On This Page

History of British Horse Racing

Horse racing is currently the second largest spectator sport in Great Britain, and the biggest horse racing events in the country like the Royal Ascot are considered to be some of the most important social events of the year, in addition to being world famous racing events.

The sport generates around £3.7 billion for the economy, and major horse racing festivals are held in 10 out of 12 months of the year.

It has stood the test of time, dating back to the middle ages, and is still a huge part of the culture today.

British Horse Racing in the Middle Ages

Horse racing in England can be traced as far back as 200 AD in Yorkshire, in the north of the country, but they didn’t start using saddles until about 400 years later.

The sport had a slow beginning, halting due to bans on the importation of non-continental horses, but in 1174 William Fitzstephen documented the first ‘horse race meeting’ at St Bartholomew’s horse fair in London.

Over the next 300 years, under the reign of King Henry VII, the sport grew.

16th Century

During this time, Henry VII passed a number of laws regarding horse breeding, and record keeping on the sport became more substantial.

The first record of a trophy being given out was in 1512 in Chester, and the trophy consisted of a wooden bat covered in flowers. The oldest horse race, the Kiplingcotes Derby, was run in 1519.

17th Century

Similar to the history of horse racing in the United States, the interest in the sport has its peaks and valleys. During the 17th century, under the reign of Queen Elizabeth, interest waned.

But that changed in 1605, after James I discovered Newmarket, the place known as the home of England’s horse racing. In 1622, the first Newmarket race took place. The bet was for £100, and it was between horses owned by noblemen. The first Gold Cup event was held at Newmarket in 1634, and the season expanded to Spring and Autumn.

The Newmarket racecourse was founded in 1636. After that point, races started taking place all over the country, competing for silver bells. Racing rules were established, and jockey weights were being diligently measured and enforced.

Things really took off in the horse racing world until Oliver Cromwell, despite keeping his own horse, banned racing in 1654 and all horses were requisitioned. 10 years later, though, horse racing was restored, and the 3 foundation breeds were brought into England. All modern thoroughbred horse ancestry can be traced back to these original breeds; the Byerly Turk, Darley Arabian, and Godolphin Barb.

18th Century

Queen Anne, a keeper of many horses, founded the Royal Ascot in the early 18th century, and to this day the opening race of every Royal Ascot is known as the Queen Anne Stakes.

In 1750, the Rules of Racing was created and applied by the Jockey Club, which at the time was one of the most exclusive high society social clubs. The first rule passed by the club was in 1758 that said all riders have to weigh themselves after a race.

The sport was on a peak during the 18th and 19th centuries, and the Derby and Oaks races were established at Epsom with the influence of Sir Charles Bunbury.

As the sport gained more of a following with the general public, jockies saw themselves gain a better and more noble reputation.

19th Century

In the 19th century, the first steeplechasing races were established and organized by Tom Colman in the 1830s, and the Grand National was established by William Lynn at Aintree at the end of the 19th century.

Race Courses

There are 60 official race courses in Britain, with the majority of them dating back to the 1920s or earlier. Most of the tracks have now been converted to turf, which is unlike most tracks in the United States that are all-weather; there are only six tracks in Britain that are all-weather.

The all-weather tracks are at the following courses:

  • Chelmsford City
  • Kempton Park
  • Lingfield
  • Newcastle
  • Southwell
  • Wolverhampton

All-weather tracks are typically made of Tapeta, Fibresand, or Polytrack.

The majority of the courses vary dramatically in layout, most of them looking much different from the classic oval shape track that is used in the United States almost exclusively.

Types of Racing

Flat Racing

Flat racing is the more iconic picture of horse racing. It got its start at the Kiplingcoates Derby and Newmarket Town Plate, but these races are not much more than historical context. There are some races that began in the 18th and 19th century that are continued on today, known as the five British classics.

The five British classics are the 1,000 Guineas, 2,000 Guineas, The Oaks, The Derby, the St. Leger. These races vary in distance and structure but have maintained most of their original composition over the years.

The Royal Ascot is the biggest flat racing festival in Europe, with horses and owners coming from all over the world to compete, and spectators coming from all over the world to watch.

National Hunt Racing

National hunt racing was adopted from Ireland, where it holds more cultural significance, but is still a large part of the British horse racing scene.

The name may be deceiving, though, as national hunt racing is essentially hurdle and steeplechase racing. In these races, obstacles of different kinds are placed in the horses’ path for them to clear and continue racing.

There are different types of hurdles, like wooden or metal fences, water jumps, and hedge jumps, but the horses are trained to jump them in stride. Breaking stride slows their pace, and not clearing the jump can set them back enough to lose.

Most horses competing in these races are Irish-bred, but some French-bred horses have been introduced to the sport in recent years. The first national hunt race on record was in County Cork in the Republic of Ireland in 1752.

The first race of this kind to take place in the United Kindgom was in Aintree, England in 1839, and has become a staple of the nation’s racing scene ever since.

Major British Horse Races and Festivals

From March through December, major horse races and festivals are taking place throughout Britain. The events range from the world famous Royal Ascot to the lesser known Coral Welsh National in Wales.

Not all events are the same, some dedicated to flat racing, some to national hunt racing, but they are all equally anticipated throughout Britain.


  • The Cheltenham Festival – Cheltenham, England
  • Blue Square Winter Derby – Lingfield, England


  • Aintree Grand National – Aintree, England
  • Scottish Grand National – Ayr, Scotland
  • Craven Meeting – Newmarket, England
  • Bet365 Gold Cup Celebration – Sandown, England


  • Guineas Meeting – Newmarket, England
  • Chester’s May Festival – Chester, England
  • Dante Meeting – York, England


  • Epsom Derby Meeting – Epsom, England
  • Royal Ascot – Ascot, England
  • John Smith’s Northumberland Plate – Newcastle, England


  • Coral Eclipse Meeting – Sandown, England
  • Newmarket’s July Meeting – Newmarket, England
  • King George Day – Ascot, England
  • Glorious Goodwood – Goodwood, England


  • Ebor Festival – York, England


  • William Hill Sprint Cup – Haydock, England
  • St. Ledger Meeting – Doncaster, England
  • Western Meeting – Ayr, Scotland
  • Ascot’s September Festival – Ascot, England


  • Totesport Cambridgeshire Meeting – Newmarket, England
  • Newmarket’s October Meeting – Newmarket, England
  • Champions Day – Ascot, England
  • Racing Post Trophy – Doncaster, England


  • The Paddy Power Open – Cheltenham, England
  • North West Masters – Haydock and Aintree, England
  • Hennessy Meeting – Newbury, England


  • Tingle Creek Meeting – Sandown, England
  • Stan James Christmas Festival – Kempton, England
  • Coral Welsh National – Chepstow, Wales

Horse Racing Media Coverage

In 1986, the daily racing newspaper, The Racing Post, was founded. It is still in circulation today, but this newspaper isn’t used exclusively for horse racing, it also includes greyhound racing information as well as general sports information relevant to the day.

With the popularity of the racing daily newspaper, it’s no surprise that competing papers were in circulation. Sporting Life and Sporting Chronicle were two papers that were fiercely competitive, but in 1983 the Chronicle closed due to debt.

Sporting Life was left to exist and flourish without solid competition, but in 1986 The Racing Post came onto the scene and eventually took over. In addition to print media, there are two horse racing channels on British TV.

The first is called At the Races, and it is free to anyone with a television in their home. The second is called Racing UK and it is a subscription only channel.

BBC began covering horse racing in the 1950s and retained the rights to coverage for popular meetings like the Royal Ascot and the Grand National, but in 2012 the BBC lost the bid for this coverage to Channel 4.

Back to top