Horse Racing Betting History

Written By: Richard Smith
Last Updated: December 6, 2022


Looking at horse racing betting history in the UK, and it does not matter if you are a fan of horse racing in the UK, or from another part of the world, you will most likely have heard the phrase “The Sport Of Kings,” as that was exactly what horse racing was in its very first form.

It was a sport for the gentry, aristocracy, and royalty. Unlike today, where anybody can become involved in the sport either as a sole owner or via a micro share in one of the many racing clubs and syndicates that are now available.

Although the sport has seen a decline over the last decade, it is still the second largest spectator sport in the UK after football, with an estimated 6,000,000 spectators enjoying the sport live each year. The likes of the major meetings like The Cheltenham Festival (4 days) over jumps in March and Royal Ascot (5 days) on the flat in June, both generate hundreds of thousands of spectators over the course of the meeting and of course the betting turnover is huge at both of these events with huge sums bet both on course and through the many online bookmakers through mobile betting apps.


There were many acts and laws passed on gambling and horse racing betting in the UK during the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, but it was not until the Racecourse Betting Act of 1928 was put in place, that the UK had a legal form of betting on horse racing, and the 1934 Betting and Lotteries Act took that a step further to include various lotteries and also Greyhound Racing which became very popular in London and the North of England.

Nowadays, all horse racing fans follow Irish horse racing as they know that come March, the Irish trainers bring over a battalion of horses to take part in the Cheltenham Festival, and over the past few years, the Irish-trained runners have been dominant.

However, did you know that betting on Irish Horse racing became popular during the war years? From 1939-1945 during the war, many horse racing, greyhound racing, and association football events were cancelled. The then labour government knew that gambling was one leisure outlet that people had during this time, and so gambling on horses was viewed as, let’s say a healthy outlet for leisure spending.

The government also subsidised the travel of horses and greyhounds to race across the Irish Sea as fixtures were postponed in the UK.


May 1st 1961 is a date etched in history for the UK gambling industry, as this was the day when the first betting shops opened in the UK after legislation was passed by the Conservative government.

Before the introduction of betting shops in the UK, betting was run illegally, with anybody able to set up a bookmaking operation from off the street, in the local pubs or in working men’s clubs. This is where the term “bookies runner” came from.

The person acting as the bookmaker would employ young men who would go to pubs and other street locations to take the bets and accept the money before “running” back to the bookmaker to confirm the bets.

These “bookies runners” were employed for their speed so they could literally outrun the police who at the time were tasked with enforcing the law and stopping this illegal form of betting.

The idea of legalising betting through betting shops was that anybody running a betting shop had to be licensed and collect and pay taxes on any bets taken.


The very first horse racing bookmakers will probably be ones you have heard of and even use today.

Most horse racing fans know the bookmaker William Hill who started from humble beginnings in 1934 and has since grown to be one of the most respected bookmakers in the UK. William Hill has gone through many mergers and buyouts in that time, including one of the biggest deals ever in the betting industry when in 2020 they agreed to a $2.9 billion sale to Caesars Entertainment which is a world-renowned casino operator. The William Hill/Caesars brand is now one of the fastest growing in the US market.

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Another well-known UK bookmaker is Betfred, founded by the self-proclaimed “Bonus King” Fred Done, who many say pioneered various horse racing betting combinations bets like the Lucky 31 and Lucky 63. The story of Betfred is one of which dreams are made.

It all started from very humble beginnings for Done when he opened his very first betting shop in the North of England in 1967 in a small village in Ordsall in Salford. Fred Done’s story is one of legends, and it’s one of the reasons many punters like to bet with his company.

It’s reported that Done funded the opening of his first betting shop and the Betfred empire after winning a tidy sum on England to win that famous World Cup in 1966 against the Germans.

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Of course, William Hill and Betfred are two of the older UK bookmakers, but one of the leaders in the horse racing betting market is Bet365 and also the Irish-owned company Boylesports.

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We hope you have enjoyed this short concise horse racing betting history lesson so far, let’s take a look at five of the most historic races in the British racing calendar and look at why they are so attractive for betting purposes.


The Grand National is a race that is known the world over and is famous for the three-time winner Red Rum (1973,1974 and 1977), as well as the infamous Foinavon who won in 1967 and Devon Loch who would have been a winner in 1956 for The Queen Mother but jumped what the horse thought was a fence which was on his inside on a separate course.

The Grand National is a race that is well-known in horse racing betting history, as everybody in the UK likes to have a bet on the race. Grandparents, Mums and Dads, Aunts and Uncles and neighbours all like to have a flutter, even if it is just once a year.

With forty runners facing 30 obstacles and a gruelling distance of 4 miles and 2 1/2 furlongs, it is the toughest race on the British racing calendar and is a huge test of horse and jockey as well as those looking to pick the winner.

Five interesting facts you might not know about the Grand National are:

  • Today’s race is limited to 40 runners but the biggest field ever was 66 runners in 1929. Imagine that today!
  • There have been 5 horses to win the race at 100/1 with the first being Tipperary Tim in 1928, and the last Mon Mome in 2009
  • The youngest winning jockey was Bruce Hobbs aged 17 years in 1938 whilst the oldest winning jockey was the amateur Dick Saunders aged 48 years in 1982 riding Grittar
  • Only one 7-year-old has won the race since the war and that was last year’s winner Noble Yeats.
  • Only eight outright favourites and three joint-favourites have won the race in the last 100 years.


The Cheltenham Gold Cup is a race that every National Hunt owner wants to win and it is known as “The Blue Riband”

It is famous for a number of steeplechasing superstars down the years, and none more so than Golden Miller (1932, 1933, 1934, 1935 and 1936) and Arkle who won the race in 1964, 1965 and 1966. The two horses are written in the history, not only of The Gold Cup but in National Hunt Racing generally.

The runners face 22 obstacles and a distance of 3 miles and 2 1/2 furlongs which is run over Cheltenham’s New Course.

Over the years it has become a huge betting race, not only in the UK but also in Ireland where Irish trainers have produced seven of the last ten winners, and last year saw the race make front page news around the world when Rachael Blackmore became the first ever female jockey to win this prestigious race.

Five interesting facts you might not know about the Cheltenham Gold Cup are:

  • Only one grey horse has won the Gold Cup, and that was the much-loved Desert Orchid in 1989
  • Only one horse from outside of the UK and Ireland has ever won the Gold Cup. That was the Francois Doumen trained “The Fellow” representing France in 1994
  • The only horse to complete the Champion Hurdle/Gold Cup double was Dawn Run ridden by now-successful trainer Jonjo O’Neill in 1984 and 1986
  • In the last 20 years, half of the winners have been returned as the favourite with the shortest being
  • With the Irish making Cheltenham their annual racing pilgrimage, it is no surprise that over 250,000 pints of Guinness “The Black Stuff” are consumed over the four days of the festival.


The Queen Anne Stakes is the traditional curtain raiser on the first day of the five-day meeting at Royal Ascot.

Queen Anne was the founder of Ascot racecourse in 1711 and its deep history is down to her love of the thoroughbred and horse racing in general.

The first race to be run at Ascot Racecourse was announced in the London Gazette and this is how it appeared.

Her Majesty’s Plate of 100 guineas will be run for round the new heat on Ascott Common, near Windsor, on Tuesday, August 7th next, by any horse, mare or gelding, being no more than six years old the grass before, as must be certified under the hand of the breeder, carrying 12 St., three heats, to be entered the last day of# July, at Mr Hancock’s, at Fern Hill, near the Starting Post.

— Announcement of the first race meeting at Ascot, London Gazette (12 July 1711)

It was down to Queen Anne that today the Royal Ascot meeting is known worldwide as one of the most spectacular race meetings that take place each year, attracting horses from The United States, Australia, Japan, France, Ireland and other countries, including of course the UK.

Five interesting facts you might not know about the Queen Anne Stakes are:

  • There have been four dual winners of The Queen Anne Stakes, but none since Dean Swift in 1906 & 1907.
  • 1974 proved to be the most incident-packed version of the race when the first three home were all disqualified, and the fourth-placed horse Brook, who was representing Italy was awarded the race.
  • Saeed Bin Suroor, the Godolphin trainer is the winning most trainer with seven wins, but none of those between 2012 and 2022.
  • Frankie Dettori is the most decorated modern-day jockey with a total of 7 wins in the race including Markofdistinction (1990), Allied Forces (1997), Intikhab (1998), Dubai Destination (2003), Refuse to Bend (2004), Ramonti (2007), and his most recent winner Palace Pier coming in 2021.
  • Even though Queen Anne founded the Ascot racecourse, it was not until 1930 that this race was named after her.


The Cesarewitch has a long and deep history and is the only race run in the UK that is run across two counties with the race starting in Cambridgeshire and crossing the winning line in Suffolk with a distance of 2 miles and 2 furlongs.

There has been much written about the race name and its correct spelling, but the name is derived from the late Tsar Alexander II (Tsesarevich Alexander) who had made a donation to the original Jockey Club which at the time was a huge sum of £300.

The modern-day race now forms part of the famous Autumn double which comprises the Cambridgeshire Handicap run over 1 mile and 1 furlong in late September, followed by the Cesarewitch Handicap which is run in early October.

Both races are run on the world-famous Rowley Mile at Newmarket racecourse, with The Cesarewitch now becoming a target over the last decade for some of the bigger jump racing trainers, and they have been successful in seven of the last ten runnings between 2012 and 2022.

Five interesting facts you might not know about the Cesarewitch Handicap are:

  • Only one horse has ever won the race more than once and that was Aim To Prosper in 2010 and 2012 in which he carried the welter burden of 9st 10lbs and returned at odds of 66/1.
  • There has been only 5 winning favourites in the last 30 years of the race up to and including 2022.
  • There has only been one horse in the last 50 years of the race to be aged in double figures, and that was Caracciola who won in 2008 for trainer Nicky Henderson when aged 11 and returned at odds of 50/1
  • The leading jockey in the race is Doug Smith who rode the winner six times, including Canatrice (1939), French Design (1954), Sandiacre (1957), Come to Daddy (1959), Alcove (1960) and Persian Lancer (1966)
  • The Cesarewitch and The Cambridgeshire were both formed in 1839


The Newmarket Town Plate is one of the oldest races to be run in the United Kingdom and is unique in that it is run over a distance of 3 miles and 6 furlongs (the longest flat race in the British racing calendar)

The race itself is not an official race but one that has been run as a commemorative race since 1665, so the race goes back in time more than 350 years and is coveted by those taking part.

One of the most endearing stories was that of the 2021 running which was the 350th anniversary of the race and was won by amateur jockey Rachel Rennie. Rennie was due to take part in the race in 2016 but had to give up her ride in that race due to treatment for cancer of the breast.

That she was able to come back five years later to compete, never mind win, is one of the greatest stories in the long history of the race.

Five interesting facts you might not know about the Newmarket Town Plate are:

  • The race was inaugurated by King Charles II who was the very first reigning monarch to win a race and is the only one to this day to have achieved that feat.
  • Even to this day, the winner receives a box of the world-famous Powter’s Newmarket Sausages
  • All riders must undertake and pass a special rider assessment and fitness test with a recognised industry body before they can ride in the race.
  • All riders must take out their own personal accident insurance to be allowed to compete in the Newmarket Town Plate.
  • The 351st running which was run on 27th August 2022 and was won by the Christian Williams-trained Goldencard ridden by Laura Gibson-Brabazon.


Nowadays, the bookmaking industry has been dragged into the 21st century with internet technology providing the modern bookmaker with a wide range of tools to beat the punter and make a profit. Messages are now relayed in real-time via tablets and mobile devices, and as such the art of Tic Tacing has now disappeared from racecourses.

It was not until the early 2000’s that this bookmaking art diminished. Now when you hear the word Tic-Tac, you might be thinking about those little mint treats in the clear plastic container with the flip top.

But Oh no, here we are talking about the sign language bookmakers used to let others know of the changes in prices of horses as punters were betting in the ring.

Tic-Tac was made up of various hand signals and each price of a horse had a very specific name.

  • 11/10 – Hands together and touching all fingers on both hands together.
  • 5/4 – Right hand on left wrist.
  • 6/4 – Right hand to the left ear.
  • 7/4 – Right hand on the shoulder.
  • 15/8 – Touch the right hand to the left shoulder and tap twice.
  • 2/1 – Right hand touches nose.
  • 9/4 – Both hands on top of the head.
  • 5/2 – Both hands on face.
  • 3/1 – Placing the palm, face down, on the chin.
  • 4/1 – Hands in front, wave right hand above left.
  • 9/2 – Both hands on top of each shoulder (left on left, etc).
  • 5/1 – Right hand on top of shoulder.
  • 8/1 – Move the right hand to the right shoulder and the hand to the chin, palm facing down.
  • 10/1 – Fists together, right thumb upwards (like a 10).
  • 16/1 – Punching the fists together, then right hand to the right shoulder, then right hand to the head.
  • 20/1 – Punching the fists together twice.
  • 33/1 – Arms crossed, hands flat against the chest.
  • 50/1 – Right fist above left fist.

There is no doubt that Tic-Tac was an art form in days gone by and it is something that is probably missed by many.

We hope you have enjoyed this look into the history of horse racing betting and make sure to check out some of our other horse racing betting pages including our introduction to horse racing betting combinations which covers info on various combination bets and has a handy table showing the costs of those bets for small stakes.

Richard Smith
Richard Smith

I am a total sports fan, in particular horse racing, football and golf, and have been writing about these and other sports for a number of years. I have had the chance to attend many of the biggest horse racing events in my time and my sporting claim to fame has to be winning the inaugural RacingTV Tipstar contest back in 2014. When not watching or writing about sports and sports betting I like to take an interest in cryptocurrency, and last but not least spending time and playing with my two young grandchildren.

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