A horse race is a sport and gambling event in which participants place bets on the winner of a specific horse or team. Bettors must have the skill and judgment to decide when to make bets and how much money to risk. The sport dates back to early modern Europe. The earliest races were match races between two or at most three horses, with the owners providing the purse and accepting simple wagers. Owners who wished to withdraw from a match agreed to forfeit half, or eventually the entire purse, and agreements were recorded by disinterested third parties who came to be known as keepers of the match book.
In 19th century England, the match book was consolidated by James Weatherby and published annually as The Racing Calendar. The calendar, a precursor to the Daily Racing Form, was the first to provide comprehensive information about individual races. After Weatherby’s death, the racing calendar was continued by his family.
Modern horse races are run on dirt, grass, and a synthetic all-weather surface, with most at six furlongs (a furlong is one eighth of a mile). Each track has numbered poles which mark the start and finish of the race. The number 1 post is located nearest to the grandstand and the number 2 post is the farthest from it. A horse that is on the rails is close to the white plastic fences which define the course, and a jockey who moves his mount into a position against the rails is said to have ‘grabbed the rail’.
The most famous racecourses in the world are in places where horses are historically prized for their stamina rather than their speed. In the US, organized racing began with the British occupation of New Amsterdam in 1664, and the hallmark of excellence for Thoroughbreds was long-distance endurance. After the Civil War, speed became more important than distance.
One of the most prestigious races in the world is the Belmont Stakes, which takes place every July at the Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy. In the days leading up to the race, the square’s famed golden cobblestones are paved with a gritty mixture of clay and earth, creating a smooth and compact track. Where lively restaurants and cafes normally spill out onto the square, barriers are erected to separate spectators from the throngs of runners.
A Classic contender is a horse who is aimed at one of the five Classics – the 2,000 Guineas, the Oaks, the Derby and the St Leger, in which horses compete on the flat season in Britain and most European countries.
A bet in which half the stake is placed on a horse to win and the other half to be placed, usually in the top three but sometimes in higher positions. The odds on a bet to win are calculated according to the standard handicapping system, while those on the places are determined by multiplying the place odds on each of the horses competing in the race by the number of places.