The History of Racing



Man and horse go back a long way, its only natural that one guy said “mine is faster than yours”!  Racing is ancient, just think about Ben Hur.  There have been tablets found from Babylonian times that explain how to train trotting horses.


In the beginning, and for a long time (historically speaking), there were not specific breeds of horses – but TYPES of racing that lead to the specialized breeds being formed. We’ll try to sort this history of racing out in the following outline.  Please not that some of the dates for specific events conflict by a couple of years depending on the reference you use.



The 1600’s


Early equestrian fashion of armor required a very stout horse!  But as times changed so did the horses.  Very early in the 1600’s, hot-bloods (remember the look of these desert-bred horses, they will come up again) were shipped to England to cross with native cold-bloods to improve speed and stamina.  The knights no longer needed horses to carry hundreds of pounds of armor, speed would win wars from here on.  It was the speed aspect that encouraged the breeding of  Hobbies or “race horses” to take off (so to speak).



1610 / 1611     The first horses were shipped to America and may have participated in informal racing.


1664                New Amsterdam became New York and the new governor laid out plans for a race track that was operational by 1665.   The track was named after Newmarket, the famous racing area in England, and was located in what is currently Nassau County, New York.


1674                By this time, sprint racing (similar to modern Quarter Horse racing) was popular in the streets of Virginia.  Why? You didn’t need a fancy track, you just used what was already there, the street! But in 1674 this practice was deemed illegal.  Why? People were being run over in the streets!!!  This type of race horse was referred to with various titles including: the Colonial Sprinter, the Quarter Pather and the Illustrious Colonial Quarter Running Horse.


Even in these early times, races would look familiar to today’s racing fan.  There are records that horses raced “weight for age,” fillies got allowances, winners carried more weight than non- winners and the futurity concept was already in use (futurity will be explained in detail later).





1752 or 1756   A horse named Janus was imported to Virginia.  He was a grandson of the Godolphin Arabian and he was quick and compact.  Janus is credited as the foundation sire of the American Quarter Horse.


1788                A horse named Messenger, an English Thoroughbred, was brought to the US.  He was a descendent of the Darley Arabian and is not only a major foundation sire of the Thoroughbred breed (through an offspring named Equipoise) but he is also credited as the foundation sire of the Standardbred.


1791                The first English studbook for Thoroughbreds was founded which consisted of 387 mares that all traced to one of the three foundation desert horses (Arabians).  The connection is made through one of their “thoroughbred” offspring:  Eclipse (from the Darley Arabian), Matchem (from the Godolphin Arabian) and Herod (from the Byerly Turk).   The book was initially kept privately by James Weatherby and is still overseen by the company Weatherby and Sons for the current “owner,” the English Jockey Club.





In the 1800’s, short racing fell out of vogue and the sprinter, who was strong and stout, got a “job” helping the settlers move out west.   These horses were called “Steel Dusts” after the legendary horse by that name from 1843.  The westerners also found these horses had cow sense, an added bonus!


1806                The first recorded distance race (trotting) was contested.  These races would be held at distances of 10, 25, even 40 miles.  At this time, most of the races were ridden but there was some use of the big wooden wheeled vehicles and the races were held over the country roads.  Don’t forget that racing in the streets is still illegal at this time (due to the 1674 law) and the anti-street racing laws would not be abolished until 1830!


1849-1876       The lifetime of Hambletonian (a grandson of Messenger).  A stable hand named Rysdick thought he saw something special in the colt by Abdullah, whose dam was a 17 year-old crippled mare; he wanted that colt and ended up paying for $135 for the mare and the foal.  The foal, later named Hambletonian, raced well (the only one of the mare’s offspring to do so) and eventually went to stud.  As a sire, he produced 1331 live foals (one year 158 foals, another 217 foals) which is amazing even using today’s breeding technology.  Today, every one of the 60,000 registered Standardbreds trace back to him!


1867                The Trotting Horse Register was developed.  By the year1879, the standard admission to register the horse was the ability to cover one mile in 2 ½ minutes, hence the name the Standardbred.


1873                The first American Stud Book for Thoroughbreds is started and kept privately kept by Col. Sanders Bruce.


1892                The year of the pnuematic tire.  The use of this new tire on racing vehicles faced great resistance at first, but soon gained acceptances as the world record time for the mile fell by 4 seconds using the new tire!  People really liked harness racing because they could appreciate it -- they all drove horses for transportation (like NASCAR today)


1894                The Daily Racing Form and the Jockey Club were both formed.  The Jockey Club took responsibility for the Thoroughbred stud book from Col. Bruce in 1896.





Thoroughbred racing (breed specific since the late 1800’s) is continuing to evolve.  A rich tradition has already been established with the continuation of some of the premier stakes races like the Traver’s Stakes, first run in 1864, and the Kentucky Derby first run in1875.


1900                Standardbred racing has a national hero, Dan Patch.  This horse was 5-10 seconds faster than every other horse racing at that time. He became the first sports hero of the century.  He was so dominant that no one would race against him so he just raced “himself” for time.  His image was a prominent as the NIKE swoosh.


There were other Standardbreds on note during that time.  Lady Suffolk was “the old grey mare  who ain’t what she used to be.”  Flora Temple was the “bob-tailed nag” in the Camptown Races song.  Dexter, the traditional weathervane horse, was the horse driven by President Grant.


1940                The American Quarter Horse became an official breed registry; first official racing starts in 1943 In Tucson, Arizona at Hacienda Moltacqua then soon moves to Rillito Race Track.


1946                Roosevelt raceway starts racing at night and harness racing creates its own niche!  It is now tradition that runners compete in the afternoon and the harness competes in the evening.



Other Breeds and Types of Racing


Mules –

Very limited opportunities

Appaloosa Color-based breed, style is similar to Quarter Horse racing.
Paints Color-based breed, style is similar to Quarter Horse racing.
Arabians The style is similar to Thoroughbred racing.  Arabians are really better suited to long distance racing called endurance racing that covers 25 – 100 miles in one day (this is a non-betting kind of race). 90+ % of the endurance horses are Arabians and they are the very elite of the sport.


Present day chariot racing is a recognized American Quarter Horse event.  It is called cutter or chariot racing.


Then there is Harvey, the Buffalo who must have thought he was a Quarter Horse.  There was no official betting on any of Harvey’s races but it would be hard to imagine that a few dollars didn’t change hands when Harvey was in town!