American Horse Racing vs. the World: What’s the Same, What’s Different

World-class racing at Royal Ascot. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Horse racing is a lucrative sport that’s popular all over the world. According to the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities, prize money for races worldwide reach almost $3.5 billion a year, while the global betting industry for horse racing generates over $116 billion in revenue each year.

Although the U.S. hosts the most race dates, it’s just one of many successful horse racing hubs around the world including the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. So, what are the differences between racing in these nations, and how does the American horse racing industry compare to its global rivals?

U.S. horse racing

A Race Meeting at Jacksonville, Alabama by W.S. Hedges

American horse racing can be traced back to 1665 in New York and has since become a huge spectator sport. Crowds in the tens of thousands now gather to watch famous races such as the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes. A horse that wins all three of these Grade 1 races in one year earns the prestigious Triple Crown title.

In U.S. horse racing, there are roughly seven categories, but the most popular is Thoroughbred Flat Horse Racing. These races are run on dirt, turf, or synthetic tracks that are typically up to 1 ½ miles long. While the U.S. Jockey Club oversees some parts of the horse racing industry, each state government has its own licensing rules and racing regulations.

Bets on horse racing in the U.S. range from win, place (second), and show (third) to the exacta (picking the first- and second-place finishers) and to bets where you must pick winners in consecutive races, such as the Pick 3. Most wagers are forms of pari-mutuel betting. This means that all the money bet on a certain race goes into a pool, and after a cut has been taken by the house, called the takeout, the remaining money is divided between the winning bettors. In this system, bettors don’t know exactly how much they’ll win when placing a bet because the odds change as more people wager.

A Race Meeting at Jacksonville, Alabama by W.S. Hedges
The United Kingdom and Ireland

1900 English Triple Crown winner Diamond Jubilee

Horse racing has the most established history in the U.K. However, it wasn’t until the 17th century that racing rules and regulations were formally established and for the last 250 years, the industry has been governed by the British Horseracing Authority. The two key types of racing are Flat and National Hunt, where horses jump over hurdles and fences.

Some of the most prestigious races in the world take place in the U.K., such as the Grand National and Royal Ascot, which was established in 1711 and features some of the world’s top flat races which have a combined prize purse of over £6.5 million. In Ireland, jump racing is popular and breeding is a key part of their industry. Coolmore Stud for instance, is the largest stud farm in the world and has its main breeding headquarters in Ireland.

Wagers in the U.K. and Ireland are primarily made through bookmakers offering fixed odds, and there are numerous betting firms that take bets in stores and online. There’s a levy on all wagers, which is used to make improvements to the racing industry. A pari-mutuel betting company called the Tote also operates in Britain and Ireland and is more similar to the system operated in the U.S.

New Zealand

Legendary Australian Standardbred horse Lawn Derby.

Horse racing in New Zealand was established after horses were brought to the country with colonial settlers in the 1800s. They were first used for military purposes, but by 1841 horse racing had taken hold with the first race meeting at Epsom. Today, the industry is governed by New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing Incorporated and highlights include the Group 1 Auckland Cup, New Zealand Cup, and Karaka Million.

As in the U.S., New Zealand hosts Standardbred racing, which is also known as harness racing or trotting, and the more popular Thoroughbred racing. Betting on horse races was illegal until the Totalisator Agency Boards (TAB) were awarded sole control over running pari-mutuel betting at race tracks with help from local government organizations.


Horses were first imported to Australia by British colonists, who quickly established horse racing as a local sport. The first official race recorded was in 1810 at Sydney’s Hyde Park. Since then, racing has become extremely popular and Australian breeders produce world-class Thoroughbred horses. Racing is governed by several bodies, including the Australian Racing Board.

You can bet on horse races both on and off the course in Australia. On-course fixed odds betting is available from licensed bookmakers. TABs (totaliser agency boards) offering on and off-course pari-mutuel betting can be found across the country, particularly in pubs and bars. Some of the country’s top races include the Golden Slipper Stakes, Sydney Cup, and the Melbourne Cup. The Melbourne Cup is so popular it’s known as “the race that stops a nation.”

What all these countries have in common is some kind of regulatory board, as well as an established system of betting. You can find out more about the international differences in horse racing in this guide, but the sport continues to gain popularity all over the world including in Asia, Europe, Oceania, and North America.

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