A horse race is a contest of speed and stamina between two or more horses, over a set distance. It is one of the oldest sports, and has evolved from a primitive contest to a modern spectacle involving huge fields, sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, and immense sums of money. Its essential feature remains unchanged: the first horse to cross the finish line wins. The sport is divided into flat races and jumps, but the jumping discipline usually comes later in a horse’s career; a European-bred horse tends to start in National Hunt flat races as a juvenile, then move on to hurdling, and, if thought capable, steeplechasing.
Flat racing is the most common form of the sport, and the most popular with the public. It is characterized by long, fast strides made by the horses as they run down the backstretch toward the finish line. The jockeys atop the horses, known as riders, have the responsibility for guiding them safely around the course and over the obstacles (if present). There is an established set of rules that determines eligibility for different races, including a horse’s age, weight, sex, birthplace, and previous performance. The oldest and most prestigious races are the Triple Crown: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes.
In jumps racing, which is also growing in popularity, the horses must clear a series of hurdles and fences over a course that may be longer than a flat race. Riders on horseback must be able to jump each obstacle and follow the prescribed course, which can include an open or closed course. Often, the first, second, and third place winners receive prize money.
There is a dark side to horse racing that has not gone unnoticed by many in the sport’s throngs of fans, and the public at large. Horse racing has a long history of abusive training practices for young horses, drug use and abuse of older horses, and the slaughter of thousands of American racehorses in foreign slaughterhouses every year. Growing awareness of these issues has prompted some improvements, but the industry must continue to push for greater transparency and change.
Amid the crooks who dangerously drug their horses and the dupes who labor under their spell, there are those in racing in the middle—honorable people who know that the industry is more crooked than it ought to be, but who still work hard and try to make a decent living from it. There is no reason why the people who love and care for the sport cannot join those in the middle to demand real change. That should start with addressing the lack of an adequately funded industry-sponsored wraparound aftercare solution for all horses leaving the track. Currently, the vast majority of ex-racehorses hemorrhage into the slaughter pipeline, with the only option to be “bailed” out by the few nonprofit horse rescues and individuals who network, fundraise, and work tirelessly to save them.