A Guide to Horse Racing in the United States

Known as the sport of kings, horse racing has been a major part of the United
States sporting scene since the time when the colonies still answered to a king
themselves. At one point in the early 20th century, it achieved popularity
arguably on the same level as any sport or cultural event you can name. Even
today, horse racing in America is followed, attended, and wagered on by a rabid
following at a variety of tracks located all across the country.

The lure of horse racing in America is twofold. On the one hand, fans love to
watch just for the sport of it, as their favorite horses and jockeys progress
through their careers attempting to make a name for themselves among some of the
legendary stars of the sport. Apart from that, however, many fans love horse
racing because of the wide variety of wagering opportunities it provides them.

United States Horse Racing History

Horses Racing

As early as 1665, there were primitive forms of horse racing in the United
States. But the sport as we know it didn’t begin to take shape until the late
19th century. Tracks featuring Thoroughbred racing began springing up at that
point all over the country, and the American Jockey Club, an organization
overseeing it all, was formed in 1894. Unfortunately, those who were worried
about the ills of gambling attempted to wipe the sport away from the American

The introduction of pari-mutuel wagering in 1908 changed that. The system
reduced the need for shady bookies to be involved and also minimized the risk of
races being rigged. As all that was happening, major races began to take hold of
the public imagination, especially the so-called Triple Crown.

The Triple Crown

Just as baseball has the World Series and football has the Super Bowl, horse
racing features the Triple Crown as its signature event. It is actually a trio
of races: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. All
three races feature three-year-old horses competing for big purses, and the real
draw is when one horse manages to sweep all three races, something that has only
happened 13 times in history.

Many of those Triple Crown winners are among the most famous stars of the
sport, including legends like Secretariat, Citation, and the most recent winner,
Justify. Even when there is no Triple Crown winner, the betting interest in
these races is immense. In 2018 alone, $400 million was wagered on these races,
with the Kentucky Derby leading the way.

Horse Racing in the United States Today

The current state of Thoroughbred racing in the United States is strong, with
wagering and interest potent even with all of the competition for people’s
attention. Many older fans have followed the sport for years, having grown up on
the incredible traditions. Younger fans are drawn in by the excitement of the
races, the grace and power of the horses themselves, and, of course, the
possibility of winning money on a wager.

It should be noted that Thoroughbred racing is not the only form of horse
racing that is popular in the United States. Harness racing has gained a lot of
attention, with horses known as Standardbreds competing for purses that are
often on par with some of the biggest Thoroughbred races. Harness racing is
distinguished by the fact that the drivers (not jockeys) are seated in a sulky
and pulled behind the horses instead of sitting on their backs.

Different Types of Thoroughbred Racing

Many people assume that all horse races are alike, with horses running as
fast as they can in a circle before reaching the finish line. Well, that’s a
simple explanation, but there are actually different types of races. Horses are
usually separated into the races that fit them best so that the races are
competitive and fair. Here are some of the ways they are separated.


In general, horses who are two and three years old tend to only race against
their same age, especially in terms of the stakes races. As they get older, age
distinctions start to mean less, but when they are younger, this tends to be the
rule. For example, only two-year-olds are allowed to run in the Breeders Cup
Juvenile, and only three-year-olds are allowed to race in the Triple Crown.


Again, there is no hard-and-fast rule that says that male and female horses
cannot compete against each other. For example, there have been three fillies to
win the Kentucky Derby, which is generally contested by only male horses. But
for the most part, the genders are kept separate in the sport.


Most people who follow the sport casually know that races are competed on
dirt, because that’s the surface of the Triple Crown races. But most tracks also
include a turf course just to the inside of their dirt track. Although many
horses race on both surfaces, there are certain horses who are specialists and
prefer to compete on the grass.


There are many different distances at which races are run in the United
States. The two main classifications are sprints and distance races. A sprint is
a race that is less than a mile and generally only takes the horses around one
turn. By contrast, a distance race takes the horses around two turns and goes
for a mile or longer. As we spoke about with the surface above, horses can move
back and forth between the races but often specialize in one or the other.

Classifying Horses for Racing

If any horse were allowed to run in any race at any track, the result would
be chaos. Horses come in all different skill levels. Anyone expecting, for
example, a two-year-old just starting out its career to compete at the same
level as a proven stakes winner is in for a rude awakening. The races would be
filled with mismatches, which would cause issues for bettors trying to find
value for their buck.

As a result, a system has evolved over time via trial and error that
classifies horses to allow for fair racing. Horses can move in and out of
classes, but they generally can’t just compete in any race haphazardly. The
sport can be broken down into the following three types of races.


A claiming race is one in which every horse in the race is essentially up for
sale. The claiming prices are determined by track officials, and any horse who
competes in a claimer can then be claimed by an accredited owner for his own
stable. The higher the claiming price, the higher the level of competition in
the race.


In an allowance race, a horse can only compete if it meets certain
performance qualifications. For example, a race might be scheduled for horses
that have not won $10,000 in their last five races. By doing this, race tracks
are ensuring that horses who are at roughly the same talent level will be
competing against one another. That makes for close races and great betting
opportunities when it is done correctly.

A sub-classification of allowance races is maiden races. Maiden races are
restricted to horses who have never won a race in their career.


These are the highest-profile of all Thoroughbred races because the purses
are high and the horses competing in them are usually the best. Most stakes
races require horse owners to pay a certain amount of money for their horse to
race. Hence, they are said to be staking their horse into the race. Triple Crown
races are the most famous example of the stakes races.

The Human Elements of Horse Racing

Although the stars of horse racing are the equine athletes who do battle at
the track, the sport could not exist without the contribution of human beings
who are experts at what they do. The most obvious of these are the jockeys, who
are in charge of controlling the magnificent, powerful animals as they make
their way around the track. Being a jockey is extremely difficult, not just for
the skill and timing it takes to win a race but also for the restrictions on
their weight. But the best performers are well-rewarded with purse winnings and
payments from owners and trainers to ride their horses.

Trainers are an underrated part of the sport, but bettors know how important
they can be to the success of a horse. A trainer is responsible for the daily
care of the horses, including the training, feeding, and workout regimen that
gets them ready for the big races. Trainers are paid much the same way as
jockeys and can be paid very well for hard work that usually begins in the wee
hours of the morning every day.

The owners are the people putting up big money to buy horses, often thousands
of dollars at a time. In many cases, the high cost of buying horses requires
several people to enter into a syndicate. It may seem like a steep cost, but
considering the potential rewards for owners in terms of purses and potential
breeding fees, it is often worth it.

SSpeaking of breeders, they are another element of the horse racing
infrastructure in the United States. These individuals and organizations match
up former Thoroughbred racers and breed potential new champions. This can be one
of the most lucrative parts of the entire horse racing industry.

Betting on Horse Racing in the United States

If you’ve made it this far in learning about the sport of horse racing in the
United States, you probably want to know about wagering on it. The most obvious
way to do this is to visit a track near you. Not only will they give you the
opportunity to wager on the races at the track, but you can also bet on tracks
all across the country and world via simulcasts.

There are still many off-track wagering sites spread around the United States
as well, which allow you to bet on tracks without having actual racing on site.
These sites have taken a hit, however, with the advent of the internet. Betting
sites are everywhere on the net, offering the opportunity for you to wager
without ever leaving your home.

It is important to understand that many of these sites are legitimate, but
some can be problematic in terms of placing your wagers and collecting your
winnings. Look to visit sites that have the seal of approval from the industry.
Just about every horse racing establishment has their own site which allows you
the opportunity to bet online.

TThere are many different ways that you can wager on a horse race, from
picking the winner to playing different combinations of horses in so-called
exotic wagers. You can wager a little or a lot, and the possibilities are
endless. You can learn about the different ways to bet before you head to the
track, although most racing programs offer a quick primer to help out.

Famous Race Tracks

We’ve already talked about the Triple Crown, but what about the tracks that
host them? And what about some of the other top tracks in the country? Here is a
quick look at some of the best.

Track Location Claim to Fame
Churchill Downs Louisville, KY Host of the Kentucky Derby, most famous of all
Thoroughbred races in America
Pimlico Race Course Baltimore, MD Site of the Preakness Stakes, second leg of the Triple
Belmont Park Elmont, NY Known for hosting the Belmont Stakes, a mile-and-a-half
race that rounds out the Triple Crown
Saratoga Race Course Saratoga Springs, NY In a brief late-summer meet, this track holds a variety
of stakes races. Also notable for its audience, often consisting of the
rich and famous
Del Mar Racetrack Del Mar, CA A renowned California race track known as much for its
stunning scenery as for the thrilling racing
Keeneland Racecourse Lexington, KY It holds two brief meets per year yet manages to attract
some of the finest horses in the world in that limited time span
Gulfstream Park Hallandale Beach, FL While many of the top tracks are still digging out from
the cold weather, Gulfstream starts the big-time racing season off in