The rolling thunder of hooves and the smell of freshly overturned soil ignite the senses. As the equine contestants forge their way down the track toward the backstretch, the echoes of their flight join in the cacophony of the cheering stadium. The race has begun!

Roman half-relief with a four horse chariot race in the Circus Maximus, Rome; Trinci Palace, Foligno, Italy. 2nd to 3rd century.

A Roman hippodrome in Aphrodisias, Turkey.

The spectacle of horse racing is almost as old as foot racing and was considered the most prestigious of competitions in the Olympic games. Due to the cost of owning, transporting, and training a horse, the race was limited to the wealthy, however, men, women, and even cities could be declared the winner if their horse finished first. The races consisted of upwards of fifty participants racing one set up at a time; either four horse chariots, two horse chariots, or a single rider on flat circular plots of land known as “hippodromes.”

Pelops, racing away from Oenomaus, with Hippodamia; from an Attic red-figure neck amphora, 410 BC.

From the Greeks we see the origin of the starting mechanism used to contain the horses at the starting point. Despite the Greeks philosophy of the sport, to win prestige for the participants and their city, the Romans facilitated chariot racing for the purpose of entertaining the crowd. Thus, the games were publicly funded and often paired with gladiator battles, leaving the depiction of the sport to be quite gruesome. However, with the Romans, grand arenas such as the Colosseum were constructed to hold thousands of spectators and advanced the architecture of the sport.

Horse Racing, Monmouth Park. ca. 1870s. Courtesy National Park Service.

A written record of the sport or its participants wasn’t prevalent until the 17th century. A record of champion horses and their lineage is known as a “studbook,” the books find their origins at the return of the European Crusaders. These Crusaders, finding that their suits of armor and lumbering horses were outmatched by the swift Arabic steeds, returned with their opponents horses for interbreeding, thus creating the first “thoroughbred.”


Epsom Grand Stand, United Kingdom. “The Winner of the Derby Race.” Engraved by R. G. Reeve.

The Derby Day by William Powell Frith. 1856.

The recorded pedigree of these horses were then separated between their geographical origins. The two categories Oriental and Royal or ‘Anglais’ include; the Darley Arabian, the Godolphin Bard, and the Byerly Turk for the oriental breeds and mixtures of the English studs for the Anglais. A thoroughbred, the combination of both pedigrees, created a horse that was both durable and swift and could trace its lineage through the studbook. By the mid-1700s Jockey Clubs were founded throughout England and became the organization to oversee all racing events, rules, regulations, and standards for the sport. Overtime the length of races and their regulations has evolved and still vary to this day depending on the site.

St. Patrick’s Day in the Army, a hurdle race by Edwin Forbes. 1863.

Eclipse at New Market with Groom by George Stubbs.

In the United States the origins of the sport immigrated with the colonies. Decades later in 1824, the Union Race Course on Long Island established an astounding prize for a race between studs from the North and the South. American Eclipse, from the North, won two out of the three heats against Sir Henry of the South. These races between the dividing country continued into the 1850’s until the rivalry began to take a deadly turn. Despite the impending war, the expansion of the sport continued in a parallel fashion architecturally as to the historical hippodrome and the Colosseum, the architecture of their stadiums adapted to suit the growing audience.

The Saratoga Race Course, New York. Founded by John Morrissey after he established the Saratoga Racing Association and organized an impromptu thoroughbred meet at Horse Haven.

Horses race on the Saratoga turf. (Eclipse Sportswire)

A grand stand is the seating arrangement, often featuring an overhang or roof, that sits closest to the entry of the race track and is typically accompanied by a large picnic area. In the United States, few grand stands are as famous as the The Graveyard of Champions. More commonly known as the  Saratoga Race Course, it is attributed to coining the sports phrase “upset,” which is used when an under dog defeats the leading contestant who is vastly expected to win. A unique feature of this grandstand is the path carved through it to allow the horses to walk between the crowd before every race.

An etching of the Kentucky Derby race at Churchill Downs by William Kent Hagerman, 1955.

The “Grand Stand of Louisville Jockey Club, Louisville, Kentucky.” postcard. 1909.

Churchill Downs, also known as the “Twin Spires,” is an iconic piece of horse racing in American history. Officially opened in 1875, the property soon began to host three major state races, mirrored after English alternatives, which are the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks, and Clark Handicap. The prevalent spires were revealed with the new grandstand of 1895. They are as much an architectural statement as they are a historic icon for the Kentucky Derby itself.

Pimlico Race Course, Grand Stand Baltimore, Maryland.

The Pimlico race course and grandstand boasts of hosting the Preakness Stakes, a race held two weeks after the Kentucky Derby and the second leg of the Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing. Opened in 1870, the Pimlico race course, nicknamed “Old Hilltop,” is more commonly known for the match race of 1938 in which Seabiscuit beat War Admiral.

The race track itself survived much of history including the Great Depression, Prohibition, and the anti-gambling movement in 1910 and is as Alfred G. Vanderbilt said, “Pimlico, is more than a dirt track bounded by four streets. It is an accepted American institution, devoted to the best interests of a great sport, graced by time, respected for its honorable past.”