Horse racing is known as the sport of kings, and British races are as iconic and admired abroad as the country's royal family. Uniquely, however, it is also the sport of the people, and racing in the UK is followed and enjoyed across the board, appealing to fans and enthusiasts from all backgrounds. The English Grand National, one of the most famous horse races in the world, is broadcast around the world and is watched by up to 600 million viewers in 140 countries, while horse racing is second only to football as a spectator sport in the UK, generating over £3.7 million for the national economy. Major fixtures such as the Grand National, the Cheltenham Festival and Royal Ascot are inescapable occasions in the social calendar, whether you're attending in person, having a flutter at your local betting shop or online, or just following the races on radio or TV.
A historic fixture
Horse racing itself has been a fixture of British life since as far back as the Romans. The rules were codified by the Jockey Club, established in 1750, and England has long been recognised for its thoroughbred racehorses: indeed, the classic racing breed is known as an English Thoroughbred as it was first created on these shores.
Newmarket is known as the home of British horseracing, as it was here that King James I began racing horses in the early 17th century. Royal Ascot was founded in the 1700s, and in 1740 a Parliamentary Act was introduced to restrain and prevent the excessive interest in horse racing. This was unsuccessful, and interest continued to grow, as "the turf" became an integral part of the British way of life.
Two main forms of racing dominate in Britain: Flat Racing, in which there are no obstacles on the course, and National Hunt Racing, in which horses jump hurdles and fences during the race. There is also National Hunt Flat Racing, an obstacle-free race that nevertheless follows National Hunt rules. The British Horseracing Authority oversees all of these events, ensuring that all races, jockeys and horses meet the required standards and handling any disciplinary procedures that may arise.
The Grand National
The English Grand National, held every year at Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool, is the most famous of all National Hunt races. Held in April every year, it was officially first run in 1839, though the exact beginnings are somewhat shrouded in controversy. This handicap steeplechase consists of two laps around Aintree's left-handed National Course, with a total distance covered of four miles and 514 yards, or 6.907 kilometres.
The course has 16 fences, 14 of which are jumped twice, making a total of 30 hurdles to be overcome. Many of these have become famous in their own right. These include the notorious Becher's Brook, with a 6' 9" drop on the landing side, which jockeys have compared to jumping off the edge of the world. The tallest fence, however, is the Chair at 5' 3" (the actual fence at Becher's Brook is just 4' 10"). Becher's Brook unnerves those approaching due to the drop on the far side being so much greater than the initial jump. With the Chair, the ground on the far side is six inches higher than on the near side, so the effect is of the ground rising up to meet the horse and jockey as they come down.
The Chair and the Water Jump are the only two hurdles that need to be approached just once in the race. Another famous hurdle is the Canal Turn, named for the steep left turn that immediately follows the fence, making it especially difficult to negotiate. As this needs to be jumped twice, it has proved the literal downfall of many horses and their riders.
The Cheltenham Festival
Second only to the Grand National, the Cheltenham Festival in Gloucestershire is particularly popular with Irish stables and racing enthusiasts, and is traditionally held on the week of St Patrick's Day. The four-day event has included at least six races per day since 2005; in 2016, there were 28 races in total. These include the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the Champion Hurdle and the World Hurdle. Like the Grand National, Cheltenham is renowned for its unbeatable atmosphere, heralded by the famed “Cheltenham Roar” that greets the first race of the event.
The festival can trace its beginnings back to 1860 when it met at Market Harborough. It was first held in Cheltenham the following year, but usually met at Warwick Racecourse until 1911, when it established a permanent home at Cheltenham. The Top Jockey award is given to the jockey who wins the most races over the course of the four-day festival. In recent years, this award has been dominated by the great Irish jump jockey Ruby Walsh, who first claimed the prize in 2004, then again in 2006, and then almost every year from 2008 to 2016. The exception was in 2012 when the prize went to Walsh's fellow Irishman Barry Geraghty.
Great British racecourses
The Aintree and Cheltenham racecourses are undoubtedly two of the greatest and most historic courses in the UK, but they are not the only notable ones. Ascot Racecourse is home to nine different Group 1 racing events, including the legendary Ascot Gold Cup and the Royal Ascot Festival. This latter event is regularly attended by Her Majesty the Queen, who considers Ascot her favourite racecourse. The late Queen Mother, on the other hand, was said to prefer Sandown Park, which combines history with state-of-the-art facilities for modern horseracing.
Sixty miles outside of London, Goodwood Racecourse is a classic track where style and glamour are encouraged among the spectators and an exciting race is guaranteed. As noted above, the most historic racecourse in Great Britain is Newmarket, where fixtures have been held since the 1600s. Doncaster and York are notable venues in the north of England, while Hamilton Park in Scotland is the home of Scottish Flat Racing.
Riders and runners
The English jockey Lester Piggott is considered one of the greatest flat-racing jockeys of all time. Piggott first won the Epsom Derby in 1954, and eight further wins followed before his retirement in 1985. His reputation is only bettered by the late Sir Gordon Richards, who won a staggering 4,870 races between 1921 and 1954.
Another great British flat-racing jockey of the early 20th century was Steve Donoghue, declared champion jockey ten times between 1914 and 1923. Fred Archer (1857-1886) is still considered the best all-round jockey ever, despite his early death at the age of 29. Today, Frankie Dettori is widely considered the best current flat-racing jockey.
Arguably, the greatest jump jockey is Northern Irishman Tony McCoy, with 4,358 wins to his name between 1992 and 2015, including the 2010 Grand National. He retired in 2015, and Ruby Walsh is currently the leading jump jockey.
Perhaps the most famous racehorse in the world was Red Rum, an unprecedented three times Grand National winner, in 1973, 1974 and 1977. Though bred in Ireland, Red Rum was trained in Southport by Ginger McCain. The thoroughbred steeplechaser became a national celebrity, a status that endured from his retirement in 1978 to his death in 1995. Another iconic British racehorse, Desert Orchid, was never entered for the Grand National, but won 34 of his 70 starts between 1983 and 1991.
The world's greatest steeplechase
The English Grand National at Aintree is renowned as the world's greatest steeplechase. Though other countries have their iconic races, the Grand National is regarded as one of the toughest tests for horse and rider in terms of stamina, courage and skill. The course is so notoriously difficult that just completing it is a major achievement. Many horses fall at one of the 30 hurdles along the way, and the winning horse and jockey are fully deserving of the accolades that come their way.
Horseracing in Britain is also unmistakably a great social event. A day out at any of the major meets is one to remember, with first-class food, drink, hospitality and people-watching all on offer as well as the actual races. Tickets are much sought after, and even the television cameras linger on the great and the good in the stands before the race in question begins.
Although a day at the races isn't cheap, it's open to all, and the ordinary enthusiast may find themselves rubbing shoulders with celebrities and aristocracy. It's important to dress well and to do it in style, but the great English eccentric is as welcome as the impeccably tailored man about town. Visitors to the UK love events such as the Grand National as a way to experience the Great Britain that they've always imagined and hoped to see, as well as a way to see some of the greatest racing that the country, and in fact the world, has to offer.