Evolution of Horse Racing in the United States

Horse Racing Text and Logo With a Horse Racing Background

Horse races are fun. I hadn’t been to one until I was a sophomore at my Midwestern college. A couple guy friends of mine from the South asked me if I wanted to go with them to a horse race at the local track. I said sure, and it was love at first sight.

I take my kids now; they’re adults so it’s okay.

I even got my reluctant husband to go to a horse race on our second date.

He grew up in a household that “didn’t participate in the vices of the devil”.

As you can tell, horse racing is something I enjoy. I want others to love the sport as much as I do.

It’s a fun, fast, and infectious sport that you should consider if you like gambling and watching beautiful animals run.

Besides my love of the actual races, what I really love is the early history of horse racing in the United States. I’m fascinated with how this sport has evolved in this country. I also love the historical tracks, the cultural impressions on the sport (and the gambling), and most of all the American passion for horses and their races.

Early History of Horse Racing in the US

Horse racing and America have a long history.

Horse racing (and betting) has been part of the American culture since before the Declaration of Independence was signed into law. I am going to start with the infancy of horse racing in the United States.

  • 1750 – The Jockey Club is founded as the first horse racing oversite organization for American horse racing in New York. The club still sets many of the guidelines for thoroughbred horse breeds and is the gold standard for horse racing.
  • 1778 – Diomed (an English Thoroughbred sire) is imported into the US for the future of racing ponies in this country. He was not successful in his home country and was brought state side. He is considered the grandfather of the American racing breeds.
  • 1798 – The first American horse race rivalry appears in our culture. Thoroughbreds Sir Henry and American contender meet up for 3 4-mile races. This would be the first of a long line of North vs. South horse races. Eclipse wins. His wins kick off the continuous competition until the Civil war.
  • Early 1800s – with the Western expansion of the US, settlers bring the sport with them across what will become the Western United States. The Gold Rush gives California gold chaser the funds to usher in the beginning of California’s rich history of competitive horse racing.
  • 1861 – Civil War forces Southern breeders (that aren’t destroyed) to shift to supplying their prized horses to the Southern war efforts. This puts horse racing on hold across the US.
  • August 3rd, 1863 – Saratoga Racetrack opens making Saratoga Springs, NY the premier racetrack in the United States.
  • June, 1867 – Jerome Park is host to the first annual Belmont Stakes. The race will later become the 3rd leg of the annual Triple Crown.
  • May 27th, 1873 – The 1st Preakness Stakes is hosted at Pimlico Course in the Mid-Atlantic. This race will go on to become the 2nd race of the Triple Crown.
  • May 27th, 1875 – The Louisville Race Course hosts the 1st annual Kentucky Derby. The Kentucky Derby will evolve into the most famous horse race event in the States. The Kentucky Derby will become the 1st race in the Triple Crown. The Derby will also make the mint julep a Southern staple.
  • 1894 – The Jockey Club becomes the first organized professional horse racing club. They also set the soft rules for horse race betting. This will become the birth of placing bets on horse races in United States. It will be a hot topic of debate in American culture.

Group of Racing Horses

Victorians, Seabiscuit, and Puddles on the Track

  • Early 1900s – The conservative Victorian era ushers in a more reserved American culture (see my family-in-law) that looks down upon horse racing and horse betting. This new movement towards a more reserved culture is a bit of a detour for the sport as Americans can visit any 1 of the over 300 tracks found across the US.
  • 1903 – The future owner of Seabiscuit (Charles Howard) arrives in San Francisco with just the American dream and a few dollars in his pocket. The early part of the 20th century will be all about Seabiscuit.
  • 1905 – Charles Howard is living in San Francisco and has improved his wealth. He opens a Buick dealership with only 3 cars. This dealership will boom giving him the financial gains to fall in love with horse racing and betting on the races.
  • April 18th, 1906 – Charles Howard uses his vehicles from his dealership for rescues instead of horses during the devastating 7.9 magnitude earthquake. Horses are notorious of their fear of fire and commotion. This move will usher in the use of fire trucks.
  • February 5th, 1909 – The states of California and New York ban horse race betting because of rampant corruption and back alley deals. This will be the first time that state laws are created specifically banning gambling at racetracks. This trend will spread across many of the other American states as they look to curb corruption within the sport.
  • 1919 – WW1 ends and sees a resurgence in the boom of horse racing. The rationing put on the American economy is lifted making room for horse racing in the United States culture. During this time racetracks see the introduction of pari-mutel system for betting.
     
    This new betting form elevates some of the past corruption in specialty horse racing bets. America is starting to see states make horse racing bets legal again. This year is also the year that the first horse, Sir Barton, will win what is later known as the Triple Crown.
  • March 13th, 1933 – California legalizes racetrack betting again. 21 states will follow suit over the next several years. All levels of government are looking for new revenue sources during the crippling economy brought on by the Great Depression.

Seabiscuit Has the Reins (and Snacks)

  • May 23rd, 1934 – Seabiscuit is born. Seabiscuit will go on to become one the most famous American thoroughbred racehorse. You’ve seen the movie. He’s kind of a big deal.
  • 1935 – Seabiscuit is losing race after race. On August 3rd, Charles Howard, a now wealthy horse racing enthusiast, will buy Seabiscuit. Seabiscuit will start to win his first races and make a name within the horse racing world.
  • 1937 – Seabiscuit will go on to win several races and become a household name. At one race he brings a record sold out crowd of 45,000. His most famous race against War Admiral will garner 40 million radio listeners and secure his place in American History. He wins the race by 7 lengths against the current title holder of the fastest horse in American horse racing.
  • February 1st, 1938 – Police in California are notified of a grim plan to hurt Seabiscuit. The would-be criminals plan to place a sponge in Seabiscuit’s airway to impede his ability to breathe. At this point Seabiscuit is a national treasure. The American public is horrified as they read of the foiled plan on the front page of national newspapers.
  • Spring 1938 – Seabiscuit goes on to win multiple handicap races and set track records. One race, the Continental Handicap in New York, Seabiscuit’s winnings rack up $152,780.00 USD. In modern times that would be worth 2.8 million USD.
  • Fall/ Winter 1938 – Seabiscuit races are hit or miss. Many spectators believe his best days are behind him. He will go on to prove them wrong and win his place back as an American prize. The top horses achieve celebrity status with photo ops and national tours.
  • March 2nd, 1940 – Seabiscuit draws a record-breaking spectator crowd of 75,000 at the Santa Ana Handicap, worth a prize of $100,000. He will end up coming from behind in 3rd place to win the race and set the track record and the 2nd fastest record in the country
  • April 10th, 1940 – Seabiscuit retires as the most famous horse on record. He lives out the rest of his life at Charles Howard’s Ridgewood Ranch in Willits, California.
Bonus Fact – Seabiscuit’s trainer, Red Pollard, finds that the prized thoroughbred prefers the couch potato life to being in top racing shape. He gains quite a few pounds in his off seasons and becomes lazy and lethargic. But don’t we all prefer snacks and naps?

Horse Racing After Seabiscuit

Horse racing will take a back seat to multiple events in American history. The sport takes a less popular tone due to presidential deaths, WW2, civil unrest with the country, and the sport becoming a hobby of the ultra-rich.

The sport sees some great losses of legends and some new turns in the sport. The sport evolves to a sport for the elite class in American culture.

Photo of Racing Horse Seabiscuit

At the turn of the 21st century, the sport is reinvigorated. I remember my daughter was in college, about the same age I fell in love with horse racing, and she hosted her first Kentucky Derby party.

She asked for her grandmother’s fried chicken recipe and her father’s mint julep recipe. The sport has become a wonderful way to enjoy a sport older than our country and my favorite way to bet. It has shed its lurid past of back alley deals and is now part of American heritage.

Conclusion

As you can see, there is a rich history, some old timey scandal, and deep love for horse racing in the American landscape.

The sport has grown and evolved as our country has grown.

I hope to see the sport relive the glory days of its founding. I would be sad to see horse betting become illegal but, thankfully, those are times passed.

I would love to hear your questions or comments. Please feel free to leave a comment below.