It’s horse-racing season, apparently. I say “apparently” not because it’s up for dispute but because every year, May rolls around, and suddenly, more people than usual are discussing equine matters and the state of Kentucky, and then, I remember that horse racing is a thing that exists. And quite a fun thing that exists, too, if a bit weird and oddly decadent. Several years ago, I and some fellows bought last-minute tickets to the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore to attend the Preakness Stakes, which has its 146th annual race this week, and we had ourselves a grand ol' time. I had a reason to wear seersucker, we got blisteringly sunburned, and a very kind drunkard offered us some of his peel-and-eat Cajun shrimp he had brought from home. Take that, Ascot.
Horse racing is among America’s oldest sports, even predating the country itself. The first North American race was held in 1665 at the Newmarket Course in Salisbury, New York. But of course, man has been racing horses for far longer than that. Historians will tell you that prehistoric man used to eat horses, but basically, as soon as we started domesticating horses (probably in about 3500 B.C., in the Eurasian steppes), we started racing them.
One of our earliest written depictions of horse racing comes from The Illiad, wherein Homer writes of the synoris race, which involves two-horse chariots, held as part of the funeral games for Patroclus. The ancient Greeks featured both chariot and mounted horse races (keles) in their Olympics. The Romans, Egyptians, and Babylonians were also fond of such equestrian contests. The tyrannical Roman Emperor Nero, of fiddling fame, liked to participate in the Olympics, which he established in Rome after the Greek games and named “Neronia.” In A.D. 67, Nero entered the four-horse chariot race with a 10-horse chariot and almost died after being thrown from his poorly weighted chariot while attempting to round the first corner.
Modern horse racing, though, comes to us from the 12th century. As neatly explained by WinningPonies.com, a website I’m sure most of its visitors use for history purposes, it was then that “English knights returned from the Crusades with swift Arab horses. During the next 4 centuries, an increasing number of Arab stallions were imported and bred to English mares to produce horses that possessed both speed and endurance.”
During King Charles II's reign (1660-1685) and Queen Anne's (1702-1714), horse racing grew significantly and began to professionalize. And with professionalization came spectators and, most importantly, wagering. To this day, horse racing remains one of the few forms of sports gambling that is legal throughout most of the world, including, obviously, in the United States.
Whether it remains the “Sport of Kings” is up for debate, however. Perhaps I should have asked the shrimp guy.