Today, the vast majority of the horse racetracks in Great Britain run in a clockwise direction on turf, including the premier tracks.  The last racetrack in America that ran in the British tradition of clockwise was Belmont Park from its inception in 1905 until 1921, when the direction was switched to counter-clockwise.

The conventional explanation for American tracks racing anti-clockwise is that the practice was started in colonial days as a protest against the British.

More precisely, William Whitley is often credited with initiating counter-clockwise racing in America.  He was an explorer in the Kentucky wilderness in the 1770s, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, and a casualty in the War of 1812.  The website of his estate, Sportsman’s Hill in Lincoln County Kentucky (now a state park), states:

“Sportsman’s Hill…featured a horserace track. Whitley had an oval course constructed on his property in order to enjoy his favorite pastime and entertain guests. Bucking English tradition, Whitley’s track ran races counter-clockwise and was clay-based, as opposed to the standard British clockwise-running turf courses.”

There is evidence that the anti-clockwise choice of American racetracks influenced other sports, such as track, motorsports, track bicycle racing, roller derby, greyhound racing, and baseball.  For example, historians of both NASCAR and Indy racing opine that car racing in the United States followed the horse racing tradition of counter-clockwise racing.  The first Indy race was held in 1911 at a trotting track, and the race cars ran anti-clockwise just like the trotters did. 

A website called chronicled the evolution of anti-clockwise racing in track:

“The ancient Greeks may have run anti-clockwise round their stadia, but it is a mistake to assume the tradition was unbroken until modern times.  Contemporary illustrations show that when running on tracks was revived in the nineteenth century, clockwise running was probably just as common.  Oxford and Cambridge Universities ran clockwise until 1948, Cambridge until some time later.  The first modern Olympic Games in Athens (1896 and 1906) and Paris (1900) used the clockwise direction, but in 1906 there were complaints, as many countries had by then settled for the anti-clockwise practice.  From 1908 the games have all been run ‘left hand inside.’”

This still does not explain why human runners preferred a counter-clockwise direction.  But if you are interested, click here for a Yahoo Sports article that delves into the likely functional and aesthetic reasons for the preference.

No one can say for sure how much influence the most popular sport in early America, horse racing, had in establishing a standard of anti-clockwise flow.  But it clearly had an impact on some sports that came along later.

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