19 July 2010

Good Times: Horse Racing

By Jacquie Rogers

When the first two people walked the face of this earth, one of them had to prove he could go faster than the other. Whatever means was available in any time and place, people have raced. Foot races, camel races, elephant races, buffalo races, ostrich races...on and on. Hey, the human race is called the "human race." Must be something to that.

And horse races.

Probably the oldest continuous horse race in the world is held in Mongolia, the Naadam Festival, featuring the Eriin Gurvan Naadam--the three manly sports of archery, wrestling, and horse racing. The horse races are from 12 to 35 kilometers in length and the riders, both boys and girls, are from four to 12 years of age (the minimum age was recently raised to six years old). The horses are trained rigorously for this event, and the winner brings great prestige to its owner.

In Britain, knights arrived home from the Crusades with Arabian horses--warm bloods that where sleek and fast. These were bred with the Hobby horses native to the British Isles. Henry VIII had a bad case of racing fever, then his daughter, Elizabeth I, continued improving the breeding program. This went on until Cromwell, who switched from breeding for speed to breeding for the cavalry. At any rate, Englishmen were dedicated to thoroughbred horse racing from then on.

Professional horse racing as we know it started in the 1700s during the rein of Queen Anne. Later in 1750, the Jockey Club was formed, which created the rules generally used today. In the 1790s, James Weatherby recorded all the horses' pedigrees in the General Stud Book. His descendants have been the keepers of the General Stud Book to this day.

Britain's five race classics are: Derby Stakes, the Oaks, the One Thousand Guineas, the Saint Leger, and the Two Thousand Guineas. The Saint Leger is the oldest, formed in 1776. The Derby Stakes, named after the 12th Earl of Derby and held at Epsom Downs, is the richest and most prestigious of Britain's races.

The Belmont Stakes is the oldest of the USA's Triple Crown. The first race was held in 1867. The Preakness started in 1873 and the Kentucky Derby (at the right) began in 1875. These races followed the English tradition, and the Belmont even specified the saddles must be made by Merry of St. James Street, London. The term "Triple Crown" was first used in the 1930s and was coined after Britain's Triple Crown.

While reading The Owyhee Avalanche (Homedale, Idaho), I saw this article in the "Looking Back" section, republished from the July 9, 1870, issue of The Owyhee Avalanche (then in Silver City, Idaho Territory).

A number of our citizens attended the races at Wagontown last Monday. Everything passed off in the most satisfactory manner. There were four races of a quarter of a mile each, as follows: LW Walker's chestnut horse and Jno Catalows's sorrel mare, for $50 a side, won by the latter. Second, Tim Shay's sorrel horse and Frenchman's roan filly, for $40 a side, won by Shay's horse. Third, Catalow's sorrel mare and Frenchman's sorrel horse, for $50 a side, Catalow's mare winner. Fourth, Jordans's black mare and Tom Walls' gray horse, for $45 a side, Jordan's mare winner.
That's pretty good money for 140 years ago, but a pittance compared to what went on in San Francisco, CA.
Gradually, as wealthy men made a hobby or a sideline of breeding horses, Western races became more carefully orchestrated, the crowds grew and betting flourished. Indeed, gambling and a day at the races became a virtually synonymous. And when Westerners got around to staging formal stakes races the prizes were sometimes much richer than those back East. In 1873 what was billed as "the richest race in the world" was run at Ocean View Park in San Francisco. The winner's purse was $20,000 paid in gold. In the same year New York's famous Belmont was worth only $5,200 and Maryland's Preakness a mere $1,800. ~ From: Gamblers of the Old West, p.200
Currently, Mongolia hosts the longest horse race in the world, 1,000 kilometers. It's actually patterned after Ghengis Khan's mail system, where a horse and rider had to go from water to water, usually about 30 kilometers. Think Pony Express. The US certainly wasn't the first to come up with that system.

There's every iteration of horse racing you can think of: barrel races, sulky races, chariot races, suicide races, wild horse races, endurance races, and many more. Mule racing is becoming popular now, too.

I read that horse racing is the second most popular sport in the United States. That's interesting because in today's society, a lot more people know how to drive cars than know how to ride horses, so you'd think horse racing enthusiasm would diminish. But all over the world, horse racing is as popular as ever.

Horse Racing History
History of Horse Racing
Belmont Stakes
The Owyhee Avalanche

I wish Good Times to all of you!

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