Horse Racing: The Sport of Kings?

I recently queried Google with this question: “Why is horse racing called the Sport of Kings?” As with all of my questions, the search engine coughed up a treasure-trove of possible responses within mere milliseconds.

Wikipedia tells me that “Thoroughbred racing was, and is, popular with the aristocrats and royalty of British society, earning it the title Sport of Kings” (Wikipedia article). Wikipedia also informs me that horse racing has a long and seasoned history; archeological records indicate that horse racing occurred in ancient Greece, Babylon, Syria, and Egypt (Wikipedia article). The three major types of racing use specific breeds of horse for best results – flat racing relies primarily on the Thoroughbred, Quarter Horse, Arabian, Paint, and Appaloosa; steeplechasing uses the Thoroughbred and AQPS; and harness racing is dominated by Standardbred horses in most countries, though the desired breed varies around the world.

In my early childhood and teenage years, I rode horses and felt somewhat ‘in touch’ with horse breeds via the financial beneficence of my family (most of my romantic impressions of horses were derived from books like Fritz and the Beautiful Horses, by Jan Brett, and Blaze and the Mountain Lion, by C.W. Anderson). Lacking the massive finances required to support a horse in adulthood- boarding fees alone cost between $300 – 400/month alone, not including the price of tack, veterinary care, farrier fees, riding lessons and so on – I fell out of touch with the horseback riding community.

In my memory, the horseback riding coaches and other riders in the barns and stables I frequented as a child were arrogant and elitist. As with many other expensive sports, horseback riding (a complex and difficult sport to master, with high equipment and logistical requirements for entry) is out of reach for most people with modest incomes. Polo is humorously described in this post as the “international, royal-approved, diamond-dripping, champagne-swilling, divot-treading sport” that every commoner wishes they could partake in. Closer to home, Toronto has had a long history with horse racing and related gambling issues. Somehow, money always seems to be involved when there’s a horse at play (even in the movies – see for example National Velvet or Seabiscuit).

Ontario’s horse-racing industry has had its share of struggles, however, with the recent move to modernize the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) cutting the valuable slots-at-racetracks funding program which kept the industry afloat (D’Aliesio & Howlett, June 2013). There are claims that the money dedicated to this revenue-sharing program was misspent or unaccounted for due to lax oversight (Ormsby, October 2013); either way, the cut program caused outrage amongst rural Ontarians dependent upon horse racing as a livelihood and forced the government to respond with a $80.6-million compensation package (D’Aliesio & Howlett, June 2013).

Horseback riding at the Olympics (i.e. dressage) is a sport reserved only for the brave; teams can be young or old, male or female, all equally together – so long as they can take the required ‘leap of faith’ with their mounts over massive and complex jumps (The Economist, August 2012). Between 2006 and 2008, the dressage event at the Olympics claimed 18 (human) lives (The Economist, August 2012). For the horses, chuckwagon racing (e.g. at the Calgary Stampede) is much more dangerous and has claimed many equine lives from crashes, heart attacks, and lung hemorrhaging (Wikipedia article).

When I examine holistically the many faucets of horses and their wide range of relationships to people, I’m forced to conclude that horse racing it not the Sport of Kings just because it’s favoured by the British aristocracy and is more accessible to those with inflated incomes. There’s something primal and wildly exciting about feeling the thunder of hooves pounding by, smelling the tang of horse sweat and leather, and watching human and animal glued together as one body strives for the finish line. You feel elevated in the presence of horses – their lengthy evolutionary process has made them adept at daily cognitive tasks as well as mental challenges (Clarkson, October 2012). They are large and powerful herd animals, yet empathic towards people, making them the subject of legend (Clarkson, October 2012). Any person who can sit on the back of a horse is immediately transformed into a ‘king’ of sorts – they become taller, stronger, and braver than they were standing on solid earth*.

*Postscript: The Central Ontario Development Riding Program (CODRP), or Pride Stables, recognizes the benefits of horseback riding by offering therapeutic riding lessons to people with disabilities. Donate or support them today and continue this wonderful equine-human relationship!

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