Archaeologists have discovered artefacts that record the existence of horse races dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. While it has changed considerably since it’s early inception, there is no doubting its continued popularity.
Horse race formats vary across the world, and over the years many countries have developed their own traditions around the sport. These include only racing certain breeds of horse, staging races over different distances and using grass or dirt track surfaces.
A major part of horse racing’s popularity is centred around gambling and the use of and betting at a sportsbook. The sport carries huge economic importance and in 2015 the global horse racing betting market topped over $119 billion.
The Sport of Kings
Horse racing in the UK is often referred to as the “Sport of Kings”, in reference to it’s popularity among Royalty and the rich. The sport has a long and rich history of horse racing, so it’s no surprise to see three British races in this list.
The Grand National
With an estimated 600 million people worldwide, watching in over 140 countries, the “National” is one of the greatest horse races there is. It’s also one of the richest races in the world with over £1 million in prize money and the winner taking home £500,000.
Held every year at Aintree racecourse in Liverpool, England, the event takes place over three days, culminating in the running of the Grand National. Run over two laps, horses jump 30 fences, including the infamous Becher’s Brook and The Chair.
Its inaugural race was way back in 1839, but now this handicap steeplechase has developed into one of the most popular jump races around. Held in April every year, it attracts sell-out crowds of over 70,000 people.
The race has become deeply embedded into British culture and is usually the one and only horse race that people watch. That’s because the Grand National is an unpredictable, captivating race full of shocks and surprises.
Originating in 1860, Cheltenham festival is a four-day jump racing festival in Gloucestershire, England. It takes place in March every year and is often described as “Horseracing’s Olympics”.
It boasts record prize money of over £4,590,000, equating to over £1,000,000 per day, the most of any jump festival in the world. Featuring 14 Grade One races, Cheltenham attracts some of the best horses, trainers and jockeys around.
The Gold Cup is the high point of the festival, is sometimes referred to as jump-racings Blue Riband event. It is the most valuable non-handicap chase in Britain, with a total prize fund of over £600,000.
The festival attracts 260,000 people over the course of four days, with at least one ‘Championship’ race scheduled every day. The Gold Cup has seen viewing figures of 1.9 million in the UK alone.
As Cheltenham usually coincides with Saint Patricks Day, the festival is very popular with the Irish. As the starter raises the tape for the first race of the festival, the famous “Cheltenham roar” can be heard.
The first Royal Meeting took place at Ascot in 1768 and it hasn’t looked back since. Britain’s most popular race meeting sees 300,000 racegoers through their doors over the five-day event.
Thursday’s prestigious Gold Cup Day attracts 70,000 racegoers, while an average of 980,000 people in the UK watch every day. Royal Ascot’s famous Gold Cup group 1 flat race, attracts 1.8 million TV viewers in the UK.
With a total of £7.3m in prize money, this is the most valuable race meeting in Britain. Featuring 8 Group One races and 19 Group races in total, it is no surprise that it is viewed in over 200 countries worldwide.
Not only is Royal Ascot regarded by many as the best horse racing event of the year, but also the most important social event of the year. Men in the Royal enclosure must wear morning suit and top hat, while women wear elegant dresses and extravagant millinery.
The Kentucky Derby Festival
Held every year in May, in Louisville, United States, is the two-week-long Kentucky Derby Festival. The event culminates in the Kentucky Derby, a Grade 1 stakes race for three-year-old Thoroughbreds.
Commonly called “The Run for the Roses”, due to the roses placed over the winner, it is the first leg of the prestigious American Triple Crown. In the U.S it is also known as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” and it’s hard to disagree.
Back in 2015, a record 170,513 fans attended the race, the highest ever recorded for the Derby. While last year’s event saw 8.4 million viewers US viewers, peaking at 9.8 million.
The Derby boasts the highest purse of any Triple Crown race and in 2020 the prize money was $3 million, with $1.86 million going to the winner.
The Dubai World Cup Carnival
The Dubai carnival in the UAE, is one of the greatest horse racing carnivals in the world. Starting in January, it marks the beginning of two months of racing, culminating with the Dubai World Cup in March.
With around $6 million up for grabs, the carnival attracts the world’s best trainers, jockeys and owners. The main race itself, the Dubai World Cup, is worth a staggering $12 million.
Horses qualify for the Dubai World Cup based on ratings and previous performances in the Carnival. Super Saturday is a dress rehearsal race, allowing trainers to make final preparations to their horses before the World Cup final itself.
Since 1996, the Dubai World Cup has been raced over 1 ¼ miles on a dirt track. Previous winners have included horses trained in France, Japan, UAE, UK and USA.
The iconic Meydan racecourse in Dubai holds up to 60,000 spectators and features a mile-long grandstand. The venue and entertainment on offer are second to none and attract people from all over the world.
The Popularity of Horse Racing Events
It’s incredibly hard to pick out just a few festivals when there’s so much great horse racing to be enjoyed around the world. New events continue to appear as racings popularity increases around the world.
However, The Epsom Derby in Surrey, England, deserves a mention as does the Breeders’ Cup, part of the US triple Crown. The Pegasus World Cup in the US, with its prize fund of $16 million, cannot be ignored.
No matter who you are, there’s sure to be a festival out there for you to watch and enjoy. Proving that horse racing is not just the Sport of Kings, but the sport of everyone.