himself.
Every Thoroughbred you find on the turf today can be traced back to the sires from Charles II and the Stuarts era. In fact, there are only three stallions responsible for the foundation of the entire breed: The Godolphin Arabian, The Byerley Turk, and The Darley Arabian. The last of the three shares DNA with 95% of all modern Thoroughbreds, including the undefeated and world-famous Eclipse. Interestingly, there’s also an unidentified mare from the same period whose ‘speed gene’ can be found in 85% of today’s sprinters.
Although still considered the Sport of Kings, horseracing today is accessible to the masses. Through the rise of the bookmakers, newspapers and televised events, it’s become an entertainment staple for us all – from lord to laymen, millionaire to merchant, and stockbroker to student. And as technology has advanced, seeing the introduction of photo finishes in 1947 and starting stalls in 1965, so has our love for the sport. It kept spirits up during World Wars, inspired healthy competition between neighbours, and continues to unite us as a nation of passionate sports enthusiasts.
If you are interested in finding out more about the history of horseracing then a visit to the National Heritage Centre at Palace House Newmarket is a must. Here, over five acres in the heart of the historic home of horseracing you can explore horseracing from its origins to the present day. A surprising element of the new Museum is the scientific gallery where you can compare your anatomy to a thoroughbred and learn why they have become the ultimate athlete. Not only can you discover some of the sport’s national treasures in the museum but there are former racehorses that are being retrained to meet and a stunning gallery of British Sporting Art. For more information visit: https://www.palacehousenewmarket.co.uk/