A horse race is a sporting event in which horses are run over a set distance. It is one of the oldest sports, with written accounts dating back to the 9th or 8th century BC. Early chariot races were documented in Homer’s Iliad and bareback (mounted) horse racing at the Olympic Games dates to about 740 to 700 BC. The modern sport of horse racing has a number of rules, regulations and procedures.
A race starts when the horse enters the starting gate, which is electrically operated at most tracks. The jockeys, as they are called, then mount their horses and parade them past a steward, who checks to make sure the horse is carrying the proper weight. Then the race begins as a group of stewards and patrol judges, aided by a motion-picture patrol, watch the horses to look for rule violations. When the horses reach the finish line the stewards then announce the winner.
Horses are trained to sprint, at speeds that can cause serious injury and even death. Behind the romanticized facade of the sport lies a world of drug abuse, gruesome breakdowns and slaughter. The death of Eight Belles, Medina Spirit, Keepthename, Creative Plan, Laoban and thousands of other horses is the result of their exploitation as for-profit commodities in a race industry that doesn’t value its animals.
The 2008 Kentucky Derby was the final race of Eight Belles’ life, and of thousands of other Thoroughbreds. But the numbers are impossible to know, due to the industry’s long history of obscurity, secrecy and lack of transparency. The truth is that horses are dying in the name of entertainment, and they deserve to live out their lives free from pain, fear and stress.
Before the race began the jockeys and their trainers went to the paddock, a section of the track where the horses are saddled and groomed. Each horse was injected with Lasix, a diuretic. It is marked on the racing form with a bold face “L.” The medication helps prevent the pulmonary bleeding that hard running causes in many horses.
In the United States, organized horse racing began in 1664, during the British occupation of New Amsterdam. The colony’s commander laid out a 2-mile course, and the silver cup that had been awarded to British champions became the prize in the American colonies. Stamina was the mark of excellence, until after the Civil War when speed came to dominate the sport.
The equine world is filled with words that are difficult for people not to be familiar with: Across the board-a bet on a horse to win, place and show; furlong-an eighth of a mile; handicap-a race in which the racing secretary conditions weight allowances based on previous purse earnings and types of wins; break maiden-a horse that has never won. There are other terms as well, and each horse’s individual race is described by the difficulties it encountered, which is known as its trip.