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

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 scene.

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

Horses Racing

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 Crown
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 earnest

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