What is a Horse Race?

A horse race is a contest of speed among horses that either are ridden by jockeys or pull sulkies and their drivers. It has a rich history, having been practiced since ancient times in a variety of cultures and civilizations. It plays a role in myth and legend, including the contest between Odin’s steeds and the giant Hrungnir in Norse mythology. The sport is wildly popular in many countries around the world, and betting on its outcomes is an important part of the spectacle.

Despite the romanticized image of horse races as glamorous and serene, behind the facade is a world of drugs, broken bones, and gruesome breakdowns. Injuries are common and often deadly, with horses pushed to their limits, running so fast that they will bleed from their lungs (a condition known as exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage). Injured horses are urged on by human riders with whips, ignoring their own instincts of self-preservation and chasing a dream that is utterly unnatural for them.

Some races are restricted to specific breeds or are limited in number of entries, and some are considered stakes, meaning that horses must pay a fee to enter them. Other races are deemed to be allowance or handicap races, wherein all the horses have a chance of winning and the winner is determined by an objective system such as racing form.

The sport of horse racing is regulated worldwide by numerous bodies, which regulate the training and care of the horses, and oversee the safety of the races. The American Triple Crown of elite races—the Belmont Stakes, Preakness Stakes, and Kentucky Derby—is a global icon. In most modern countries, racing is heavily subsidized by taxpayer subsidies and casino money. The resulting massive prize purses create an incentive for owners to run horses that have no business being on the track, and for jockeys to compel them beyond their limits.

A horse’s skeletal structure is very delicate, and a single fall from even a short distance can be catastrophic. A broken bone may puncture a lung or spine, and the resulting fluid can cause pulmonary hemorrhage or even death. Many dead racehorses have severed necks and spines, with shattered legs and feet in which skin is the only thing holding the bones together. Some have shattered skulls and brains, with fractured skull plates pressing into the sensitive laminae of the spinal column.

Horses are not naturally bred to race; they’re domesticated animals that have been selectively bred for certain genetic traits and for their endurance. These horses are conditioned to sprint for hours on end, often under the relentless threat of electric shocks and illegally applied whips, at speeds far faster than they could sustain in nature. Various scientific attempts to explain the phenomenon over the past four decades “haven’t been particularly successful,” says a veterinarian who has spent 30 years working on horse tracks. He explains that scientific models can’t account for the fact that horses vary widely in size and aerobic capacity, and that they are forced to sprint against their instincts.