How Does a Horse Race Work?

Horse races are close contests of speed and endurance where jockeys guide their mounts over a predetermined course. Unlike the sport of football, where a team scores points by kicking a ball into a goal or a touchdown, a horse race rewards the winner based on his or her ability to cover the distance in the shortest amount of time. While there is no set length of a race, most are contested over a mile and a half or less.

For years, corporations have relied on the horse race approach to select their next chief executive officer, a system known as succession planning that pits several candidates against each other in a competition for the top job. While some executives and governance observers have criticized the horse race as insecure and risky, companies such as General Electric, Procter & Gamble and GlaxoSmithKline use the system to develop future leaders who can step into top roles quickly and lead the organization into the future.

As early as 1752, horse racing in Ireland was established as a public event, with an official 2-mile course laid out and a prize of a hogshead of wine for the winner. The American colonies adopted this system of organized racing, requiring horses to be licensed and certified to participate in a race. It wasn’t until the late 1840s that a system of formalized training and a more systematic process of evaluating potential winners was developed.

A race is a highly complex event with many moving parts. The trainer’s job is to prepare a horse to run in a particular way, using a specific feeding regimen and exercise schedule. The race manager must then put together a card of races for the horse to run in, which is called the condition book. This schedule is not set in stone, however, as races may fill or extra races become available.

When the horses are lining up in the starting gate, each one is injected with Lasix (noted on the race program with a boldface “L”). This drug prevents pulmonary bleeding that occurs after hard running by helping the horse to unload epic amounts of urine. This is a common practice for most thoroughbreds, even those who are not serious bleeders.

When a horse dies, it is not uncommon for the media to be informed that the euthanasia was “multifactorial.” The horse died of a heart attack or of respiratory distress resulting from a chemical overload of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs that are commonly used in this industry. While everyone wants a sport without deaths, those in horse racing know that the goal is unattainable. They do, however, try to do their best to minimize the number of fatalities by implementing safety measures and conducting in-depth investigations when accidents occur. In addition, they strive to reduce the number of injuries and breakdowns by promoting proper training and by investigating abusive practices including overbreeding, slaughter and drug use.