Although horse racing in the United States can trace its origins all the way back to 1665, when the first track was built in the British colony of New York, its popularity is far more recent. Horse racing only became popular in the US after the Civil War, in the latter half of the 19th century. It was then that horse racing in the US branched off from its British roots and took on a truly American flavor.
In addition to favoring flat tracks without obstacles and shorter races, American horse racing was also heavily tied to gambling. While in other countries, such as the UK or Ireland, gambling small amounts of money on sports or in a casino is considered completely normal, gambling in the United States is something strictly controlled and usually forbidden. Until recently, when riverboat casinos and casinos on Native American reservations started to be built, it was only possible to gamble in a very few places in the United States. For many years gambling in a casino necessitated a trip to Nevada or Atlantic City. Even now, it's impossible to gamble in a casino or place bets on sports in many places in America, and even online poker and online casinos have been banned from accepting players from the US.
Despite this, betting on horse races has been legal in almost every US state for the past 150 years. It is a curious quirk of the American psyche that although gambling in a casino is considered something that is sinful, “playing the ponies” is usually considered to be harmless fun. The idea of gambling is so intertwined with horse racing that most people, when they visit the track, make at least a bet or two, even if they would never gamble otherwise. And it is this connection that will keep the sport alive into the 21st century.
The Tradition of Betting on Horse Racing in America