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Horseracing in Great Britain

Horse racing is a popular spectator sport in Great Britain, and gambling on horseraces is the cornerstone of the British betting industry. Horse racing in Ireland is run on an All Ireland basis, so the two racecourses in Northern Ireland are not part of the British racing industry.

The two main forms of horse racing in Great Britain are unobstructed distances races, known as flat racing, and races over fences or over hurdles, known as National Hunt racing. Additionally there is another form of racing which is run on an altogether more informal and ad hoc basis, known as point to point racing. Point to point is a form of steeplechasing for amateur riders. It, like professional racing, is nevertheless run under the auspices of the governing and regulatory body for horse-racing in Great Britain, the British Horseracing Authority.[1]

The UK has produced some of the greatest jockeys, including Sir Gordon Richards, usually considered the greatest ever jockey. There are between four and five hundred professional jockeys based in the United Kingdom.[2]



It is thought that the first races to take place in Britain were organised by soldiers of the Roman Empire in Yorkshire around 200 AD, although the first recorded race meeting was during the reign of Henry II at Smithfield, London in 1174 during a horse fair.

It is believed that the first occurrence of a trophy being presented to the winner of a race was in 1512 by organisers of a fair in Chester and was a small wooden ball decorated with flowers.

Early in the 16th century Henry VIII imported a large number of stallions and mares for breeding although it was not until the 17th and 18th centuries that the breeding of thoroughbreds began as we know it now.

Newmarket is known as the home of horse racing in England and James I was prominent in introducing racing there after discovering the little village in 1605 whilst out hawking or riding. He spent so much time there that the House of Commons petitioned him to concentrate more of his time on running the country. This region had a long association with horses going back to the time of Boudica and the Iceni. Around the time that Charles I of England came to the throne, Spring and Autumn race meetings were introduced to Newmarket and in 1634 the first Gold Cup event was held.

All horse racing was then banned in 1654 by Oliver Cromwell, and many horses were requisitioned by the state. Despite this Cromwell himself kept a stud running of his own.

Jockey, Edwardian painting by the famous Irish artist William Orpen

With the restoration of Charles II racing flourished and he instituted the Newmarket Town Plate in 1664, writing the rules himself:

Articles ordered by His Majestie to be observed by all persons that put in horses to ride for the Plate, the new round heat at Newmarket set out on the first day of October, 1664, in the 16th year of our Sovereign Lord King Charles II, which Plate is to be rid for yearly, the second Thursday in October for ever.

In the early 18th century, Queen Anne kept a large string of horses and was instrumental in the founding of Royal Ascot where the opening race each year is still called the Queen Anne Stakes. This has now stopped since the Queen Anne Stakes was elevated to Group 1 status in 2004 and therefore the Coventry Stakes is the first race on the first day of Royal Ascot.

In 1740, Parliament introduced an act "to restrain and to prevent the excessive increase in horse racing", though this was largely ignored, but in the 1752 the Jockey Club was formed to create and apply the Rules of Racing.

The Jockey Club governed the sport from 1752 until its governance role was handed to the British Horseracing Board, (formed in June 1993) and while the BHB became responsible for strategic planning, finance, politics, race planning, training and marketing, the Jockey Club continued to regulate the sport. In 2006 it formed the Horseracing Regulatory Authority to carry out the regulatory process whilst it focused on owning 13 racecourses and the gallops in Newmarket and Lambourn. In July 2007 the HRA merged with the BHB to form the British Horseracing Authority.

Key data

Key data for 2005 (2004 in brackets) extracted from the British Horseracing Board's annual reports for 2004 and 2005:

2004 2005
Fixtures 1,299 1,300
Races 8,757 8,588
Runners 92,761 94,659
Prize Money (Total) £101.3 million 99.3 million
Prize Money (Flat) £65.4 million 63.9 million
Prize Money (Jump) £35.9 million 35.4 million
Racegoers (Total) 6,048,517 5,896,922
Racegoers (Flat) 3,873,508 3,704,567
Racegoers (Jump) 2,175,009 2,192,435
Monthly average horses in training 13,914 14,388
Monthly average owners with horses in training 9,266 9,403

British racing is going through a period of growth, but the Chief Executive of the BHB states in the 2005 annual report that in 2005, as in other recent years, "Success was achieved in an environment of great uncertainty." The sport is struggling to adapt to the loss of income from pre-race data following court ruling prohibiting the practice of charging for such in 2004 and 2005, to which the BHB attributes the fall in prize money in 2005. The data charges were themselves designed to replace income lost when a statutory levy was abolished. In 2004 attendances exceeded 6 million for the first time since the 1950s (2004 annual report). The decrease in 2005 is attributable to the closure of Ascot Racecourse for redevelopment for the entire year. With Ascot reopened the BHB estimates that 2006 attendances will exceed 6.5 million.


There are 60 licenced racecourses in Great Britain, with a further two in Northern Ireland (Down Royal and Downpatrick). A 61st course, Great Leighs, opened in 2008 but had its licence revoked on 16 January 2009. It may resume racing at a later date. Apart from Great Leighs and Ffos Las (which opened in 2009), all the courses date back to 1927 or earlier. The oldest is Chester Racecourse, which dates to the early 1500s.[3]

  • Bangor on Dee Racecourse in Wrexham - (national hunt)
  • Catterick Bridge in North Yorkshire - (mixed)

Former race courses

Between 1900 and 1981, 97 racecourses closed their doors. [1]

  • Alexandra Park Racecourse - north London; closed in 1970.
  • Atherstone Racecourse - Warwickshire
  • Banbury Racecourse - Oxfordshire
  • Bromford Bridge Racecourse - Birmingham
  • Buckfastleigh Racecourse - Devon; held its first race on 21 June 1883 and its final race on 27 August 1960. The dilapidated main grandstand survives, and is a well known local landmark, and the fields around it are still in use for point-to-point races [2].
  • Chelmsford Racecourse - Essex
  • Croxton Racecourse - Leicestershire
  • Durham Racecourse
  • Eglinton Racecourse - County Londonderry, Northern Ireland
  • Eridge Racecourse - East Sussex
  • Gatwick Racecourse - West Sussex; in use from 1891 to 1940 and the land is now part of London Gatwick Airport.
  • Haldon Racecourse - Devon
  • Harpenden Racecourse - Hertfordshire; closed before 1914, the land is now the site of Bamville Cricket Club.
  • Lanark Racecourse - Lanarkshire, Scotland
  • Lewes Racecourse - East Sussex; closed in September 1964 after some 200 years of racing.
  • Maghull Racecourse - Sefton, Merseyside
  • Melton Racecourse - Leicestershire
  • Plymouth Racecourse - Devon; in use from about 1827 until the last race on 4 September 1930.
  • Portsmouth Racecourse - Farlington, Portsmouth; opened 1891 and closed at the outbreak of World War 1 and turned into an ammunition dump for the War Office.
  • Portsmouth Racecourse - Paulsgrove, Portsmouth; opened in the 1920s and closed shortly after the end of World War 2. The land was redeveloped as a housing estate.
  • Shincliffe Racecourse - Durham; in use from 1895 until about 1913.
  • Shirley Racecourse - West Midlands; the land is now the home of Shirley Golf Club.
  • South Brent Racecourse - Devon
  • Torquay Racecourse - Devon
  • Totnes Racecourse - Devon; closed in 1939 and requisitioned by the Admiralty, it was sold in the early 1950s. At this course long distance steeplechases involved crossing the River Dart and the Totnes-Newton Abbot road.
  • Wrexham Racecourse - north Wales
  • Wye Racecourse- Kent; in use from 1881 to 1975.


The three main operators of British racecourses are Jockey Club Racecourses, which owns fourteen courses, Northern Racing with ten, and Arena Leisure with seven.


Wagering money on horse races is as old as the sport itself, but in the United Kingdom the links between horseracing and nationwide wagering are very strong. "Betting shops" are common sights in most towns, tending to be sited wherever a significant number of people with disposable cash can be expected. At one point in the 1970s it was said that the ideal location was "close to a pub, the Labour Exchange and the Post Office", the first being a source of customers in a good mood, the other two being sources of ready cash in the form of "The Dole" and state pension money, which was dispensed through Post Offices at the time.

Betting is taxed under the authority of various acts of Parliament, the revenue being collected by the Horserace Betting Levy Board, a "non-departmental public body" sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. According to the Board website[4], 90% of the tax raised by the levy is used for the improvement of horseracing, the rest presumably being absorbed by the Board's expenses. For the latest year reported, the levy resulted in £103.5 million being collected.

Member of Parliament Clement Freud, who himself has owned racehorses, alleged in an article published in the 1970s, before his election to Parliament, that horseracing was organized purely to generate taxes. He cited the large number of otherwise non-viable racecourses kept open (to ensure sufficient races being run) even as the financial rewards to the owners and trainers declined to the point where most could barely cover their expenses.

On 6 October 2001 the Government abolished the tax on betting, which had been 9% of the stake or the winnings, the punter having the choice to pay a certain small amount or an uncertain large amount. The tax is now effectively indirectly levied on the punters, the cost being absorbed in the odds that bookmakers offer.

The last 10 years in the UK,has seen massive growth in online gambling. Punters are now going online to place their bets, where technology gives them access to a greater wealth of information and knowledge. Now racing punters exchange information on online forums, tipping sites etc.


The main meetings held are:

    • Newmarket - Craven Meeting
    • Sandown Park - Bet365 Gold Cup Celebration
  • May
    • Chester - May Meeting
    • York - Dante Meeting
    • Ascot - Royal Ascot
    • Newcastle - John Smith's Northumberland Plate
  • July
    • Sandown Park - Coral-Eclipse Meeting
    • Newmarket - July Meeting
    • Ascot - King George Day
  • August
    • York - Ebor Festival
  • September
    • Haydock Park - William Hill Sprint Cup
    • Ayr - Western Meeting
    • Ascot - Ascot Festival
  • October
    • Newmarket - Totesport Cambridgeshire Meeting
    • Newmarket - October Meeting
    • Doncaster - Racing Post Trophy
  • November
    • Cheltenham - The Paddy Power Open
    • Haydock & Aintree - North West Masters
    • Newbury - Hennessy Meeting
  • December
    • Sandown Park - Tingle Creek Meeting
    • Kempton Park - Stan James Christmas Festival
    • Chepstow - Coral Welsh National


See also

  • The Sportsman
  • The Sporting Times

External links




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