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The history of horse racing dates as far back as the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome and to this day remains one of the most popular sports the world over. In the UK horse racing is the second most popular spectator sport only behind football with six million people attending racing events throughout the year. Over the years the sport has evolved into somewhat of a cultural phenomenon but still steeped in its long-standing traditions that many jockeys, trainers and racegoers uphold today.
Several changes have been made over the past few years to help the appeal and subsequent growth of the sport like introducing variations in course lengths, obstacles, track surfaces etc. One such change that revolutionized the sport in the modern era was the introduction of betting. The ability for racegoers to bet on winners of races has completely transformed the sport and significantly contributed to its popularity; without betting it seems almost certain that major events such as Cheltenham, the Grand National and Royal Ascot would not have continued to draw in the scale of crowds they have over the years.
So when was betting introduced and how did it affect the trajectory of the sport? Here’s a look at the history of betting in horse racing.
Over the course of the sport’s history innovations have been continually introduced, even as far back as the ancient Roman civilization alterations were made to keep competition fresh, such as wagons, archery and chariots. Amongst the countless changes made across the many centuries though, in the context of the modern era, few feel as relevant as the advent of betting on the races. The beginnings of this phenomenon emerged in the 17th century under King Charles II when awards and prizes were granted to the winners of races. Around this time the ruleset we’re familiar with today began to be implemented as the sport began the process of becoming more formal with an organized framework to operate in. The 1700s were a crucial time for the sport and likely the era where the very first bet was recorded on a horse winning a race. While there will never be a known answer to whether that is true or not, it is a reasonable assumption given its recognition as the century where the first modern horse race in England took place at St Leger in 1776.
While gambling was essentially illegal throughout the world at this time, regulation was practically non-existent so the chances of some manner of wager conducted at the famous event seem high. While the mid-late 18th century were likely the beginnings of betting in the sport, it is the following century where the practice really became prevalent and the sport itself began to grow. Several racecourses were built in the 1800s, horse racing became immensely popular amongst the upper classes which inevitably helped investment in the sport, and operators started accepting wagers from customers on a much wider scale. As a result gambling became a middle and working class leisure to indulge in.
Furthermore, information that would usually only be available at the racetrack began to be distributed as emerging media formats began their development making the sport far more accessible. The barriers to the sport began breaking down and horse racing developed into a national sport with the number of races increasing along with the amount of gambling, horse racing became a mainstream event to attend. Some of the biggest horse races in this century drew thousands upon thousands of spectators and many of the competitions that existed then still hold places on the horse racing calendar today.
This period of history helped establish the basic principles of the sport, introducing many of the formal processes that continue to be implemented today. From this point though the introduction of other sports into popular culture such as football, rugby and cricket saw horse racing’s interest dwindle from its previous heights. While the sport still retains a place as one of the most popular across the world in large part due to its thrilling nature, it had to evolve to keep hold of its viewership. The introduction of the 1928 Racing Betting Act helped do that as it helped control illegal forms of betting and redirected the proceeds of that into the continued development of the sport.
In the context of the modern era of the sport and the betting that goes hand-in-hand with it, the Act is perhaps the most significant piece of legislation introduced in the sport’s long and storied history. The betting process was controlled better and helped ensure the sport survived for generations to come. Bookmakers and companies away from the racecourse allowed people of all classes to maintain their interest in the sport. As technology began to develop through the century, so too did the accessibility of information and the ability to bet on horses became a much easier process.
New ways to bet on the races were introduced and with free bet offers always there for new punters, betting is more accessible than ever for fans of the sport. The emergence of the internet made the process of betting and keeping track of the races simpler still. Information on blogs, news sites, apps, and social media have made marketing the sport as straightforward as it possibly can be. Technologies such as laptops, smart TVs and smartphones have all meant that you can watch the races and bet on them anywhere and anytime. You can even indulge in some virtual horse racing if you want to.
Horse racing is now a multi-billion dollar industry as a result and with the constant development of new technologies in the 21st century, there are sure to be more tools available to improve betting, the fan experience and the sport as a whole in the years to come.
Michael specializes in journalism, digital content production and social media management. He has a passion for numerous sports including football, horse racing and ice hockey. Michael currently works on a freelance basis, producing daily content for various outlets within the sports industry.