A Horse Race For the Ages

The sport of horse racing has evolved from a primitive contest of speed or stamina between two horses into a spectacle that requires large fields, sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, and immense sums of money. But the basic concept remains the same: whichever horse crosses the finish line first is the winner.

The horses began running into the pinkish light of a sunset-drenched sky. They were clad in the unique colors of their owners, as dictated by national racing authorities. In the backstretch, War of Will, that year’s Preakness champion, took an early lead. He was followed by Mongolian Groom and McKinzie, a small-framed bay. At the top of the stretch, a big chestnut colt named Vino Rosso surged on the outside. He passed McKinzie, then surged past the other two to take a half-length lead as they reached the homestretch.

It was a race for the ages, and it was as much about the era as it was about the sport. The sport of racing has long been a form of entertainment, with a wide array of fans and huge amounts of betting money. But by the first decades of the 21st century, it had suffered significant declines in popularity and revenue.

Many of these declines were caused by increasing awareness of the dark side of the industry. One study found that one thoroughbred is injured in every 22 races, and three die each day from catastrophic injuries. Another major concern is the high level of drug use in horse racing. In addition to legal drugs that enhance performance, many horses are given cocktails of illegal substances.

As a result of increased scrutiny, horse racing has made some improvements in safety and the quality of the horses it produces. But the sport still has a long way to go before it is considered a legitimate sport.

One of the biggest problems is the fact that horses begin training or are already in racing when their skeletal systems haven’t finished growing. That means they aren’t physically prepared for the demands of competition racing on a hard surface at fast speeds.

Even with the best of care, a horse’s skeletal system can be seriously harmed by a serious injury during a race. That’s why so many of the sport’s horses are injected with a cocktail of legal and illegal drugs designed to mask injuries and enhance performance.

The earliest race was a match race between two or at most three horses, the owner of each providing the purse, a simple wager. These agreements were recorded by disinterested third parties, who came to be known as keepers of the match book. One such, at Newmarket in England, published An Historical List of all the Horse-Matches Run (1729). Other match races were held around Europe, and these became the basis for the first organized racebooks.