Horse racing in the United States dates as far back as 1665, when racing was conducted at the Newmarket course in Salisbury, New York, not from where Belmont Park currently sits. The first record of quarter-mile races, from which Quarter Horses derive their name, dates back to 1674 in Henrico County, Virginia, and consisted of two horses racing down village streets. It wasn’t until 1868, however, that organized racing first took hold in America with the creation of the American Stud Book, which catalogued horses foaled in the country.
Racing began to thrive in post-Civil War America as people of all socioeconomic backgrounds rallied behind the burgeoning sport. By 1890, there were an astonishing 314 tracks operating in the United States, which prompted the formation of the American Jockey Club in 1894 to give the sport some semblance of a central body. The move was well-timed, as fierce opposition to gambling emerged in the early 20th century, nearly eliminating horse racing entirely. While bookmaking was a casualty of this anti-gambling crusade, parimutuel wagering, which was introduced in 1908 and is still the backbone of the industry, was able to successfully revive the sport.
Racing continued to rebound through the early to mid-1900’s, even through the Great Depression, and sustained a high level of popularity right up until World War II. Horses like Seabiscuit, now immortalized on the big screen, captured the public’s imagination during this downtrodden period in America’s history as he epitomized the underdog. Standing just 15 hands high and with lackluster results early in his career, Seabiscuit rose to the sport’s greatest heights, eventually defeating Triple Crown winner War Admiral in a match race and becoming the highest money-winning racehorse in history to that point.
America’s most famous horse race, the Kentucky Derby, debuted in 1875 at Churchill Downs. The inaugural running took place in front of a crowd of 10,000 people at a distance of 1 ½ miles to mimic the Epsom Derby in England, the race after which it was modeled. The Preakness held its first edition two years earlier, in 1873, and the first running of the Belmont came even earlier, in 1867. Sir Barton was the first horse to win all three races in 1919, however it wasn’t until 1923 that the “Triple Crown” moniker was used and not until 1930 that it became commonplace. To date, there have been 13 Triple Crown winners.
A Triple Crown drought spanning from the late 1940’s to early 1970’s was broken emphatically by Secretariat, arguably America’s most famous racehorse, in 1973. Big Red, as he was known due to his chestnut color, decimated his competition that year, capping off his Triple Crown bid with a 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes that is widely regarded as one of the greatest races of all time. Secretariat was followed in short order by Seattle Slew winning the Triple Crown in 1977 and Affirmed again accomplished the feat in 1978, but it would be another 37 years before another horse tasted Triple Crown glory. American Pharoah finally snapped the cold spell in 2015 and in 2018 Justify captured the three-race series. Both horses were conditioned by one of the era’s most dominant trainers, Bob Baffert.
The advent of the Breeders’ Cup in 1984 finally gave American racing a year-end championship event that has grown steadily over the years and now rivals Kentucky Derby Day in popularity and surpasses it in prestige. The Breeders’ Cup hosts several different races that bring together the best horses in various divisions, and even attracts top European and other international runners. Formerly a one-day showcase, in 2007 the event expanded to two days. Three Breeders’ Cup races are ranked among the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities’ top Grade 1 races in the world: the Classic, the Turf, and the Mile.
While thoroughbred racing is the most popular form of horse racing in America, other varieties have also enjoyed a good deal of success and attention. The first harness racing tracks were opened in the mid-1800’s, but harness racing events date back to as early as 1825 at county fairs all around the country. By the mid-20th century, harness racing was actually the fastest-growing sport in America. Quarter horse racing remains popular in the American southwest and dates back to colonial times. Arabian, appaloosa, and paint races are still conducted throughout the country, as well, though thoroughbreds continue to dominate the racing landscape.