When horses race, a crowd of spectators stands in awe of their speed and grace. They cheer and sip mint juleps, and the media charts their positions–leading the pack, running in the middle of the track, or even falling in a heap at the back. But behind the romanticized facade of horse racing lies a dark world of injuries, drug abuse, and breakdowns; gruesome slaughter, often in foreign slaughterhouses; and abusive training practices that push horses to sprint at speeds unnatural for their skeletal systems.
The sport is in trouble: declining revenue, fewer race days, and dwindling numbers of bettors mean that the industry must cut costs. But it’s also been under attack from animal-rights activists who highlight the plight of Thoroughbred racehorses. The sport’s defenders argue that improvements in medical treatment and technology are making the sport more humane, while critics point to scandalous evidence of illegal doping and a failure to enforce rules against egregious cruelty.
To run in a horse race, a horse must have a pedigree that includes a father and mother who are purebred members of the same breed. To compete in a flat race, the horse must also meet certain height requirements.
A horse can be trained to race at any age, but the sport is most popular among older horses. As a result, most races in the United States and Europe are held for horses three or more years old. The oldest and most prestigious horse races are the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in France, the Preakness Stakes and Kentucky Derby in America, and the Caulfield Cup in Australia.
When a horse is preparing for a race, its handlers take it to the walking ring to check its coat for brightness and rippling, and to ensure that the horse is physically ready to run. If a horse balks at the starting gate, it is feared that the horse is scared or angry. It must be calmed or the race may not proceed.
At the start of a race, a jockey alights from the horse and places a small flag on it, signaling to other jockeys that the horse is “on.” When the horse is deemed safe to run, its rider puts a helmet on the horse and leads it down to the starting line.
The race begins when the starter releases the starting gate and the horses break away from the pack. The jockeys on each horse monitor the pace and position of his or her rivals, using the whip when necessary to urge the horse forward. The first horse to cross the finish line wins, unless a photo finish is required, in which case the winner is determined by studying a photograph of the finish to see who crossed the line first.
In the early days of horse racing, match races were held in private enclosures between two or more horses, with owners providing the purse and bettors placing a wager. Initially, an owner who withdrew from a race forfeited half the purse or later the whole, and agreements were recorded by disinterested third parties called keepers of the match book.