Horse racing has been carried on in Britain at least since the 1600s. In fact, it goes back much further than that – the Romans raced horses (with and without chariots), and it’s known that public holidays nine hundred years ago saw horses being raced at the very least in London and in Chester (and probably in many more towns and villages around the country); what began in the seventeenth century was organised horse racing of a sort that might (with a little licence) be regarded as modern.
James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603, at which time he and his court moved to London. It is known that he and his courtiers had enjoyed racing in Scotland before that time, which indicates that the opening sentence above could be changed to read “…at least since the 1500s), and they brought the enthusiasm south with them.
Newmarket, which today is pre-eminent in the British horse-racing world, was at that time a mean and nondescript village, but James built a palace there with the specific aim of developing the place as an equine centre. What happened was that he spent two days there on his way to Thetford and, to quote a chronicler of the time, he and some of his courtiers enjoyed “the pleasures of the chase.” This was possible because of the Newmarket heath – an area of flat and open grassland where hares could be pursued with greyhounds and with hawks. He returned many times to Newmarket, staying at the Griffin Inn, which he bought for himself before buying other land and property in the town in order to build his palace.
The next Stuart monarchs, Charles I and Charles II, also loved racing (especially Charles II, who took to the saddle himself) and their continuing patronage of Newmarket meant that the place’s position at the heart of British racing was firmly established.