More than 2,000 years ago, during the thirty-third Olympics, the people of ancient Greece traveled by the thousands to the city of Olympia, where horse racing was introduced as part of the competition. In past games, horses were used only in chariot races. It was going to be the first time horses would race with riders on their backs.
Using neither saddles nor stirrups, riders relied on balance to keep them on the steeds—a skill that made the contest all the more appealing to crowds who watched from nearby hillsides and along the fields. Held in an area of Olympia called the hippodrome, a large track that was built on a flat stretch of land, horseback racing completely changed the way horses were seen and raised. Once useful only for travel and war and team competitions, horses were now individually bred to become racing machines.
You may also like:
The sport, however, was confined largely to aristocrats, who had the wherewithal to maintain a proper stable, trainers, and grooms. Breeding racehorses became a sign of prestige, a display of wealth, and a chance to bring glory to the gods. The animal became a symbol of power, with some families adopting “hippos,” the Greek word for horses, into their names.
Servants also doubled as jockeys, since riding bareback posed dangers. When they won, riders received their share of fame, but the trophy always went to the owner of the horse.
The sport evolved through time. In Great Britain, horseracing came under royal patronage introduced in the mid-1500s by King James I. His son, Charles, who was later crowned king, took up his father’s passion and passed it on to his own son, Charles II. Hence, horseracing was dubbed “the sport of kings.” It was also during this period that English horses were interbred with Arabian stallions to give the world the first racing horse, the thoroughbred.
Today, the hippodrome has been replaced with modern racetracks, breeding and riding have become strictly regulated, and, while there is little evidence of wagers happening in ancient Greece, betting on horses occur on site, in off-track betting stations, over phones, and online.
Some things, however, remain the same. Raising racehorses is still expensive and remains a pursuit of the rich.
In the Philippines, owners commonly keep their thoroughbreds in the racetracks, which have the facilities to handle hundreds of horses at a time. In 2013, the 49-hectare Metro Manila Turf Club in Malvar, Batangas opened for the same purpose.
Alex Carandang, senior vice president and board member of the club, and a horse breeder himself, says horses are often bought in yearly auctions held at popular ranches in Australia, the US, or the UK. There are also local breeders who operate ranches in the provinces.
Selecting a horse can be challenging, so getting a trainer is important. The trainer can direct you to local sources or accompany you abroad. But even experienced trainers can never accurately predict the value of a thoroughbred because much of what makes it valuable—the speed, the stamina, the heart for racing—can only be tested once the horse enters the field.
If you’re interested in breeding horses, the risks are greater. Getting a pedigreed stallion and mare does not guarantee a champion offspring. With the gestation period for horses at 11 months, it could take a while to master the art and science of genetics, if you happen to master it at all. “You’re not even sure it will be a good runner,” Carandang says of foals. “You can’t tell. Especially with thoroughbreds.”
Click on the arrows for slideshow
Only qualified personnel may enter the paddocks during races. As it is possible to judge the condition of a horse by way of its appearance, this knowledge will likely influence betting.
Thoroughbreds, jockeys, and grooms usually wear matching suits on race days. These can be anything from simple racing stripes to more complex patterns—all as varied as the owners’ tastes.
After a bout at the tracks, the horse is welcomed back into the paddocks, where it cools down before retiring for the day.
The Metro Manila Turf Club offers a lounge for owners and guests to view the races while staying out of the sun.
From the streamlined paddocks to the calculated composition of the turf, modern racetracks bring the sport of kings to the new age.
Even with the risks, many are drawn to owning horses, whether through buying or breeding. Owners register with the Philippine Racing Committee and hope for a storied career for their steeds. There are enough opportunities to make that happen, from the Philippine Triple Crown held early in the year to the Presidential Gold Cup in December. With millions of pesos in prize money, the major races are something that every owner, breeder, trainer, and jockey aspires to win. When a horse finishes first in these races, it’s the only time it truly can be called a champion.
Raising and racing horses are pursuits that are intriguing, complicated, and part of a long tradition. In the same way that people bet on horses, owning a thoroughbred is a gamble, but there is nothing quite like the reward of bringing a champion to the racetracks.
Photographs by Pat Mateo
This story originally appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 12 No 4 2013.