The history, allure and tradition of horse racing

Jockey Victor Espinoza

Jockey Victor Espinoza

Overtaken by lotteries, casinos, and other forms of gambling, thoroughbred racing has become something of a losing bet in recent decades. But the success last year of American Pharoah to become the first winner since 1978 of the Triple Crown (the Derby, Preakness and Belmont) has breathed new life into the sport of kings.

The first Derby was run at Epsom in 1780. Its name was the result of a coin toss between Lord Derby and Lord Bunbury; if Derby had lost that bet, we would today be awaiting the Kentucky Bunbury a couple of weeks from now. Since that little wager, billions of dollars have been bet, fortunes won and lost, on the composition of man, animal, heredity, climate, mathematics, and chance called horse racing––much of it, needless to say, by people who wouldn’t know a roan filly from a chestnut gelding, a fetlock from a pastern.

Thoroughbreds typically weigh more than 1,000 pounds. They are noble and courageous creatures, bred to compete. You can see what happens when a jockey falls off and the riderless horse scampers ahead of all the other contestants to the winning post. And the jockeys, who are, on average, about 112 pounds, are just as brave and focused, many of them suffering broken bones in a career that, unlike that of other sports, can last well into their 40s or 50s.

All the thoroughbreds in the world stem from bloodlines introduced into England in the early 18th century––specifically from three great stallions and their descendants, Eclipse, Matchem and Herod.

In his book “Horses and Horsemanship,” Luigi Gianoli said that racing’s fascination ‘lies in its complex appeal to our varied interests and emotions, catering as it does to our scientific bent, irrational enthusiasm, pleasure in method, delight in chance, knowledge of the past, and search for the future.’

There’s also the intellectual challenge of analyzing form––speed, weight, genealogy, distance––while never losing sight of the fact that racehorses are not machines. The best horse in the race might get hemmed in behind a wall of other horses, or might simply be off form and not feel like living up to its best performance. Also, as once put, horses don’t read the Daily Racing Form in order to find out how they’re supposed to perform. Hall of Fame jockey Willie Shoemaker once said: ‘there’s only one way to win––get there first.’

The extraordinarily talented British jockey, Lester Piggott, when told that, at 5 foot 8, he was too tall to be a jockey, went on to win an amazing nine derbies and was Britain’s champion jockey 11 times. Unfortunately, he went to jail for tax evasion, but when he got out, proceeded to win a classic race in New York at the age of 54. Journalists descended on this icon of the turf and when one of them asked him if his riding technique had changed during his time away, the notably taciturn Piggott replied: ‘No, still one leg each side.’ He hung up his saddle in 1994 at the age of 60.

I’ve had a lifelong passion for thoroughbred racing that has taken me to six racecourses in France, and several in England, Wales, Canada, Barbados and the U.S. I’ve even had some ‘skin in the game’ with a very small ownership in a trio of thoroughbreds. I’ve also had the pleasure when stepping away from my regular beat as a medical writer and editor, of interviewing such well-known horsemen as the Canadian champion, Sandy Hawley, and three women jockeys who pioneered a previously all-male sport.

Have I won any money? Sometimes. But as has been said: if you want to make a million dollars out of horse racing, start with $10 million. Or, like the inveterate gambler who said: “I hope I break even, I need the money.”

But I’ll be there in spirit at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May and, win or lose, I will continue to earn huge dividends in intellectual stimulation and value — the rewards of a passion ignited in my youth and still burning bright.

David Woods, Ph.D., is a Philadelphia-based medical writer and editor. A former editor in chief of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, he is the author of four books and more than 200 articles, editorials, and reviews in peer-reviewed health care publications. 

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