What Happens in a Horse Race?

Horse races, whether on dirt or ice, have always been about speed and stamina. The sport evolved from a primitive contest of skill and endurance into an elaborate spectacle that involves vast fields, sophisticated monitoring equipment, and enormous sums of money—but the basic concept remains the same. The horse that crosses the finish line first wins.

In a horse race, each of the competing horses must carry a set weight, determined by a formula that considers the horses’ past performances, current form, and class. This weight allowance is known as a “scale of weights.” The total number of allowed scales is called the field limit, and if all of these are reached before the race begins, the event is declared a dead heat.

The eleven horses sprinted down the backstretch, moving with huge strides and hypnotic smoothness, under the pinkish light of a late afternoon sun. They were thirsty; the racing forms noted that all of them had been injected that morning with Lasix, a diuretic, marked on the race program with a boldface “L.” It was supposed to help prevent pulmonary bleeding, which hard running sometimes causes in horses and can be unsightly for humans watching from the grandstands.

As they ran, the horses were also releasing epic amounts of urine-twenty or thirty pounds worth. The stench was overwhelming, and the horses’ jockeys were blowing their noses. Being in the middle of this throng would have been miserable, even for a horse. Horses are prey animals, and a human in the middle of a pack of wild equines is likely to get kicked in the face.

When they entered the clubhouse turn, War of Will held his lead. But by the far turn, he was tiring, and the challenge from Mongolian Groom and McKinzie was clear. Then Vino Rosso, a chestnut colt, made a powerful move on the outside.

A photo finish is a decision made by examining a photograph taken at the time of the race to determine the winner in cases where it is impossible to tell who crossed the line first from an eyewitness account. This is a common method used in horse racing to settle disputed results.

A number of horses have died during races in recent years, most notably 30 at Santa Anita in 2019. While the industry tries to justify its practices, experts have found that there has never been an evolution of the business model with the best interest of the horses as the top priority. Racing aficionados have often blown off the concerns of animal rights activists and of the general public, while continuing to fail at protecting the animals they use for their sport. The problem is that this systemic failing will be very difficult to change. It is built into the way that the sport is run and its rules are written.