Horse races are organized competitions between horses, requiring them to run a set distance in the shortest possible time. The equine sport is one of the oldest in human history, dating back to ancient times when man and beast competed for survival. Today, a wide variety of horse breeds and racing formats exist. The most popular are thoroughbred and harness races, though quarter horse and Arabian racing are also popular in certain regions. Races are divided by age, sex and distance, as well as the type of track and time of year.
There are many hazards that horses and jockeys face during a race. For example, a rider who dismounts during a race can suffer a variety of injuries including fractures, head trauma and spinal cord injuries. The risk of injury increases with the speed of the horse and the proximity of competitors. Jockeys must be able to respond quickly to dangerous situations, and this requires a high level of concentration and specialized training.
Another common danger is the starting gate. This is a small metal box that a racer enters before the start of a race. Attendants direct the horse inside and help keep it calm until the gate opens, at which point a jockey is expected to mount the horse in a split second. A jockey who loses control of his or her horse can be crushed by the other runners and pinned against the gate walls. This can lead to a number of injuries including lower and upper limb injuries, spinal injuries, lacerations and concussion.
During the course of a race, veterinarians are present to monitor the health of the competing horses. When a horse is injured, a veterinarian can determine if the injury is life-threatening and provide appropriate care. The veterinary staff will also inspect the horse after the race to assess any potential injuries that may have occurred during the race.
Injuries to other participants also occur, and in the event of a fatality, a medical examiner is called to make an official determination. During the race, spectators can bet on the outcome of the race, with winning bettors receiving a portion of the handle (the total amount of money wagered in the pari-mutuel system). The payout percentage for the place bet depends on the number of horses in the race.
The vast majority of horses are pushed beyond their physical limits and subjected to a cocktail of legal and illegal drugs intended to mask the pain of their injuries and increase performance. Many horses will bleed from their lungs during the course of a race, a condition known as exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage, and to combat this problem, most horses are given Lasix or Salix, which is a diuretic with performance-enhancing qualities.
The 2008 Kentucky Derby winner Eight Belles died from a catastrophic breakdown caused by her years of exploitation in the racing industry, and it is estimated that thousands of horses die in similar circumstances each year. Due to a lack of industry regulation, transparency and willingness to implement new safety protocols, the true figure is likely much higher.