What is a Horse Race?
A horse race is a competition in which horses are ridden by jockeys and driven at speeds that can reach more than 30 miles per hour. The goal is to place first in a number of races, accumulating points for each finish. Horses are classified according to their age, weight, and sex. They compete against other horses of similar class, with allowances given for fillies and geldings based on their past performance.
Until the Civil War, race courses in the United States were generally long and required endurance, rather than speed. However, the onset of the Civil War brought changes to the sport, as the new rules favored speed. The emphasis changed to shorter races and the importance of winning in a few early races increased, as a single victory could lead to significant earnings. The King’s Plate was one of the earliest races to make this shift in emphasis, moving from two heats of four-mile distances to one three-mile race.
The history of organized racing is hard to pin down, but it is widely accepted that horsemanship developed in ancient Greece around 700 to 40 bce, and the sport spread to nearby countries including China, Persia, and Arabia. The ancients were adept at using horses for chariot and mounted bareback races, and the sport evolved into the thoroughbred racing we know today.
Today’s horse race is a brutal, high-stakes pursuit fueled by the insatiable desire for money. Millions of dollars are bet on each race, and the stakes for winning have never been higher. To achieve these goals, race organizers impose harsh conditions on their animals, forcing them to sprint over short distances and often to the edge of their physical limits. In the process, they suffer a variety of injuries, including broken legs and hemorrhage from the lungs.
Behind the romanticized facade of Thoroughbred horse racing, a darker reality exists, filled with drugs, gruesome breakdowns, and slaughter. Yet the public remains fascinated by a sport that features horses running for their lives, a sport whose fans show off their fancy outfits and sip mint juleps, and whose participants are willing to risk everything in an all-or-nothing bid to win a handful of glamor races and a lifetime of well-paid breeding.
Horses bred to run just a few races and then retire are very different animals than those who ran the 89-race career of Seabiscuit, the little hero of the Great Depression. These racehorses might be taller and more statuesque, but they are less dense and less attenuated than Seabiscuit, and their leg bones are thinner and lighter. They are porcelain, made to run a few races and then to spend the rest of their lives grazing between visits to the mating shed.