The Sport of Kings: Horse Racing in America

The Sport of Kings: Horse Racing in America
Martha Washington: Sports and Popular Culture

Skill: High School/College
Time Required: One to two weeks


There is a story, which might even be true, that as a girl, Martha Dandridge once rode her horse right into her uncle’s house and up the staircase.  When the family expressed shocked disapproval, her uncle said, “Oh, but what a great horsewoman she is!”  While this story is probably just a legend, it does symbolize the great affection and regard that most 18th century colonists had for horses.  Part of that regard was demonstrated by the fact that horse racing was perhaps the most popular sport in the colonies.


Students who participate in this lesson will gain an understanding of the history of horse racing, as well as knowledge of some particular aspect of the sport.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet; access to print materials about horse racing.


1.  Begin the lesson by asking if anyone has been to a horse race, or has seen one on television (e.g., the Kentucky Derby).  Ask students who have some familiarity with racing what their experiences with it have been.
2.  Then, using the websites listed below, as well as any other online sources or print materials available on the subject, ask students to select an area of interest to research.  There are many to choose from, among them:

  • Early History of the Sport
  • Horse Racing In Other Cultures
  • Horse Racing In The Colonies
  • Horse Racing In The 19th And 20th Centuries
  • The History of the Kentucky Derby
  • The History of the Triple Crown
  • Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses
  • Famous Racing Horses
  • Interesting Facts About Horses
  • Other?

3.  Another source of topics might be the First Ladies Library Curriculum Timeline (KW = Horse Racing), which notes events in the history of horse racing.
4.  Then, individually or in small groups, students should research their selected topic, and prepare a short paper to share with the class reporting their findings.
5.  Then, ask each student to read one of the famous Dick Francis horse racing mysteries (there are upwards of 30 of them, and all are easily available at public libraries).  When each student has finished his or her book, ask him or her to write a brief summary of the story and to comment on what she or she has learned about horse racing from the book.
6.  Evaluation of the writing samples can be done according to traditional norms and/or on the basis of state content area standards.

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson might be extended by involving the school library in a book fair based on the mysteries of Dick Francis; including in the fair might be posters made by students showing their knowledge of different aspects of horse racing.  Encourage students to be creative in the use of horse racing symbols, e.g., banners, music, images, etc.

Sources & Resources:

Mystery novels by Dick Francis.
The History of Horse Racing (1) 

The History of Horse Racing (2)

All About Horses 

This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.