In 1665, with the establishment of the Newmarket course in Long Island, NY, horse racing began it’s long and storied history in American culture.
Beginning in the 1800s, unlike many cultural events at the time, horse racing was enjoyed by social elites and working-class alike.
This still holds true today. As the wealthy and famous regularly appear in the grandstands at the Kentucky Derby or the Belmont Stakes, so do blue-collar workers show up to their local tracks and off-track parlors for betting on horse races and to watch the ponies streak down the straightaway.
As far as spectator sports are concerned, horse racing is the 26th most popular sport to watch in the country. But in terms of sports betting, it is the third most popular.v
In 1908, when pari-mutuel betting was introduced into American horse racing, is when the sport really took off.
Pari-mutuel betting is a type of specialty bet in which the total amount of all bets are pooled together on a single race and are distributed among the bettors who make a winning selection.
The French term “pari mutuel” originated at several horse tracks in France during the late 1800s. Translated as “mutual or shared betting,” the practice quickly spread to England and America because it was considered a much more equitable system for bettors.
As more people place bets, the odds fluctuate, making it difficult for bettors to know what kind of payout they might receive.
The downside of pari-mutuel betting is when a large number of bettors place a wager on the same winning horse which makes each winning bet a smaller payout than would have been if a lesser amount of people had bet on the winning horse.
Here are some of the most significant horse racing venues in American history:
1- Saratoga Race Track
Located in Saratoga Springs, NY, and opened in 1863, many consider this to be one of the oldest sporting venues in America. The track has seen horse racing almost every year since its inception.
In 1892, the infamous gambler and brothel-owner, Gottfried “Dutch Fred” Waldbaum, purchased the track. Under his ownership, horse owners experimented on horses using narcotics and electric batteries in order to better their chances of winning.
During this period is also when Saratoga’s iconic grandstand was erected. With its pinnacled roofline, it still stands today as the oldest continuously used seating area of any professional sport in the country.
“Dutch Fred” was notorious for delaying races sometimes 3 or 4 hours because he himself preferred late-night gambling.
Famed journalist of the 19th century, Nellie Bly, in her article about Saratoga Race Track, “Our Wickedest Summer Resort,” went on a tirade against Waldbaum and the nefarious way he ran the racetrack.
It didn’t take long for most of the reputable horse owners to abandon the track, and just about all of its most prominent races disappeared from the venue.
In 1901, its reputation was restored when former Secretary of the Navy, William Collins Whitney, purchased the track and made major improvements.
The course surface itself, like the Kentucky Derby, is dirt and it has a 1 ⅛ mile circumference.
It’s home to the oldest major thoroughbred race in the country, the Travers Stakes, which has a purse of $1,250,000.
And currently, it also hosts some of the most important races in the country including the Alabama Stakes, the Whitney Handicap, and the Hopeful Stakes.
The Saratoga meet (which is the length of each track’s season), lasts every year from July through early September.
2- Churchill Downs
Home of the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs was founded by the grandson of William Clark (of the Lewis & Clark Expedition), Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr.
After visiting England and France in the 1870s where he experienced some of the most famous horse racing in Europe, Clark returned to Kentucky and founded the Louisville Jockey Club whose purpose was to fund and build the eventual sight of the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs.
The first race took place in 1875 at a length of 1.5 miles but was lessened to a mile and a quarter in 1896 where it stands today.
In 1925, the Kentucky Derby was first broadcast by radio and then first aired on TV in 1952.
Mint juleps became the un-official drink of the Derby when Helena Modjeska, a famous Polish Actress, ordered the drink at a breakfast before the race.
The Derby has been nicknamed the “The Race for the Roses” as a blanket of 564 roses is always draped across the winning horse. This is done in remembrance of Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr who would decorate his post-Derby party with roses.
3- Pimlico Race Course
Pimlico Race Course is the historical setting for the Preakness Stakes located in Baltimore, Maryland. This dirt race track is named after the 17th century London Pub, Olde Ben Pimlico’s Tavern.
In 1938, it was the setting of one of the most famous horse races to ever take place, between Seabiscuit and War Admiral. Deemed the “Match of the Century,” War Admiral who had won the Triple-Crown, was a 4-1 favorite against the much smaller Seabiscuit.
After Seabiscuit had achieved the impossible, by beating War Admiral by 4 lengths, the horse became an inspiration to millions of struggling Americans during the Great Depression.
Pimlico opened in 1870 when the first running of the Dinner Party Stakes took place and the colt, Preakness, crossed the finish line first. 3 years later, The Preakness Stakes was established named after that same winning colt.
In 1877, the track also hosted a race that garnered so much attention that the United States Congress actually shut down for a day so senators could attend. Dubbed “The Great Race,” it was a competition between 3 horses owned by some of the wealthiest tobacco tycoons.
Held every 3rd Saturday in the month of May, The Preakness always draws huge crowds from across the Mid-Atlantic. In 2007, 121,263 horse racing fans attended the race and over $87.2 million bets were placed on the race.
Pimlico also hosts the Pimlico Special, both it and The Preakness are run at a distance of 1 and 3/16 miles. The track record was set in 1991 by the horse, Farma Way.
In recent years, the track has been in desperate need of renovation, and business owners and community leaders have decided to put forth hundreds of millions of dollars aside in order to save the historic site.
4- Belmont Park
Located just outside of New York City, in Elmont, sits the ivy-covered grandstand of Belmont Park.
Having opened in 1905, it is now owned and operated by the non-profit group the New York Racing Association(NYRA), which also owns the Saratoga Race Course. The NYRA was formed in 1955, to save these and several other historic horse race tracks throughout the state.
This race track is home to the third leg of the Triple Crown, The Belmont Stakes.
It is the longest distance of the three races at 1 ½ miles and has a deep, dirt surface that requires great endurance from horses. Because of these conditions, the track has been nicknamed, “the Big Sandy.”
August Belmont Jr, who financed the building of the New York subway, and Williams Collins Whitney, who bought Saratoga in 1901, built the original Belmont track.
At the time of its construction, Belmont Park was massive in its size in comparison to other horse racing facilities. In addition, it also used to have a train line that tunneled under the Hempstead Turnpike and stopped right at the horse track.
5 years after its construction, the Wright Brothers staged one of the first air shows there that attracted a crowd of 150,000 people.
Due to architectural defects, the original grandstand had to be demolished in 1963 and a new grandstand opened in 1968 that was able to accommodate up to 100,000 spectators.
The Belmont Stakes has actually been taking place since 1867 but wasn’t held at Belmont Park until it opened in 1905.
Perhaps the most famous racehorse in history, Secretariat, set a world record for 1 ½ miles at Belmont Park in 1973 when he won the Belmont Stakes and completed the Triple Crown. At the time of this writing, it is still the fastest time on a dirt track at that distance.
Other significant races held at Belmont Park are the Suburban Handicap, The Metropolitan Handicap, the Jockey Gold Cup, and the Woodward Stakes.
What other historically significant horse racing venues are there for horse betting in America? Let me know what you think in the comments.