Horse racing in the United Kingdom

Horse racing may have originated in ancient Greece, Egypt, Syria or even Babylon, but the British made it the Sport of Kings.

Racing has flourished over the centuries in the United Kingdom, though ownership of the elite horseflesh has largely been for the aristocracy and ultra-rich.

The sport has come a long way since Roman soldiers supposedly started the obsession some time around 200AD, with meetings now held almost every day of the year, split between flat racing and National Hunt racing over the jumps.

If you conduct fair and tightly policed racing anywhere, the bookmakers and punters will follow. And that is certainly the case in Britain, with turnover measured in the billions of pounds.

Racing is largely on turf though there are all-weather tracks at Kempton Park, Lingfield, Southwell, Chelmsford City and Wolverhampton.

Betting on British horse racing

Obviously for today’s tech-savvy punter, there are many options online to find form and last-minute information and also to place your bets.

We at the World Gambling List recommend betting only with legal operators licensed in a sound jurisdiction. We also recommend having accounts with several different bookmakers to take advantage of sign-up bonuses and the disparity in odds.

In Britain itself, you will find betting shops in high streets wherever you go sporting familiar brands such as William Hill and Ladbrokes.

For betting on British racing online, we gravitate towards Bet365, which is offering sign-up bonus bets for new customers.

Brief history of horse racing in the United Kingdom

As mentioned, soldiers in the Roman Empire are believed to have started racing horses in Britain around 200AD but, as with all sports from those times, records are sketchy.

What we do know is that in the Middles Ages, British royalty began to take a keen interest in breeding and owning the fastest horses around.

Henry VIII, when he wasn’t busy divorcing one of his six wives or getting rid of them by more forceful means, was intrigued by the horse and had breeding and training establishments.

Organised race meetings (largely involving match races) were held, with the oldest race that still exists, the Kiplingcotes Derby over four miles, first run in 1519.

In the early 17th century, racing rose to an even higher level in Britain, and Newmarket emerged as the home of horse racing, thanks to the royal patronage of James I, who ruled from 1603 to 1625 and built a palace near the town. The sport in a much more organised form spread around the country to “bell courses”, so-called because the prizes for winning were often silver bells.

That great killjoy Oliver Cromwell banned the sport, along with gambling and other things that offended his sensibilities, for a short time mid-century but thankfully common sense prevailed when Charles II took the throne.

Charles II continued the royal association with racing and Newmarket. He was nicknamed Old Rowley after the name of his favourite horse and the Rowley Mile course near Newmarket is named for him.

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries came an event that has shaped the modern racing world. Three Arabian stallions – the Byerley Turk, Darley Arabian and Godolphin Arabian – were imported to Britain and bred with British mares, and so the thoroughbred breed was born. You will find the DNA of the Darley Arabian in some 95% of all thoroughbreds today.

Britain’s Jockey Club was founded in 1750. This meant racing became more tightly regulated and moved from match races between two horses to races often involving many more.

Classic races such as the St Leger, English Derby and English Oaks began in the 1770s and 1780s – and the Jockey Club also provided Admiral Henry John Rous, father of the handicapping system and weight-for-age scale.

In more recent times, the photo-finish camera came into use in 1947, and starting barriers for flat racing in 1965.

In 1961 off-course bookies were legalised and betting turnover exploded.

This was helped along, of course, by the arrival of TV in the 1950s, and British horse racing is still covered on free-to-air as well as Pay TV and online. It remains second behind only football as the most watched sport in the UK.

The sport in Britain is now governed by the British Horseracing Authority, which was formed through a merger of the British Horseracing Board and the Horseracing Regulatory Authority. The BHB had taken the governance role from the Jockey Club in 1993.

Types of horse racing in the United Kingdom

Two main types of racing dominate the racing scene:

Flat racing: The season runs from March to November, with the highlights including the five classic races for three-year-olds: the Epsom Derby, Epsom Oaks, Thousand Guineas, Two Thousand Guineas and St Leger. There are 35 Group 1 races for the year.

National Hunt racing: The jumps racing, over steeplechases or hurdles and usually over far greater distances than in flat racing. National Hunt racing also includes bumpers, which are flat races run over long distances to help prepare horses for tackling the lengthy jumps races.

There is also point-to-point racing, which is basically jumps races for amateur riders.

Highlights of the British racing calendar

Flat racing

2000 Guineas meeting: Held in late April or early May at Newmarket. The titular race is the opening leg of the British triple crown, followed by the Derby and St Leger. It is run over a mile (1609 metres) and is open to colts and fillies.

Epsom Derby meeting: : The Derby is Britain’s richest race and most prestigious. It is contested at the Epsom Downs Racecourse near Surrey, at a distance a tick over one mile and four furlongs (about 2423m).

Royal Ascot: The championship of racing in Europe. Five days at the royal course at Ascot, Berkshire, in June and a meeting which dates back to 1711 when it was founded by Queen Anne. The Queen Anne Stakes kicks off the Group 1 action on the Tuesday. With the addition of the Commonwealth Cup, for three-year-olds, there are eight Group 1 races over the five days.

Glorious Goodwood: This popular festival of horseflesh runs for five days in late July/early August at the idiosyncratic Goodwood Racecourse near Chichester in West Sussex. The feature races are the Group 1 Sussex Stakes and Group 1 Nassau Stakes.

St Leger meeting: Held at Doncaster in September, the St Leger is the oldest of the classics and the longest (2937m). It is also the third leg of the British triple crown, though horses these days rarely tackle all three races.

British Champions Day: The climax of the flat season at Ascot in October and is the richest day of racing on the British calendar. There are four Group 1s on the card: the British Champions Fillies’ and Mares’ Stakes, Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, Champion Stakes and British Champions Sprint Stakes.

National Hunt racing

Cheltenham Festival: Four days of the best racing in mid-March at Cheltenham racecourse in Gloucestershire. The influx of the Irish is something to behold; they usually fare well with their contenders and it coincides with St Patrick’s Day. The festival runs from Tuesday to Friday, culminating with the Cheltenham Gold Cup on the Friday. Other great races include the Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase and World Hurdle.

Grand National at Aintree near Liverpool: The meeting runs for three days in early April and features, of course, the best-known race in the United Kingdom. The Melbourne Cup is the race that stops Australia in its track, and if there is an equivalent in the UK it is this race over almost four miles and four furlongs (about 7150m) with 30 jumps to clear over two circuits of the Aintree circuit. The jumps are bigger than those for regular events, too, so horse and rider often do well just to finish. The great race has been held since 1839. It is near impossible to find the winner but if you can you can be sure it will be at decent odds.