A Day at the Races - Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library


America's passion for horse racing began in 1665, with the opening of the first racetrack in the colonies in Long Island, N.Y. The sport grew especially popular in the Middle Atlantic and Southern states, where many horse farms and tracks still exist today. By 1750 the distinct breed of Thoroughbred was developed from crossing English mares with Arabian and Turkish stallions to produce a horse known for its speed and agility.

After the Civil War, the Golden Age of Racing was ushered in as the sport became organized with the opening of numerous racetracks. The added enticement of betting also helped to attract a wider audience. Classic races debuted in the last quarter of the 19th century, most notably the Kentucky Derby in 1875.


Not only was Thoroughbred racing offered but harness racing and steeplechases also. Harness racing, at first a rural pastime, began to be featured at county fairs by 1825. A different breed of horse, the Standardbred, is used for its stamina and durability. In this contest, a jockey needs to skillfully guide the horse and the sulky (a two-wheeled cart weighing about 40 pounds) through the congested area of the track. Steeplechase races originated from the English sport of fox hunting and include hurdles and obstacles. These three types of races still delight fans today.

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