For as long as humans have had domesticated horses there have been horse races. Nowadays we may think of the Grand National or the Kentucky Derby, as much social and political events, and a stable in an socialites calendar, but that image of the posh wearing the latest designer clothes and drinking expensive cocktails hasn’t always been the most relevant. In his A Brief History of the Olympic Games author David C. Young writes about the fact that in the first Olympic games in 776 BCE there were both chariot races and mounted races, making horse races nearly three thousand years old.
Before that however there were documents of horse races in ancient Egypt, Persia and Syria. It is even believed that as long ago as 3000 BCE in Kazakhstan, where we find the earlier traces of domestication of the horse, that there were already events designed to showcase the rider prowess in the saddle (and most likely back then, bareback). By the time the Romans came along, horseback riding as a spectator sport had became a major event and then, like today, betting on the outcome of races was a major industry. Fortunately for both us and the horse, racing today is a lot less brutal than it was during the times of the Romans. Chariot races were the most common events and there were often small boys who would throw water on the wooden wheels of the chariots as they passed to cool them off to prevent them catching fire. A great many of these boys died in the events, as did many chariot drivers.
In the same region, Italy, some thousand years later horse racing was still a very popular sport, but it had evolved to mounted riding as opposed to chariot contests. Although these races were often associated with religious festivals the majority of the competitions served the purpose of getting young men and boy prepared for war in which equestrian skills were a paramount part of being a good soldier right up until the tank replaced cavalry in the First World War.
In fact, even dressage, showjumping, and Vienna’s Spanish Riding School were all initially invented so that soldiers in waiting could practise their skills in the hopes of becoming better riders and subsequently better calvary soldiers.
While that image of oversized hats and fruity drinks and ample jewellery and enough cigar smoke to choke a horse (sorry!) may not be entirely an inapt picture to conjure up when some mentions horse racing it’s important to keep in mind that horse racing is as ancient as leisure time and participating in a race, either as jockey, spectator, or horse, one is partaking in a long and ancient tradition.