British Horse Racing History, Does Hunting Have a Part to play?
Between 1660 and 1685, the second most popular spectator sport in Britain today, horse racing, began its rise to mass popularity when the first official race meeting took place at what is now known as the home of flat racing, Newmarket. In its beginnings, races were contested between just two horses. It wasn’t until the early 1700s that this changed when several horses began to compete in races. It was also around this time that betting on horse racing began.
Horse racing in its current guise is full of rich pickings for winners of the biggest races, with over £1.5 million up for grabs in the 2019 Epsom Derby. With sixty racecourses stretching the length of Britain and over 5.6 million racegoers attending in 2019, horse racing’s popularity is unshakeable. Although this appears to be a grand sum of many, this is only a fraction of what would have been staked across the country, with a large percentage being staked form the comfort their own home, technology has allowed us to be presented with many online betting sites.
Echoes from the past
The links between horse racing and fox hunting are still present today. The clearest indication of this is the running of the Fox Hunters Chase, which is open to amateur riders, some of which are huntsmen. Although fox hunting began in the early fifteen hundreds when farmers in Norfolk chased down foxes with their dogs for pest control, it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that the sport resembled anything like it does today.
In 1753, eighteen-year-old Hugo Meynell, often referred to as the father of modern-day foxhunting, began breeding hunting dogs for their speed and stamina and incredible scent tracking abilities.
The popularity of the sport grew to such an extent that a shortage of foxes in England in the twentieth century meant that foxes be imported from other parts of Europe, including Germany, Holland, France, and Sweden.
Humble and holy beginnings
We have to go back to around 1621 to find the first connections between hunting and racing, notably national hunt, or steeple chasing as it’s often called. Around this time, two horses raced against each other, with the finishing point being a church steeple, as these were the most prominent landmarks of the time.
Horses would race over distances between two and four miles, from one steeple to another, while jumping over anything in their path. Steeple chasing was born. The two most prominent types of races that have a long history of hunting connections are point-to-point races and hunter chases.
Taking place on national hunt courses, hunter chases are only open to horses who are in receipt of a hunter’s certificate. These are only issued to horses that have taken part in a hunt four times previous to the race season, starting in January. Any jockey taking part in such a race will also have to meet certain conditions, one being that he has to be an amateur. He will, like his mount, also have to be in receipt of a hunter’s certificate.
Conditions for trainers differ in as much as they can be either licensed or amateur. It often annoys some amateur trainers, especially when big names compete in the race, giving little chance for the amateurs to triumph.
Off to Aintree
The two most prestigious hunter chases to take place are the Fox Hunters Chase, which occurs at Aintree and is commonly referred to as the amateurs Grand National. The race normally takes place on the first day of the Aintree festival. The other big occasion that throws up an opportunity for amateurs to shine on the big stage is the Cheltenham Foxhunter. The race, which follows the national hunt season’s pinnacle, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, is again often referred to as the amateur version of the same name.
Solely for amateur riders and hunting horses alike, point-to-point races have been taking place for over 140 years. The first instance of the phrase point-to-point being used in reference to a horse race was in 1874 when Langar won a contest that took place from Sutton on the Forest to Brandsby. It was in 1913 that saw the formation of the Master of Hounds Point-to-point association when local hunts got together. The national hunt committee took the reins in the mid-1930s and later was taken control by the current holders, the Jockey Club.
These races, which have long-lasting roots in hunting, usually take place over three-mile plus and are normally run over general farmland. There are 110 point-to-point courses in Britain, which are split into nine different regions.
For all the controversy hunting has attracted over recent years, we have to thank this sport for the onset of horse racing. Maybe not as we know it today, but nonetheless, without it, both amateur jockeys and trainers alike might not have the opportunity to claim their fifteen minutes of fame at famous racecourses such as Cheltenham and Aintree.