How Does Horse Racing Work?

The sport of horse racing has developed over the centuries from a primitive contest of speed and stamina to an elaborate spectacle with high-tech electronic monitoring equipment and enormous sums of money, but its essential feature has remained unchanged: Humans perched on a horse’s back compel them to run — often at breakneck speeds. In the process, the animals are not only injured but also pushed to their limit physically, psychologically and emotionally.

The resulting suffering is not only unpleasant for the horses but, in some cases, life-threatening, as documented by a recent study that found one horse in 22 races was fatally injured. That’s a rate much higher than that of many other sports, including football and basketball. And it’s the reason many animal rights advocates support PETA’s efforts to ensure that racing regulations are reformed and enforced.

One of the most controversial aspects of horse racing is its practice of allowing a limited number of trainers to have the exclusive right to compete in certain major races, known as stakes. These races are a chance for horses to earn significant cash prizes, and they can be very lucrative for the trainers who win them. In the United States, there are fewer than 100 stakes races, and a small number of them attract the attention of national and international media.

In order to be eligible to enter a stakes race, a horse must be nominated by its owner or by a professional agent. The nominations are then reviewed by a panel of experts who determine whether the horse meets the criteria for entry, which includes winning or finishing in the top three at several previous races. In addition, the horse’s trainer must have won a specific number of races and accumulated a minimum amount of prize money.

If the panel of experts approves the horse, it is entered in the next race on the calendar, and the entrant’s prize money increases by a set percentage. This process continues for each of the stakes races that year, until the horse wins or finishes in a position that earns it a significant amount of prize money.

In the beginning, only six-year-olds were allowed to participate in King’s Plate races, and they had to win two heats to be declared the winner. Then in 1751, five- and four-year-olds were admitted to the races and the races were shortened to 2-mile heats.

The King’s Plates were the first standardized races for Thoroughbreds, and they remain the model for American thoroughbred racing today. But there are many other problems with the sport that require attention from both government and industry officials.