A horse race is a competitive event in which horses compete against each other by running to a finish line first. Often, these races are sponsored by commercial firms that put up large purse amounts for the winners. Some of these events are considered major sporting events in their own right, such as the Melbourne Cup and the Santa Anita Handicap. The rules of the race vary depending on factors such as the age and sex of the horses, or how the fields are configured.
The history of organized horse racing is long and complicated, ranging from four-hitch chariot and mounted (bareback) races in the Olympic Games of 700-40 bce to modern thoroughbred horse race events featuring thousands of horses and millions of dollars in purses. Racing was even an integral part of the national and regional cultures of the ancient world, including China, Persia, and Arabia, where horsemanship became highly refined.
But, in the end, it’s the small minority of horsemen and horsewomen who cheat, or who are more or less hopeless that they won’t be caught, that stain the integrity of the sport for everyone else. That’s where serious reform must come if horse racing is to survive.
Despite some progress in training practices and drugs, the racing industry faces many challenges that can only be addressed through sustained reform. Its fan base is shrinking, and revenue, racing days, and entries are all dropping. Industry leaders admit that it will take significant effort to reverse this trend.
Some of the biggest problems are related to abuse and cruelty. A recent New York Times article based on a video from PETA exposes abusive training practices at two of America’s most revered tracks, Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, and Saratoga in upstate New York. The article targets trainer Steve Asmussen and his top assistant, Scott Blasi.
Many horses die from injuries at the track, such as cardiovascular collapse, or from pulmonary hemorrhage (bleeding out of the lungs). They can also be killed by blunt-force head trauma from collisions with other horses or the tracks themselves. Some of these dead horses have shattered legs, with just skin holding the limbs on.
Ownership turnover is high in the racing industry, and most Thoroughbreds are sold or “claimed” multiple times during their careers. This means that the previous owners can have little or no control over where the horse ends up after a race. During one two-month period in 2011, over 2,000 horses were callously sold to slaughter through the claiming system. This has helped drive down the racing industry’s overall breeding and sales numbers. The resulting decline in race attendance and television viewership has been especially damaging to horse racing in the United States.