Friday, September 26, 2014

Horse Racing and its Organization

by Sue Millard

The Jockey Club

The Jockey Club, according to its own records, was founded in the reign of George II, in 1750. It was effectively one of the most exclusive of gentlemen’s clubs. Its first meetings were held at the Star & Garter Pub at Pall Mall, London before moving to Newmarket, which under James I, Charles II and Queen Anne had gradually become the home of racing. The Jockey Club controlled all regulations to do with racing until 2006 when, in a conscious move to decouple racing from its “patrician” roots, it set up the British Racing Authority. 


Weatherbys is a privately owned English company, established 1770, which provides British horse racing with its central administration under contract to the British Horseracing Authority, acts as its bank and has maintained the Thoroughbred breed register since its inception.


John Evelyn recorded in his Diary around 1684: “We returnd over New-market-heath...the Jockies breathing their fine Barbs & racers, & giving them their heates.” The term “breathing” meant giving a horse exercise that raised its respiration rate, while “heat” meant any exercise that raised its temperature, crudely measured as making the horse sweat. In 1761 George Stubbs portrayed the Duke of Richmond’s racehorses, being exercised in heavy rugs and hoods to achieve this.

Stubbs, The Duke of Richmond’s racehorses, painting from WikiArt

Types of races

In the early years, horse races were “matches” between two horses who competed in multiple heats, at distances from two to four miles. Only on a match day did a heat mean a stage of a race. Race heats were repeated until a horse had won the event twice or “distanced” the opponent – arriving at the finish more than 30 horse-lengths ahead, about 240 yards. These races were “stakes” in which both parties put up equal money as a sporting bet, and the winner took all.  

Horses were not raced until they were five or six years old. Carlisle racecourse, for instance, held a King's Plate – a race for 5-year-old horses in 3 mile heats – set up by George III in 1763.

Eclipse, by George Stubbs

The great horse Eclipse started racing at the age of five on 3 May 1769. Most racehorses ran only a few times in their lives, but Eclipse ran the unusually high number of 18 races in a career of about 17 months – by which time rival owners would no longer enter their horses against him because he was unbeatable: “Eclipse first, the rest nowhere”.

Originally, short races for 2 and 3 year old horses, the ones we are most familiar with today, were “futurities”, testing youngsters a couple of times on their potential for longer races.  The St Leger, first run in 1776 at Doncaster, was the first “Classic” race, though today the Derby has greater fame. The St Leger is a single contest for 3-year-olds over 1 mile 6 furlongs, so from the start it broke the tradition of races run in repeated heats and over long distances. 


Most races in the past were at “level weights” – all horses carrying the same weight (rider, saddle and, if necessary, lead strips carried in a saddle cloth). Weight-for-age races were a way of compensating for the relative strengths of younger and older horses and giving all a more equal chance of winning; they defined level weights for horses of equal age, with younger horses carrying less weight. 

Handicap races, in which faster or stronger horses are allotted slightly more weight to try and level the chances of winning, were not introduced until the 19th century. The name “handicap” comes from a method of making a trading agreement, Hand I(n) Cap – a bit like Scissors Paper Stone, but with the participants hiding their hands in a cap containing money. When they pulled out their hands at the word, the agreement was made if they had all picked up some money, but if one or all had not, there was no contract.

Handicapping in horseracing there’s far less chance of the “Eclipse first, the rest nowhere” scenario where the favourite is so likely to win that no-one will take your bet. In hound trailing very often the bookmakers will not give odds against two or three of the really good hounds running and you can only bet on who will be third or fourth! So the Handicap system made gambling more exciting.


The first commercial bookmaker in Britain was probably Harry Ogden, who opened a business in the 1790s; then an Act of Parliament in 1845 made it illegal to gamble except at race tracks. Bookies had to be extremely good at calculating odds, so they didn’t make a loss overall. From those times onward to the present day, and with the legalisation of off-track betting in 1961, commercial interests took over racing.

A comparison with the modern day

Horseracing now has the production values of an entertainment industry, with vast sums being generated in stud fees for outstanding stallions, and total prize money exceeding the £1 million mark for some high-prestige races. 

Thoroughbred foals can only be registered if their dams are registered with Weatherby’s, and they have to be DNA sampled and microchipped before they are 4 weeks old. When they are a year old they are sold on the basis of their pedigree (which gives an idea of whether their parents or grandparents had been any good on the racecourse), their conformation (overall good physique) and their heart-score (a predictor of blood-pumping capacity, ie, racing efficiency). 

The five great British Classics are the 2,000 Guineas, the 1,000 Guineas (for fillies only), the Derby, the Oaks (for fillies only), and the St Leger. They are all for 3-year-olds, and since these runners have to be trained and prepared for the high-value contests for months beforehand, the majority of modern racing uses very young horses of two and three years old, and mature horses are now the exception rather than the rule in the thoroughbred flat-racing population. 

Training involves dietary analysis, veterinary advice and treatment, regular weighing, interval training and swimming as well as exercise with a “lad” or a “work rider” on the gallops. Yet only a third of the foals born, overall, are ever good enough mentally or physically to set foot on a racecourse, let alone to win a race.

The first Derby on 4 May 1780 had been won by Diomed, a colt owned by Sir Charles Bunbury, who collected prize money of £1,065 15s. Two hundred and thirty-three years later the first prize was £782,314.

It’s all a far cry from word-of-mouth pedigrees and gentlemen’s wagers, in racing’s amateur heyday.


 Sue Millard is the author of several books on horses, both fiction and non-fiction. Her web site is Jackdaw E Books,


  1. Very interesting article - we have owned two retired racehorses, one, Crime Scene came second in the Melbourne Cup, and Ishi only had one win to her name and retired early because of injury. Sadly we lost both horses because of racehorse lameness injuries - thorougbreds often have very poor "flat" feet which leads to other lameness problems. Both horses were lovely animals and at least they had a few months of rest and relaxation in our fields. Both had Eclipse in their pedigree by the way! I was also drawn to the first panting - in particular to the ladies riding aside. My daughter rides side saddle and it is interesting looking at the costumes etc. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Excellent summary, Sue.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.