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This day in history: March 25

The sport of horse-racing is almost nearly as old as the relationship between man and horse itself. The sport has been a staple of various cultures for centuries, and was brought to the United States when the British started colonizing in the early 1600s. However, the first horse race was not recorded until March 25, 1668.

The sport was popularized in England during the reign of King James I in the 17th century and spread to the Americas, finding roots in the previously Dutch colonies around what is modern-day New York.

The first race course was built over the Salisbury Plain in present-day Long Island, New York, which is now just south of the New Hyde Park train station. The first winner of the horse race received a silver porringer — a type of porridge dish that was produced in the colonies and worth a large sum of money.

Today, horse racing is still one of the most widely attended spectator sports in America, as well as one of the most highly-grossing sports, as gambling is a large part of the event. Thoroughbred racing is the largest attraction, with spectators largely interested in 3/4  quarter mile races, although quarter mile horses races and harness racing are also popular.

Thoroughbred racing relies on the ability of their owners to be able to trace their racer’s lineage back to three “foundation sires” who established the precedent for thoroughbred horses. Three stallions — the Byerley Turk foaled in 1697, the Darley Arabian foaled in 1700 and the Godolphin Arabian foaled in 1724 — were the standard for racehorses, and every racehorse from the 1800s to today has their pedigree determined by their link to these thoroughbred stallions.

Thoroughbred racing was not organized well in the United States until after the Civil War, when the American Stud Book was started. The horse racing industry, as well as the betting stakes, exploded during the Industrial Revolution. By the late 1800s, there were 314 fully-functional race tracks in the United States. In 1984, the American Jockey Club was formed, which cracked down on a lot of the corruption that had infiltrated the sport. The anti-gambling sentiment of the early 1900s led to the closure of hundreds of tracks, and in 1910 there were only 25 functioning tracks in America.

Horse racing flourished in the United States up until the 1950s and 60s, and then regained popularity in the 70s. During the 70s , racehorses like Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, all achieved the American Triple Crown. The American Triple Crown is comprised of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. During the 80s, the popularity started to decline as there was a long period where there were no Triple Crown winners.  

Today 32 states host horse races around the U.S., but the tradition is steadily on the decline. There are many other more expensive and more prestigious races that have become world-renowned, such as the Dubai World Cup, which is now the richest race in the world. Thoroughbred racing is an expensive and time-consuming pastime, and is no longer at the heart of American culture with the same gusto that it had garnered in the days when Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes 31 lengths in front of the second finisher with a still-undefeated time of two minutes and 24 seconds on a mile-and-a-half dirt track.

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