Horse racing is one of the oldest sports in the world and began in medieval times in the United Kingdom. It’s first purpose was to display the speed of the horse to prospective buyers. The first known purse was offered in the 12th century, during the reign of Richard the Lionheart. It was a princely sum of £40, which would be worth over £30,000 now. King Henry VIII established studs across the UK in the 16th century, bringing in new rules for breeding.
Betting on horses began in the 17th century, when King James I was on the throne. Initially wagers were simply betting on a horse to win. It wasn’t until the 19th century that horse racing odds were offered on more complicated betting types such as “each way”, “tricast” and the other classics.
Horse racing is now the second-largest spectator sport in the UK. More than six million people attend the races every year, with many more watching at home and other venues.
As such, racing is ingrained in UK culture. Even those who aren’t avid fans often bet on the bigger races on the calendar.
It has retained much of its tradition, and now it’s growing year on year.
The Top UK Races You Can’t Miss
If you’re planning a visit to the UK, you’ll want to catch one of the following. These races always attract a huge crowd and are attended by racegoers dressed to the nines.
Taking place every March in Gloucestershire, Cheltenham Festival is a popular fixture on the National Hunt calendar. It is named after the racecourse where it takes place, Cheltenham Racecourse. The prize money is huge, although not as big as the Grand National. Many people in the UK and Ireland visit the event and bet large sums of money.
It originated in 1860 but only properly made its home at the course in 1911. It has grown into a four-day event, with championship races held on each of the days. The atmosphere is brilliant, and with 28 races to choose from, there is something for everyone. The Cheltenham Gold Cup, which takes place on the Friday each year, is probably the biggest draw.
The Grand National
With the slogan “The world is watching” it’s hardly surprising that this is one of the biggest UK horse races. Located in Aintree, near Liverpool, it first started in 1839 and was won by a horse named Lottery. The Grand National is a three-day festival, culminating in the main event on a Saturday in April. It is a steeplechase event, and in the first one the horses had to jump a stone wall!
Some of the greatest horses the world has ever seen have had success at the Grand National. Red Rum won three times at the event and came second twice in the 1970s. He is now buried at the winning post at the racecourse, such was his history there. The prize money is over £1 million every year, and more than 50% goes to the winner.
Expect to drink plenty of tea while at Aintree – around 75,000 cups are consumed there every year.
Over 70,000 people attend the race every year, and 600 million tune in worldwide. Thus, the slogan for the event rings true. The festival is a great one to visit because it is so well-known. It is also the opportunity to see some of the big stars in racing.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, horse racing has long been a royal pastime. Queen Elizabeth II breeds and owns several racehorses so it’s not just a passing interest. The first Royal meeting was at Ascot in 1760, predating the other big events on the racing calendar. It is also the longest, running over 5 days in June every year in county Berkshire.
300,000 people attend every year, catered to by over 6,500 staff onsite. Many attendees arrive by limousine or helicopter. Both Chase and Hurdle races take place here, with 509 horses running. In 2017, it was broadcast to over 650 million households worldwide. The main point here is that you should find a way to take a break.
This is certainly the most prestigious event, punters who aren’t wearing socks with be refused entry. If you want to rub shoulders with the Royal Family, then tops and tails are required.
Cornish crab and fresh lobster are on the menu, along with plenty of Moët Champagne. This is understandable when the prize money reaches £7.3 million, the most valuable race meeting in the UK.
Visit in March, April or June
If you want to catch one of these three huge race events, careful planning is required. Cheltenham is in March, the Grand National in April and Ascot in June.
Of course, racing takes places at these courses all year around, but the excitement levels aren’t as high. Pack your best suit or dress, extraordinary headwear for the ladies, and an umbrella – it is the UK!