Exploring the History of Horse Betting: From Ancient Tracks to Modern Turf Tales

Exploring the History of Horse Betting: From Ancient Tracks to Modern Turf Tales

There are few more followed sports from a better perspective than horse racing, as millions is gambled on the sport annually from players across the world.

Such is the success of horse racing betting, that it is even a sport that people opt to bet on when it comes to the biggest races on the calendar that wouldn’t normally wager on horse racing on a regular basis.

But, when was betting on horse racing first attempted and what are some of the most popular sports to wager on in this modern era?

Early History

Early History of Horse Betting

Horse racing is one of the oldest sports in the world, with early action on track having been staged across nations such as Ancient Greece, Arabia, and Egypt.

The sport played an important role in parts of myth and legend, and one of the most popular early racing styles that captured the imagination was chariot racing.

This form of horse racing was most popular in Ancient Greece and Rome, with the first events taking place in around 648 BCE.

Such was the popularity of this form of racing, it was also included in the inaugural edition of the Greek Olympics. As well as this, the sport also played a role in the Panhellenic Games.

However, the early safety requirements in the sport weren’t as strenuous as they are in this modern day, meaning that serious injuries and deaths were extremely common.

One of the first big races to be introduced during this time was during the Spring Carnival, as 15 horses were allowed to race freely without riders to run freely across the length of the Via del Corso.


The biggest changes to the sport came when thoroughbred racing began to gain in popularity. It was later regarded as the ‘Sport of Kings’ due to the fact that the British royal family would regularly attend racedays in the United Kingdom.

Horse racing in Britain would become popular in the 18th century, and the popularity continued to increase throughout history.

King Charles II was an avid lover of horse racing, and was a pioneering factor behind the emergence of Newmarket Racecourse. In Britain, the Jockey Club was established in 1750, with the organisation established to control, set rules, and prevent dishonesty on track.

The number of races added to the calendar would increase on a regular basis, with the Epsom Derby established in 1780, while the first Classic was added to the calendar in the form of the St Leger in 1776. By 1814, the Classic season was set, with all five races that remain huge dates in the diary added to the schedule.

Betting on the sport would be extremely crucial during the early history, as it was a main form of income for tracks in terms of offering prize money. Higher class members of the public were in control of the gambling operations, and they worked hard to ensure that there was no criminal element to wagering on the sport.

Working class people were enabled a route into the sport due to the need for horse racing to be fair, as these were typically employed to assist with breeding, training, and riders.

Modern Day Racing

Modern Day Racing

Horse racing remains a prominent sport to wager on in this modern day, and was hugely popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, as it was one of the few sports that continued with no fans in attendance. The sport has a number of different types, with each having massive followings in certain countries around the world.

Flat racing is the most popular across the world, with some of the biggest races on the dirt and turf boasting massive purses for connections. Races such as the Kentucky Derby, Epsom Derby, and Dubai World Cup are among the most prestigious on the calendar.

Meanwhile, jumps racing is the most popular form of racing in the United Kingdom and Ireland, with runners competing over an extended distance with hurdles and fences to be navigated.

The biggest races on the calendar over jumps take place at the Cheltenham Festival, which is held annually in March. Harness racing is also popular in nations such as France, with endurance racing also a prominent type with runners competing over distances ranging from 25 to 100 miles.

Nowadays you can engage in many different wagers and plenty of markets, such as pari-mutuel betting, as this guide by TwinSpires shows.

3 Biggest Races

1. Kentucky Derby

The most popular race in the United States comes in the form of the Kentucky Derby, which is run annually in May. This race is the opening leg of the Triple Crown in the United States, as horses aged three are eligible to run.

This race is regarded as the ‘Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports’, and has unearthed legends of the game throughout history. The race takes place two weeks before the Preakness Stakes and a month before the Belmont Stakes.

It is typically one of the most-attended and most-watched sporting events in the United States. Next year’s race will be special, as it will be the 150 edition.

2. Epsom Derby

In the United Kingdom, the Epsom Derby forms the most prestigious leg of the five Classics. It is the middle leg of the Triple Crown, with the 2000 Guineas taking place beforehand, and the St Leger being staged later in the campaign.

However, it is a rarity for a runner to attempt to win all three races due to the demand on runners.

The Epsom Derby is run by horses aged three, with a distance of 1 ½ miles covered by the field. It is one of the best national sporting events in the United Kingdom, and boasts a huge global audience.

3. Cheltenham Gold Cup

Cheltenham Gold Cup

While flat racing is watched by millions around the world, jumps racing is the most popular form of horse racing in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

The standout race of the season comes on the final day of the Cheltenham Festival, as the Gold Cup is run over a distance of three miles and two furlongs.

The steeplechase is the most prestigious Grade 1 on the schedule over fences, and legendary stars in jumps racing have won the race at Cheltenham, including Best Mate, Denman, Arkle, and Kauto Star.