In many ways horse racing is a microcosm of life, with its beauty, history, excitement, tragedies and competition among the prominent themes that play out each day at racetracks around the world. Music, of course, has a way of capturing the elements of life in meaningful and poetic ways. Not surprisingly, there have been some very memorable songs associated with, or directly related to horse racing.
Horse Racing Songs Worth a Listen
Songs stick with us for a number of reasons. A sad song evokes emotion. A lively tune puts us in a good mood and ready to tackle the day. Other songs contain moving lyrics that etch themselves in our brains forever. Here are some of the greatest horse racing songs ever made along with a brief explanation for why they make the list.
“My Old Kentucky Home,” Stephen Foster, 1853
Surely the most iconic and historic of all racing related songs, this classic does not contain any lyrics or allusions to the sport of horse racing, but was adopted as Kentucky’s state song in 1928 and was played prior to the start of the Kentucky Derby as early as 1930. While it is recognized as a significant composition outside of its association to the Kentucky Derby, it is inexorably linked to racing for the scores of fans who have heard its nostalgic strains on the first Saturday in May.
“Camptown Races,” Stephen Foster, 1850
Fittingly, Stephen Foster, who is an important cultural figure in Kentucky history, composed this lively minstrel song based on his experiences living near the Camptown Racecourse in his native Pennsylvania. The song’s chorus famously repeats “gwine to run all night/gwine to run all day/bet my money on a bob-tailed nag/somebody bet on the bay.” The Stephen Foster Handicap, established in 1982, remains a significant grade 1 race at Churchill Downs.
“Fugue for Tinhorns,” Frank Loesser, 1950
First things first, a”fugue” is a musical selection with interwoven vocals and the term “tinhorn” refers to gamblers who pretend to have money or clout.”Probably the most memorable showtune from the popular musical Guys and Dolls, this catchy, upbeat song features three gamblers standing around a newstand discussing and touting the merits of their picks for an upcoming race. Noted crooners such as Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra are among the notable performers to have sung parts of “Fugue for Tinhorns.” While many may not immediately recall this song, most are familiar with the line “I’ve got a horse right here/his name is Paul Revere.” The lyrics are witty and jaunty, making this a favorite among race fans who have an appreciation of the sport’s glory years.
“Run for the Roses”, Dan Fogelberg, 1982
This poignant song captures a good deal of poetry inherent in the racing game. Fogelburg succintly narrates the process involved in becoming a Kentucky Derby champion from a foal’s first steps on the farm to their ultimate test on first Saturday in May. The lyrics “the chance of a lifetime in a lifetime of chance” have long resonated with many, and are applicable to so many elements of horse racing. It’s hard to like horses and not have an appreciation for this simple song.
“The Race Is On,” George Jones, 1965
This clever country classic by Hall of Famer George Jones uses horse racing as a metaphor for a relationship gone bad. Horse racing certainly does mimic life in many ways and that is the idea Jones captures in lyrics like “here comes pride up the backstretch/heartaches are goin’ to the inside/my tears are holdin’ back/true love’s scratched for another’s sake/the race is on and it looks like heartache/and the winner loses all.”
“WilliamTell Overture”, Gioachino Rossini, 1828
Unless you are a diehard fan of classical music, this is probably one of the more recognizable pieces due to its inclusion in many mainstream soundtracks. The beginning of the score is frequently used by buglers at racetracks to call the horses to post from the paddock. The Hong Kong Jockey Club has used the same overture for many years. Give this a listen and it will certainly put you in a racetrack frame of mind. It’s doubtful William
“Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen, 1975
The Boss was a New Jersey native and this hit is traditionally played before the running of the state’s most important horse race, the $1 million Grade 1 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park each August. When great horses hit the track for the post parade of the Haskell, there’s little doubt they were all born to run.
“Where the Turf Meets the Surf,” Bing Crosby, 1941
Bing Crosby was a horse racing guy, and that legacy endures. One of the co-founders of the famed Del Mar Racetrack near San Diego, this song commemorates the uniqueness and festive atmosphere of the track that is just a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean. This song is still played daily during Del Mar’s prestigious summer meeting. Sipping a drink in the Del Mar paddock listening to Bing and waiting for the action to begin is as close to perfect as things get for a horse player.
“Raised on Black And Tans,” Gaelic Storm, 2009
Venturing from the mainstream songs, this rollicking Irish tune gives a brief, but meaningful shout to horse racing and the colorful Runyonesque characters who enjoy a drink and a bet. Here’s a pearl to enjoy:”Well my uncle/he liked the races/dog and steeple chases.” Let’s face it…most track guys have a little bit of rogue in them. This song captures that essence perfectly.