Horseracing and the Olympics

round the home turn - Greek style

When Pierre de Coubertin founded the modern Olympic games in Athens in 1896 he didn’t set out to replicate what had happened in ancient times. Had he done so, the highlight of the event would not have been the athletics events, but horse racing.

During the 400 years over which ancient Greece celebrated its Olympiads, horse racing became the most prestigious of all the competitions. And in many ways, the nature of racing then might almost have been the model for what we enjoy now.

The primacy of horse racing was largely a matter of status, as only the wealthy could afford to keep horses. Although they were seen as the winners of the races, they employed jockeys to ride. There could be up to 50 horses in a race, so the hippodrome would be wider than modern day racecourses, but the principle of a circuit, rather than a straight line race, was soon established. Look at Yarmouth or Ripon and you have a pretty good idea of the layout.

The tournament was organised primarily for the benefit of the participants themselves; there was little attempt to cater for spectators, who benefited from neither buildings nor seating and had to watch from an overlooking hill. Just like at Bangor.

Horseracing was the one element of the ancient Olympics in which women were allowed to take part, though they restricted that to participation in the sense of owning a horse, and did not extend to riding in the race itself.

It took several hundred years and the growth of the Roman empire to bring about some of the changes we would recognise in racing today. First, their sporting events were organised primarily as entertainment for the public, and so it’s the Romans we have to thank for the introduction of stands and enclosures.

The Roman’s, though, dropped the ancient Greek races between horses and ridewrs, and focussed entirely on chariot racing. What mattered was not on the individual winner of a race, but which stable won, the Whites, Reds, Blues or Greens. A forerunner here of the Shergar cup perhaps?

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