The sport of horse racing, as we now know it, had its origins in the late seventeenth century. Having been banned by Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s, it was revived by Charles II who was a passionate equestrian and who founded the Newmarket Town Plate which was first run in 1666 and won by His Majesty in 1671.
At this time, racing in Leeds took place over a two-mile course on Chapeltown Moor which was also used as a venue for other sports (such as athletics, bowling and cricket) and for military parades and executions. Race meetings were often accompanied by other attractions, such as cock-fighting (which remained popular in Leeds until the start of the twentieth century).
The earliest race on Chapeltown Moor for which we have a record took place on 17 July 1682 between “Mr SK” and “Mr SM” who were riding their own horses. The watching Ralph Thoresby, who recorded the event in his diary, stated that it was “the first, and for aught I know, may be the last horse-course ever seen by me“. Despite Thoresby’s apparent lack of enthusiasm, racing at Chapeltown Moor continued for more than a century, the Leeds Plate being the feature race. Racing finally ceased there in 1808.
A purpose-built race course opened at Haigh Park, south of the River Aire at Stourton, in 1824 despite the idea being condemned in some circles in Leeds as “a most serious evil and highly injurious to the morals and industry of people.” This was echoed by the Leeds Mercury which opined that “a disposition for gambling, so foreign to the prevailing habits of the people of Leeds, has already begun to display itself, and the industry of the labouring classes has suffered a shock from which it will not speedily recover.” Although the venue proved to be initially popular, it struggled to establish itself and closed in 1830 to make way for further development of the Aire and Calder Navigation. It is now remembered in the names of several streets in that area.
During this time, Haigh Park witnessed two noteworthy feats of endurance. On 9 November 1826, Captain Polhill of the First Dragoon Guards (who were then stationed in Leeds) rode non-stop for 95 miles in four hours and seventeen minutes. On 17 April 1827, Polhill walked fifty miles, drove a carriage for fifty miles and then rode fifty miles in nineteen hours and five minutes.
An attempt to establish a race course on Woodhouse Moor in the 1860s came to nothing and national hunt racing took place in Osmondthorpe in 1883 and 1884 but the first meeting was afflicted by dense fog and the second attracted a poor quality field of runners and riders. The venture then folded.
The race-goers of Leeds can today choose between Wetherby, a venue for racing since Roman times, and Pontefract, where racing was temporarily stopped by Cromwell when his forces ruined Pontefract Castle in 1649. Three-day eventing has been held at Bramham Park since 1974 and it was the venue for the Olympic trials for Rio 2016.