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Stabroek News

The origins of horse racing
published: Tuesday | February 28, 2006

Howard Hamilton

THIS COLUMN has been pleading for the restructuring of racing. The potential of the industry for employment and entertainment are inestimable. It is with a feeling of frustration that we have all but given up. The pending change in political leadership may inspire some hope, but quite frankly, I would not suggest that we hold our breath.

Readers of this column have encouraged me to, at least, keep writing, so I will. Since I am unable to make any prediction of the future I will devote the next columns to some history of this noble sport.

The competitive racing of horses is one of humankind's most ancient sports, having its origins among the prehistoric nomadic tribesmen of Central Asia who first domesticated the horse about 4500BC. For thousands of years, horse racing flourished as the sport of kings and the nobility.

Horse racing is the second most widely attended spectator sport in the United States of America (U.S.A.), after baseball in 1989, 56,194,565 people attended 8,004 days of racing, wagering $9.14 billion.

Horse racing is also a major professional sport in Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America and the Caribbean.

By far the most popular form of the sport is the racing of mounted thoroughbred horses over flat courses at distances from three-quarters of a mile to two miles. Other major forms of horse racing are harness racing, steeplechase racing, and quarter horse racing.


By the time humans began to keep written records, horse racing was an organised sport in all major civilisations from Central Asia to the Mediterranean. Both chariot and mounted horse racing were events in the ancient Greek Olympics by 638 BC, and the sport became a public obsession in the Roman Empire.

The origins of modern racing lie in the 12th century, when English knights returned from the Crusades with swift Arab horses. Over the next 400 years, an increasing number of Arab stallions were imported and bred to English mares to produce horses that combined speed and endurance. Matching the fastest of these animals in two-horse races for a private wager became a popular diversion of the nobility.

Horse racing began to become a professional sport during the reign (1702-14) of Queen Anne, when match racing gave way to races involving several horses on which the spectators wagered. These purses in turn made breeding and owning horses for racing profitable.

With the rapid expansion of the sport came the need for a central governing authority. In 1750 racing's elite met at Newmarket to form the Jockey Club, which to this day exercises complete control over English racing.

The Jockey Club wrote complete rules of racing and sanctioned racecourses to conduct meetings under those rules. Standards defining the quality of races soon led to the designation of certain races as the ultimate tests of excellence.


Since 1814, five races for three-year-old horses have been designated as 'classics'. Three races, open to male horses (colts) and female horses (fillies); make up the English Triple Crown: the 2000 Guineas, the Epsom Derby and the St. Leger Stakes. Two races, open to fillies only, are the 1,000 Guineas and the Epsom Oaks. We here in Jamaica have followed the same pattern.

The Jockey Club also took steps to regulate the breeding of racehorses. James Weatherby, whose family served as accountants to the members of the Jockey Club, was assigned the task of tracing the pedigree, or complete family history, of every horse racing in England. In 1971 the results of his research were published as the introduction to the General Stud Book.

From 1793 to the present, members of the Weatherby family have meticulously recorded the pedigree of every foal born to those racehorses in subsequent volumes of the General Stud Book. By the early 1800s the only horses that could be called "Thoroughbreds" and allowed to race were those descended from horses listed in the General Stud Book.

Thoroughbreds are so inbred that the pedigree of every single animal can be traced back father-to-father to one of the three stallions, called the"foundation sires". These stallions were the Byerley Turk, foaled c.1679; the Darley Arabian, foaled c.1700 and the Godolphin Arabian, foaled c. 1724.

The British settlers brought horses and horse racing with them to the New World, with the first racetrack laid out on Long Island in the USA as early as 1665.

Although the sport became a popular local pastime, the development of organized racing did not arrive until after the American Civil War. (The American Stud Book was begun in 1868).


For the next several decades, with the rapid rise of an industrial economy, gambling on race horses, and therefore horse racing itself, grew explosively; by 1890, 314 tracks were operating across the country.

In Jamaica we boasted having some 32 race tracks and at one time had the largest breeding farm at Pepper in St. Elizabeth.

Next we will look at the growth of the industry and the development of the authorities to regulate racing both here and abroad.

Howard L. Hamilton, C.D, J.P. is a former chairman of Caymanas Track Limited. He is the current president of Thoroughbred Owners and Breeder's Association. He can be contacted at

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