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Horseracing: The Thoroughbred
of English Sports

By Cheryl Bolen

Despite that the world's great racehorses trace their lineage to Arabian stallions, the fleet beasts are peculiarly British. In fact, horseracing as it is known today in the United States and France owes its format, rules, wagering and the horses themselves to British origins. Even the breed of thoroughbred--to which all racehorses belong--is uniquely British.

All thoroughbreds are descendants of three Arabians of the early Eighteenth Century: the Godolphin Barb, the Byerley Turk and the Darley Arabian Manak. When the British bred the large, hard-working Arabian stallions with their own small-but-fast mare pacers, the thoroughbred was born. It is distinctive because it can gallop, which is a great deal faster than pacing.

Thereafter, the breeding, training, racing and wagering on horseracing became a national pasttime shared by all classes of English society.


Though not as widely known outside of England as the Grand National, the Royal Ascot or the annual Derby at Epsom Downs, Newmarket is England's most significant racecourse, chiefly because it was here that the Jockey Club, which still governs British horseracing, was formed in 1750, and the Judgment of Newmarket became--and still is--the arbitrator of racing rules.

Newmarket as a center for racing meetings (yes, they still call the races "meetings" in England) dates to when James I (1566-1625) built a hunting lodge there.

Charles II (1630-1685) presided over horseraces at Newmarket Heath and established the custom of awarding cups or bowls, which were worth 100 guineas, to the winners. The first formal race took place there in 1667. William III (1650-1702) was the first to award plates there. Today, the 1,000 Guinea and 2,000 Guinea classics are held at Newmarket.

Newmarket was and still is a "flat" race course, as opposed to a national hunt--or steeplechase--course.

By the time of the Regency Period, permanent stone grandstands (known as Epsom stands) had been built at Newmarket. These were exclusive to the higher classes who wished to be separated from the cruder race patrons who were often drunk and lewd. According to J. H. Plumb in Georgian Delights, whoring even occurred at the races.

Located about 50 miles northeast of London, Newmarket is on Suffolk's western border.

The Grand National

Even those who have not seen the movie National Velvet are familiar with England's Grand National steeplechase.

The term steeplechase is uniquely British and was derived from the simple fact that the earliest steeplechases occurred between one church and another, their steeples being the tallest, most visible, marker linking the two locations.

The first steeplechase was a contest in 1752 between two Irishmen from a church in Buttevant to the steeple at St. Leger, a distance of 4.5 miles, the same distance as today's Grand National. One of England's five classic races retains the St. Leger name.

The first public steeplechase was held in 1830 at St. Albans in Hertfordshire.

Early steeplechases (also called national hunts) consisted of two kinds of hurdles: birch fences between 4 and 6 feet in height and gorse-covered sheep hurdles.

The first Grand National was run in 1839 at Aintree, the location where it's still held today. Aintree is located near Liverpool, some 200 miles northwest of London. It is run in March or April during the Liverpool Spring Meeting.

To English racing affecionados, the Grand National is the pinnacle of English horseracing. A recent article in Architectural Digest on the restoration of London's Bootles mens club showed several photographs of the club's interior, where a great many portraits of Grand National winners (owned by the club's members) are hung.

The Royal Ascot

The Royal Ascot--immortalized in another movie (My Fair Lady)--was established by Queen Anne (1665-1714). The annual classic is still inaugurated with the Queen's Race.

Peers of the realm still flock to Ascot, dressed in decidedly uppercrust attire. The women wear hats, the men top hats. Men also wear a neckcloth which bears the name ascot.

Located in Berkshire, Ascot is only a short distance west of London.

Both flat course races and steeplechases are run at Ascot.

Epsom Downs

Also located near London, Epsom Downs is where the annual Derby (pronounced darby by the Brits) takes place. Epsom is in Surrey, just south of London.

First run at Epsom Downs in 1780, the derby is a flat course for 3-year-old colts and fillies. The United States' most prestigious horserace, the
 Kentucky Derby, takes its name from England's derby.

This article was first published in The Regency Plume in 2002.

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