What Is a Horse Race?

A horse race is a contest of speed and stamina in which the winner takes home the prize money. Historically, it has been one of the most popular sports and an important diversion of leisure time. It evolved from a primitive contest of skill between two horses into an elaborate spectacle involving large fields of runners, sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment and huge sums of money. Despite these changes, its basic concept has remained the same: The horse that finishes first is declared the winner.

At the start of a horse race, bettors watch the horses enter the starting gate and parade through the walking ring, where they’re inspected for cleanliness and brightness of coat. A bright coat indicates that a horse is fresh and ready to run. When the horses start racing, their coats glow with a hypnotic luminosity. They move with a rhythm and smoothness that’s mesmerizing to humans who watch them from the grandstands and on TV.

As the horses run, they take turns and make leaps as they follow a predetermined course over a dirt or synthetic track. Depending on the particular race, it may also include hurdles that the horses must jump. During the race, jockeys mount and ride each horse. The horse must complete the entire race in a safe manner and clear any hurdles (if present) to be declared the winner.

During a horse race, a jockey uses a whip to control the movement of his horse and urge it onward toward the finish line. A jockey is paid a commission, or “take,” when his bets win. The number of commissions is based on the place and win/place bets he places.

Before a race, horsemen often inject their horses with Lasix, a drug that causes them to expel epic quantities of urine. The drug is said to prevent pulmonary bleeding, which hard running can cause in some horses. In addition to Lasix, many racehorses are injected with corticosteroids to suppress inflammation.

In addition to putting horses at risk, horse racing isn’t good for humans either. The industry puts jockeys at a much higher risk of injury than other elite athletes. On average, two jockeys die and sixty are paralyzed each year. Injuries are exacerbated by the fact that horses, not humans, understand the value of self-preservation.

When journalists focus on who’s winning and losing instead of discussing policy issues—what’s known as horse race coverage—the public, candidates and the news media suffer, a growing body of research shows. Our updated roundup of research on horse race reporting examines what’s at stake for the democratic process.