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Historically used for work and transportation, horses have been in use since 2000 B.C. when they were introduced in Babylonia (modern-day Iraq) and then in Egypt. Horse racing itself is one of the oldest sports and among the most popular today. The Greeks built courses called hippodromes for horse and chariot racing, which eventually became events in the ancient Olympic Games. Modern racing originated in England about the 12th century, when monarchs and noblemen first began importing foreign breeds renowned for their stamina and speed. Matching the fastest horses became popular at country fairs, and the first public racetrack was built in London in 1174. Today, the term horse racing refers to organized racing at licensed tracks or courses. There are four types of racing: thoroughbred, harness, quarter horse, and obstacle racing. In harness racing, the horses pull carts with drivers; in all other types of racing, the horses are ridden by jockeys, or riders.

In 2006, the North American Racing Academy, part of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, opened the first school in the United States devoted to training students who want to become professional jockeys.

Thoroughbred racing, in which all of the horses are of the thoroughbred breed, is the most popular type of horse racing. The thoroughbred breed, developed in England in the 18th century, is made up of three stallions—the Byerley Turk, Darley Arabian, and Godolphin Barb—that were originally imported to England and chosen as the founding sires of the breed because of their speed and stamina. In order to compete, the horses must be at least two years old.

In its earliest form, American racing was conducted in much the same fashion as English racing; horses were raced on a grassy surface, in a clockwise direction. Eventually, Americans altered the sport, adopting counterclockwise racing and dirt surfaces. The first dirt racetrack was a course created in 1821 in New York. Today, all American races are run counterclockwise on oval-shaped courses. Only 5 percent of all races are not run on dirt courses. In addition to dirt racetracks, approximately 40 percent of all American racetracks have a turf course as well.

The actual racing oval ranges in size from five-eighths of a mile to one-and-a-half miles. Most racing ovals are one mile in circumference. The track is marked off in furlongs, or eighths of a mile.

Racing is conducted year-round across the United States, with more than 110 racetracks in operation. Most tracks conduct racing for one or more meets during the year. A meet may last anywhere from a few days to several months. There may be as many as 10 races per day. In those states that have more than one racetrack, the meets are scheduled so they do not overlap. Careful scheduling enables trainers to move their horses among several different tracks and provides more opportunities for a continual season of racing.

In the United States, the best-known races are the Kentucky Derby (Louisville), Preakness Stakes (Baltimore), and Belmont Stakes (Long Island). A horse that accomplishes the rare feat of winning all three races in one year is the winner of the Triple Crown. Triple Crown winners of the past include Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978), American Pharaoh (2015), and Justify (2018). Among the greatest jockeys are Eddie Arcaro and Willie Shoemaker.