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History of Horse Racing in the US

Horse racing has a long history in the United States. It effectively began when British settlers brought horses with them and the first racetrack was built in the 17th century.

It took some time before there was racing countrywide and the sport has had some significant declines over the years – notably when there was a ban on betting.

Today the sport is thriving, with a number of different types of racing taking place in many of the states throughout the country. Thoroughbred racing, in particular, is very popular.

Below you will find information on the history of the various types.

History of Thoroughbred Racing in America

Thoroughbred racing is easily the most popular form of racing in the world. It arrived in the US with the settlers from Britain, where organized horse racing had already started to take off.

In 1655 the first racetrack was built in New York and named Newmarket. The naming of this was no doubt influenced by the British, as Newmarket was the home of British racing.

The sport proved popular locally, but it took over 200 years to establish itself nationwide. It was helped in 1868 by the introduction of the American Stud Book, which became the official breed registry for American Thoroughbreds. The growth of the sport was rapid and betting on races was a pastime enjoyed by many.

Towards the end of the 19th century there were over 300 racetracks in operation in the United States.

There was no official national governing body though and this was at least partially responsible for the corruption that was prevalent at many racetracks. This was addressed in 1894, when several leading figures within the sport got together and formed the American Jockey Club.

This organization was largely based on the British Jockey Club, and assumed much of the responsibility for running racing. To this day it’s still involved, primarily in maintaining the American Stud Book.

In the early 20th century, a widespread anti-gambling sentiment in the US resulted in the majority of states banning bookmaking. This was a huge blow to horse racing, as betting was integral to the sport.

There was a dramatic drop off in interest and within a few years there were just 25 tracks remaining in operation.

Things changed again in 1908, when parimutuel betting on the Kentucky Derby was introduced. Following this, several states introduced legislation to allow parimutuel betting. Horse racing began to flourish once again.

There was another decline following the Second World War but the sport recovered again in the 1970s, thanks in part to the popularity of some great horses of that time.

Today Thoroughbred racing takes place in over half the states in America. Many of the big races attract large audiences, both at the tracks and on television. The three races that make up the US Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes) and the Breeder’s Cup are particularly popular.

History of Steeplechasing in America

Steeplechasing is a form of Thoroughbred racing that takes places over courses with obstacles such as fences and hurdles. It originated in Ireland and found its way to the US at some point during the 19th century.


It took a while to really take off but it did eventually become popular. This was thanks in no small part to Thomas Hitchcock, known as the father of American steeplechasing.

Hitchcock was a leading owner and trainer, and he built a steeplechase training center in South Carolina where he trained horses he imported from England. Together with other owners and trainers – notably the famous equestrian F. Ambrose Clark – he helped establish steeplechasing as a sport in its own right.

Today there are 11 states in the US which host steeplechasing events – including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

History of Quarter Horse Racing in America

Quarter Horse racing is believed to have been introduced in the US by the early settlers in Virginia. Races took place over distances of a quarter mile (hence the name), typically on paths cut through forests or on village streets.

There were usually only two horses taking part in each race.

It was many years later, in 1940, that formally organized Quarter Horse began. It still takes place today at a number of tracks around the country.

History of Endurance Racing in America

This form of racing originated in America in the mid-1800s, initially as an organized activity for training horses and riders. It began as a sport in 1955, with a competitive 100 mile ride across the Sierra Nevada Range.


This became known as the Tevis Cup and still takes place annually, along with many other organized races of this type.

The American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) is the national governing body for long distance riding, and was founded in 1972.

History of Harness Racing in America

The origins of harness racing, which involves horses pulling a two wheel cart or sulky, can be traced back to ancient times, when chariot races regularly took place. It’s believed to have arrived in the US courtesy of the Dutch who settled in New Amsterdam (which would become New York City) in the 17th century.

Over time it became a common rural pastime in several parts of the country and many informal competitions took place, largely contested between friends and neighbors. As its popularity grew, more formal competitions took place at county fairs and similar venues.

Towards the end of the 19th century it had become a popular sport with dedicated racetracks built in a number of locations. A specific breed of horse, the Standardbred, came about as a direct result of this form of racing and is still used primarily for harness racing.

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