Chariot Racing: Ancient History’s Most Dangerous Sport

A man on a red chariot while maneuvering two horses in a chariot race
When we hear about stories of the ancient Roman civilization, we often think about an empire that’s so advanced and so vastly different from the modern society that we know today. But in many respects, you’ll be surprised to know that the daily life of the ancient Romans was not really that much different from ours.
They went to work for a living. They took care of the household. They had laws and government. And when time permitted, they attended sporting events - some of which are considered controversial, and perhaps even inhumane, by today’s standards. There were gladiator games, boxing, and wrestling. And then there was chariot racing.

Chariot Racing

What is Chariot Racing?

An illustration showing a four-horse chariot race in the Circus Maximus in ancient Rome

Chariot racing is less violent than the gladiator games, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not as extreme and dangerous. It was a race that pitted small, two-wheeled vehicles drawn by two-, four-, or six-horse-teams. Races usually lasted for seven laps, and included as many as 12 chariots at a time. The chariots were color-coded in red, white, green, and blue to represent the four principal teams. 

Drivers would enter the race track perched on two-wheeled, open-backed chariots made of wood that provided little to no protection. The horses were often beautifully decorated, adorned with gems of various colors braided into their manes or tails.

As the chariots need to be as fast as possible, they were built to be light and aerodynamic. This meant danger for the racers, also known as charioteers, who mostly consisted of slaves or freedmen. Getting thrown from overturned or broken chariots entailed possible injuries - or worse, death - for the participants as they could get trampled by the charging horses or get caught in the reins.

Chariot racing was very expensive, and it could only be witnessed by the wealthy and those who were deemed with high regard in the society - especially the emperor. But it also proved to bring in huge profits. Over time, it was organized as a form of show business where exceptional racers catapulted into “stardom” status.

Spectators that numbered hundreds of thousands congregated in a specially-built arena called the Circus Maximus. It was constructed in the 6th century BCE, and nestled between the Palatine and Aventine hills.

The ruins of Circus Maximus in the city of Rome, Italy
Circus Maximus was a stadium built for chariot racing. It still stands in Rome today, albeit in ruins.

In the times of the ancient Romans, Circus Maximus was as iconic as the sport itself. It didn’t only serve as a stadium to hold chariot races, but it also served as a central venue for ludi publici or the Roman public games.

Chariot Racing in the Ancient Olympics

The first chariot racing event was introduced in the Ancient Olympic Games in 680 BC. It proved to be a huge success for the demanding audience who were instantly enthralled with the gripping, visceral, and dangerous nature of the sport. Since then, chariot racing became one of the most highly anticipated events in the games. 

The four-horse chariot race received the most fanfare, making it the most prestigious and the longest-lasting event. Races were held in a Hippodrome, the Greek equivalent of the Circus Maximus. As the sound of the trumpet heralded the start of the race, the clamor of the audience would grow louder as the chariots and their drivers entered the arena.

In the Ancient Olympics, chariots raced 12 times around the tracks. What was appalling though, was that the horse owners and not the racers would bask in the glory of winning. Besides being crowned with an olive wreath, horse winners were usually presented with 140 ceramic pots of olive oil, a highly-prized and invaluable commodity to the Greeks.

Because of the sport’s immense popularity, chariot racing also became a popular avenue for women to take part in the Olympic Games although not personally. In ancient Greece, women were not allowed to step foot on the Olympic grounds. 

But charioteers like Kyniska, a Spartan princess, became a legend for leading her chariot team to victory twice without being physically present. It was the loophole that she found in the rules, thus enabling her to compete and ultimately, win.

Beyond the Olympics

Before the Romans, there were the Etruscans. At the height of their power in the 6th century, the Etruscans became a trading powerhouse in the Mediterranean. They regularly came into contact with other civilizations such as the Phoenicians and the Greeks.

The latter introduced chariot racing to the Etruscans, who embedded the sport into their culture. The Romans, having more in common than difference with the Etruscans than they cared to admit, also adopted chariot racing and turned it into mass entertainment.

Ancient Rome’s Superstar Charioteer

Flavius Scorpus was not born into a life of luxury, fame, and high social status. He lived near the end of the 1st century AD, where slavery was prominent. And because he was a slave, he had to suffer the injustices of being in the bottom of the social hierarchy.

But what he lacked in wealth, he made up with his aptitude as a charioteer. Back then, it was common practice for slaves to compete in the races on the chariot owners’ behalf. At the age of 16, he began his racing career where he competed in the outer provinces of the Empire. These affairs were much smaller, but nevertheless contributed to his skills. In just a span of five years, he became skilled enough to compete in the prestigious Circus Maximus.

Scorpus raced for the green team, reportedly winning 2,048 races throughout the span of his prolific ten-year career. From a slave, he was able to amass huge amounts of money enough to buy his freedom. He became one of the Roman empire’s most celebrated charioteers, earning an astounding amount of gold equivalent to $15 billion today. 

But his newfound stardom and wealth came with a price. As a crowd favorite, Scorpus raced at least 600 times a year. He usually maneuvered chariots drawn by four horses, and it was no easy feat. These vehicles were harder to control and proved to be a crash magnet. As such, these overturned chariots - because of their lightweight form factor - were referred to as ‘naufragia’ or ‘shipwrecks’.

Scorpus died at the young age of 26 in c. 95 AD, although the cause of his death was unknown. It was believed that he died during one of those shipwrecks.

Harness Racing

The sport of chariot racing almost turned into oblivion with the fall of the Roman Empire in the 4th century. However, a sport known as ‘trotting’ that bears resemblance to the ancient sport emerged in Europe with its roots in Holland. Today, trotting is now more commonly known as ‘harness racing’. 

Before the year 1825, harness racing was primarily an informal road contest held mainly in the northeastern section of the country. Back then, it had no standard rules, no organization of sorts, and was not popular with the public. But the creation of the National Trotting Association in 1870 developed harness racing into a highly organized sport. 

However, the following years proved to be a challenge for harness racing because of the differing rules that led into disarray. In 1939, a man named Edward Harriman founded the United States Trotting Association and remained as the only governing body in harness racing until the 1960s.

What is Harness Racing?

Harness racing involves racing Standardbred horses with a specific gait - either by pacing or by trotting - while drivers were pulled in a two-wheeled cart called a ‘sulky’. Pacing horses are much more common than trotter horses, and they are also faster. Its movements were lateral, meaning that pacers move the legs on the same side of their bodies together.

Trotter horses, on the other hand, move diagonally paired legs at once. It moves its back left leg while moving its right front leg, and its front left leg simultaneously with the rear right leg.

Safety

Jordan Stratton, a prominent figure in the sport of harness racing, started his career at age 18. In his fourth year, he became one of the youngest drivers to record 1,000 career wins.

He usually races all year round at Yonkers Raceway, occasionally traveling throughout the year for a bigger stakes race. Jordan’s passion developed from spending time on his parents’ 30-acre farm in Ohio. It was something that he shared with his brother Cory, who is now a successful trainer. 

Being in the sport for so long, Jordan admitted that harness racing is not without any accidents. “We are going over 30 mph, inches from each other,” he shared. “But if you look at the entire sport though, hundreds of races are run every day without any accidents.” 

Although the drivers don’t wear any seat belts when riding the sulky, organizers make it a point to prioritize the participants’ safety - starting from the race tracks. 

“Before I started driving, tracks had a hub rail,” Jordan said. “It was a solid rail about chest high, marking the inside of the racecourse. I believe thoroughbred racing still uses a hub rail. Unfortunately, one driver died when a horse crashed over the hub rail. We now mark the inside of the track with pylons and horses can leave the track for safety.”

To protect themselves during the race and to minimize any critical injuries from possible impacts, drivers wear safety vests and snell-certified helmets specifically for horse racing. Goggles also play an important role in keeping the eyes’ protected from anything that could affect their visual clarity. 

“We get a lot of dirt flung at our faces,” Jordan said. “We sit in race bikes (sulkies) behind the horse. That’s where goggles come into play.”

Kroop’s Original Racing Jockey Goggles in orange accents and clear lens tint
Goggles are one of the most important pieces of gear in harness racing because they protect the drivers’ eyes from dust, dirt, and debris.

As with any sport that focuses on speed, harness racing entails potential accidents. But as for Jordan, he believes that it is still relatively safer compared with thoroughbred racing. 

“If a horse stumbles or collides with another in thoroughbred racing, it is very hard for the jockey to stay on top of the horse,” Jordan shared. “If that happens in harness racing, the driver is able to help the horse get back on its feet by pulling on the reins. At the same time, we can always yell to hopefully give other drivers enough time to react to the situation.”

Harness Racing in the U.S. Today

Today, plenty of racetracks can be found across the U.S, with the Meadowlands Racing & Entertainment in New Jersey being one of the most popular. In the region, it is affectionately called “The Big M”. Harness racing events can also be found at county fairs, and are still attracting a wave of loyal fans all over the country. But Jordan, though, has his own sentiments. 

“Harness racing used to be a giant in the United States,” Jordan said. “But many have lost interest due to so many other options to watch and wager on.”

Despite this, Jordan is still hopeful as he found that there were some people who have shown a spark of interest with the sport. “Everyone I have introduced to it has fallen in love with the sport,” Jordan shared. “It’s just hard getting people exposed to harness racing.”

To anyone who wishes to try out harness racing, he has one piece of advice: “Harness racing is blue collar compared to thoroughbred racing. I would advise anyone interested to show up to a barn or reach out to a trainer. Majority of people will be happy to answer your questions.”

But harness racing didn’t only pique the general populace’s interest. It also caught the attention of two athletes from two different sports. With UFC champ Charles Oliveira competing in an exhibition race at Yonkers raceway and NBA star Nikola Jokic jogging a racehorse in New Jersey, it looks like harness racing is here to stay.


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published