Horse racing throughout the world can be divided into three major forms: The first and probably the most familiar to everyone is generally called through-bred racing,  in which horses ridden by jockeys race on a flat track.  The second, in which horses ridden by jockeys jump obstacles (natural or contrived ) in the course of the race, is commonly called steeplechasing. And in the third, known as harness racing, horses pull a light vehicle and a driver and run at a fast trotting pace, not a gallop.

France’s Long champs racecourse in the Bois de Boulogne is one of the most attractive in the world it is also the scene of Europe’s most valuable and sought after racing prize, the Grand prix de Paris.  A board detailing the runners and riders in the next race; above, bettors confer between races before placing their bets with the tote (in the background).  Below left, the climax of a race as the horses speed across the finishing line. 

Britain can claim not only the oldest extant thoroughbred race in the world (the race was instituted by the 12th Earl of Derby in 1780 since 1784 I has been run annually usually on the first Wednesday in June at Epson Downs racecourse, about 14 miles from London (except during each of the world wars, when the race was run at New market).

The Derby’s popularity ensures that ít  is a big money race in gambling terms.  In 1962 the combined intake of only three London bookmaking firms during the last few days before the race totaled the equivalent of over $ 2,000,000.  Derby fever isn’t only urban: In eight small towns in the north of England, bookmakers recorded an average of 3600 Derby bets placed in each town on the two days before the 1961 race.  Derby betting totals are usually the sums of a great many small bets made by occasional online poker gamblers who have been tempted to “have a flutter” by the prestige of the Derby and the ballyhoo that precedes its running.  Individual bets are seldom as lavish as they were 100 years ago, when noblemen like Lord George Bentinck would often bet hundreds of thousands on Derby horses.  Bets of over $ 5000 would create something of a stir in today’s gambling circles understandably, for with around 27 horses running, only a tycoon would risk thousands on one of them.  (Of course, occasional tycoons have been known to do so:  in the 1946 Derby an American millionaire used $ 6000 that he had made on a stock-exchange deal to backgammon a horse called Airborne. The horse won at “long shot” odds of 50 to 1, and the millionaire went home $ 300,000 richer.)

The winning horse and jockey parade in the winner’s enclosure.

After the Derby, many other British races rank high among the world’s great thoroughbred events – races like the St. Leger (which was first run in 1776), the Oaks (first run in 1779), or the Ascot spring and summer meetings.  (The last are famous as social events as well as races: They are usually attended by the monarch and the cream of British high society.) But perhaps the closest runner-up to the Derby in fame is America’s greatest race, whose name indicates England’s influence on the world’s horse racing but whose traditions are entirely American.  This is the Kentucky Derby (first run in 1875), a race for three-year-olds held annually at Churchill Downs near Louisville, Kentucky.

Surrounded by all the pomp and elegance of the Old South (including the traditional sipping of mint juleps), the Kentucky Derby is one of the American gamblers’ major annual events.  An economic survey published by the New York Times showed that in 1958 bettors placed $ 1,635,500 on this race alone.  The writers went as far as to suggest that the country’s whole economic trend was manifest in the amount of money bet on this race: In 1932, for example, at the depth of the depression, only $ 277,000 were bet.

In 1866 the first Irish Derby was run at Curragh, the headquarters of Irish racing.  Nearly a century later, in 1962, the first Irish Sweeps Derby was run on this same course, in connection with the Irish Sweepstakes, which established a new traditions; the Sweepstakes had always previously been held in connection with the English Derby.  Many other countries have, like Ireland and America, their own Derby races- such countries as Germany, South Africa, India, and Japan.

France’s major race, the Grand Prix de Paris (held at the great Long champs course in the Bois de Boulogne), was first run in 1834 at Champ-de-Mars at the instigation of a group of sports enthusiasts.  Following an agreement with the Town of Paris the inferior course of Champ-de-Mars was abandoned and on May 31, 1863, the race (for three-year-olds) was run for the first time at the Long champs racecourse.  It has been run there annually on the last Sunday of June ever since.  Betting for this race is heavy: The equivalent of about $ 4,000,000 was staked in 1962; the equivalent of over $ 7,000,000 in 1963.

No international survey of horse racing should ignore the big events that take place in the two oldest British dominions, Australia and Canada.  In Australia, the Melbourne Cup (held at the Flemington course) is the biggest annual event.  In Canada, the Queen’s Plate (run at Toronto’s Woodbine Park) takes precedence.  This race (first run in 1860)proudly claims the title of “the oldest consecutively run race in North America”; it is accompanied (like Britain’s Ascot) by pageantry that includes a parade of the Governor General’s Horse Guards.

All the races so far mentioned take place on flat tracks.  But the definition of “flat” in relation to race tracks varies considerably. American tracts conform to a standardized pattern: They are nearly all ovals of smooth dirt enclosed by white rail fences.  British course (which are rarely called tracks ) are much more individualized; they are turf rather than dirt, not always entirely level, and usually irregular in shape.
Continental courses vary greatly.  Examples of the stylized American track can be found in Scandinavia, Germany, Italy, and France.  But there are also many irregularly shaped and variably sized turf courses (similar to Britain’s ) all over Europe.  One of the finest racecourses in Europe is the Hippodrome Côte d’Azur at Cages, between Nice and Cannes.  Evening harness races, with the failing light supplemented by floodlights, are held there from December to March and during the whole of August.  The grandstand has a view over the track to the sea, and the social ambiance resembles that of Ascot.  The betting, much of it by millionaires, is understandably enormous; a typical day can bring in the equivalent of over $ 1,000,000.

The flat track is also used for harness racing (or trotting), which is especially popular on the continent of Europe, in North America, and in Russia.  (It has never gained much following in Britain, though an English horse named Messenger, imported into Pennsylvania in 1788, was the progenitor of one of the greatest lines of trotting horses.  Many were bred in the North of England, but the idea of racing them without ever allowing them to break into a gallop is American.)  In harness horse racing each horse pulls a lightweight, two-wheeled buggy (called a “sulky”); the driver sits up close behind the horse with his feet in “stirrups” attacked to the shafts.

America’s biggest trotting track is the Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island, which in the 1961 season accommodated over 2,500,000 spectators who spent about $ 196,000,000.  (In New York state, harness races are more popular than thoroughbred races: In 1960, trotting races at various tracks drew over 7,000,000 spectators, while only about 5,000,000went to see the thoroughbreds.)  Canada, too, delights in trotting races, and spent nearly $ 40,000,000 on them in 1962.  The Hippodrome in Moscow has a 60-days season of floodlit harness events complete with totalizator betting.  In 1961 an English journalist, in Moscow on an assignment for his paper, visited the Hippodrome and won the biggest prize of the year-the equivalent of nearly $4800-on a bet of about $5.

Steeplechasing (the form of racing in which horses jump obstacles on the course) is generally thought to have evolved from the sport of hunting i.e., the pursuit of a fox, stag, or hare by hounds and mounted hunters in traditional garb, who jump intervening hedges, fences, brooks, and so on during the chase.  But hunting’s most direct descendant is a form of horse racing called “point-to-point,” which originated in the 18th century when hunters who had run down their quarry early in the day would continue their sport by challenging one another to races over all obstacles to some distant landmark-often the church steeple in a neighboring village.  (Point-to-point meetings are still held in many countries, but attract horse enthusiasts rather than gamblers.) Modern steeple-chasing probably owes more to European military trials in which the skill and endurance of horse and rider were tested by facing them with artificial hurdles.  Britain, again, can lay claim to the best-known steeplechase in the world-the Grand National, which was first run in 1836 at Aintree, near Liverpool.            

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