The History of British Horse Racing

The tradition of British horse racing dates back to the days of the Roman Empire, when Roman Soldiers invading the isle organised the first tournaments on horseback around 200 AD. The first officially recorded horse race in the United Kingdom however is dated 1174, during the reign of Henry II, and is said to have taken place in London suburb Smithfield during a horse fair. Hundreds of years later, at another fair in Chester in 1512, it was reportedly the first time that a trophy was given out to the winner of a horse race. Allegedly the trophy was a small wooden ball decorated with flowers.

In 1605 king James I stumbled upon the little village of Newmarket in county Suffolk, which already had a tradition of unorganised amateur horse races. James I was so taken with the sport that he immersed himself so deeply in the racing culture, he was reprimanded by parliament to spend more time on running the country - and less with his new favourite past-time. His successor, King Charles I, finally inaugurated the first Cup Race in British horse racing history at Newmarket in 1634 - the Gold Cup. Since this event Newmarket has a cemented reputation as the home of British horse racing. To this day there are two active race courses on Newmarket Heath: the Rowley Mile and the July Course. Furthermore, Newmarket is home to the National Horseracing Museum and the world-famous auction house Tattersalls.

During the rule of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell all horse racing was banned and most horses requisitioned by the state; putting a strain on the first ventures into breeding which began in the 17th and 18th century. Thankfully, Cromwell did not hold the reigns for too long and was succeeded by King Charles II, who immediately established the coveted price of the Newmarket Town Plate, which was to be competed for in an annual race. A British horse racing fixture which remains to the present day.

In the 18th century, when the British passion of creating thoroughbred horses was well incited, Queen Anne - blessed with a keen interest in horses - called into existence the Ascot Racecourse. The first meeting on her pet-track was 'Her Majesty's Plate' on 11th August 1711, with a purse of an impressive 100 guineas. In the same year she also founded a true cornerstone of British horse racing, the Royal Ascot. This annual event is a highlight in the British social calendar, requiring strict dress-codes to be respected and conducted with the height of sporting spirit. To this day the Royal Ascot is such a famous fixture that over 300.000 spectators make their way to Berkshire every year to attend, making it the most-visited race in Europe. The opening race of the Royal Ascot is fondly named after the founder herself, the Queen Anne Stakes.

In 1740 parliament attempted to put a damper on the flourishing British horse racing industry, introducing an act to restrain and prevent the rising interest in the sport. As one can easily imagine this statute fell on deaf ears with the racing-mad British. However, some of them did agree that the British horse racing scene was in need of a slight overhaul.

Thus, in 1752, the Jockey Club was called into being. Despite its title, the Jockey Club was not an organisation that accepted Jockeys into its ranks. Made up of race course owners, wealthy breeders and general aristocracy, the Jockey Club was responsible for the day-to-day regulations applying to British horse racing from its founding times until 2006. When the Club relinquished its governing power it did so in an attempt to further the image of UK horse racing as a sport for everyone, and less of an elitist affair run by and catered for the rich.

Today the governing body of British horse racing is the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), which was formed in 2007 by merging two existing regulating bodies. Originally the British Horseracing Board (BHB), founded 1993, was responsible for finance, race planning, politics, training and marketing; while the Jockey Club still was in charge of the regulations. This duty then fell to the Horseracing Regulatory Authority, which was established in 2006 to replace the Jockey Club. The two of them are now working as one as the BHA, taking care of all matters racing in the UK.

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