A horse race is a competition between two or more horses in which the first one to cross a finish line is declared the winner. The contest is one of the world’s oldest sports, and its basic concept has barely changed over the centuries. It has developed from a primitive contest of speed and stamina into a spectacle involving huge fields, sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, and massive sums of money, but the winner is still determined by who crosses the line first.
The history of horse races is long and complex, although knowledge of early organized racing is sketchy. Four-hitch chariot and mounted (bareback) races are documented in the Olympic Games of 700-40 bce, and both chariot and mounted racing were popular pastimes in ancient Rome. In the nineteenth century, a number of horse races were introduced in the United States as part of a new style of public entertainment known as pari-mutuel betting. These events featured a common betting pool in which bettors could place bets on the winning horse and receive a share of the total amount of bets minus a commission for the track management.
In modern horse races, the horses compete under a system of handicapping in which the weights they carry are adjusted with the objective of rendering them as evenly matched as possible. The weights may be set centrally where racing is so controlled or by individual tracks. Female horses, for example, are given a weight allowance, while males compete with a weight penalty, and both these factors, plus the horse’s performance in previous races, are taken into consideration when assigning the final race weights.
While the industry claims that horses are “born to run and love to compete,” it is unmistakable that the act of putting a racehorse into a crowded, dusty, muddy arena for a prolonged sprint has no resemblance whatsoever to the way they would behave in an open field or on a beach. The fact is that horses are prey animals, and they don’t like being jostled by other equine competitors as they struggle to find a place in the pack.
This jostling causes many horses to collapse or fall, and some of these failures are catastrophic. For example, a horse that falls at the starting gate can break its legs or suffer other severe injuries. A horse that crashes into another competitor can have its spine shattered, and the result is often death. The number of dead racehorses is staggering—an average of 24 die every week, and this does not include the countless horses who are discarded by their owners when they are no longer profitable. The only way to keep horse racing viable is to increase the safety and welfare standards. This requires that the government and the industry work together to create a more humane racing environment.