The Basics of a Horse Race

A horse race is a sporting event in which a pack of horses runs around a track at speeds high enough to cause serious injuries. A winner is determined by the first horse to cross a finish line. While the sport of horse racing has evolved from a primitive contest of speed and stamina to a massive entertainment industry that is watched by millions of people, its essential concept remains unchanged. Despite all the fancy electronic monitoring equipment and enormous sums of money involved, horse races remain a game that requires horses to sprint at a dangerously high rate of speed. Often, this causes them to break down or even die.

While the majority of trainers, assistant trainers, jockeys, drivers, caretakers, and veterinarians care deeply about their animals and would never intentionally harm them, there are also plenty of equine “athletes” who do not. These are the cheaters, a small, feral minority that has stained the integrity of the entire sport. There is another group, however, who are a far larger and more significant problem: the good men and women who know that what they do is wrong but don’t do anything about it. These are the men and women who, like Steve Asmussen, may not be the exception to the rule but represent a troubling percentage of the entire business.

The race procedure begins when the horses enter the paddock, a section at the edge of the track where they are saddled and prepared for a run. Usually, the stewards, or judges, are present to verify that the horses are properly weighted for their age and distance. Jockeys, or riders, must wear helmets and disclose their use of medication to the stewards before riding. Saliva and urine samples are taken from each horse to check for banned substances.

A race can be a short distance or a mile or more. The shortest races are called sprints; the longest, stakes races. The course for a stakes race is decided in advance; other races are open to entries that close a few hours before the race.

The most famous horse race in Italy is the Palio di Siena, held twice a year, on July 2 and August 16. It’s a massive pageant in which horses representing each of the city’s seventeen Contrade, or wards, compete against each other. It is considered one of the world’s most beautiful and dramatic horse races.

Horses used for racing are pushed beyond their limits, subjected to cocktails of legal and illegal drugs, and, because they are prey animals, whipped. They suffer from a variety of injuries, including grotesque breakdowns and even exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (blood in the lungs). Many die during or after the race; as of last year, PETA estimates that about ten thousand American thoroughbreds are slaughtered every year.