In the UK horse racing is also known as The Sport of Kings and not without good reason, as it has attracted royal patronage from its early days.
Ascot, for example, which still hosts the Royal meeting every July, was founded by Queen Ann in 1711.
There are records of horse racing in the UK going back to roman times. However it was in the seventeenth and eighteenth century that a form of racing, similar to that of today, is officially recorded.
In those times most races were private challenges between aristocrats, with the horses frequently being ridden by their owners. These challenges frequently attracted large crowds and eventually wagering on the outcome of the races began.
By the mid-eighteenth century there was a concern these races were not being regulated properly and the integrity of some of the races was called into question.
These concerns led to the formation of the Jockey Club in 1750. This club was no more than a gentlemen's club, however it was empowered by the government to regulate horse racing, a role it carried out until 2003. More of that later.
It is worth noting that some of these private challenges still have a legacy in the 21st century. One such challenge race was between Lord Bunbury and Lord Derby, who in 1779 tossed a coin to decide who a forthcoming race should be named after. Lord Derby won the toss and The Derby, run at Epsom racecourse the first Saturday in June each year is still considered to be the blue riband of thoroughbred racing.
There are basically two types of racing in the UK.
Flat racing, as its name implies, is run over a flat course without any obstacles. The shortest races are run over 5 furlongs (5/8 mile / 1,000 metres), with the longest being just over 2 miles (4,000 metres), although the maximum most days is 1 to 1 miles (2,400 to 2,800 metres).
National Hunt racing on the other hand involves the horses having to jump obstacles. Either over hurdles which are relatively low and tend to fall over when hit, or over larger obstacles, generally hedge like, which tend not to give way when hit. National Hunt races are run over longer distances ranging from 2 miles (3,200 metres) through to 4 miles (7,200 metres). A 2 mile hurdle race generally entails having to clear around 8 hurdles, whilst a chase on the corresponding distance involves having to clear around 12 obstacles.
There are currently 59 racecourses in the UK. Some stage exclusively flat racing, others exclusively National Hunt, whilst some stage both and they are known as dual purpose courses. Racing is generally staged on grass, although there are four courses which stage all weather racing on an artificial surface. One of the attractions of UK racing is the differing courses. Some courses are built on flat landscapes, others have constant undulations or steep uphill finishes. Some run almost exclusively on straight courses, others have turns so tight the horses are almost leaning at an angle as they take the turns. Some courses race clockwise and others race counter clockwise, indeed a couple of courses are even of a figure-of-eight configuration so the horses turn in both directions.
Some courses are known internationally, Epsom, on the flat, stages both The Derby and The Oaks, both of which have a world wide following. From the jumping side Aintree hosts what is, arguably, the most famous jump race in the world, The Grand National. Run late March or early April over 4 miles and 30 formidable fences.
As we saw earlier the Jockey Club was the governing body for racing until 2006. At the turn of the new century concerns were raised that the Jockey Club was not the most appropriate body to run racing. Being a private members club with strict entry criteria, namely by invitation only. It was considered elitist, out of touch with the needs of modern racing and unaccountable. It also tended to represent one side of racing, the owners.
In 2003 the running of racing was passed to the British Horseracing Board (BHB), which was formed from representatives across a wide selection of interested parties across racing. The Jockey Club still maintained responsibility for regulatory matters, including integrity and disciplinary matters.
In July 2007, the BHB and the Horseracing Regulatory Authority (HRA), the regulatory arm of the Jockey Club, merged to form the British Horseracing Authority. This single authority now has full control of racing, ending the Jockey Clubs 257 year regulatory control of the sport.