Horse racing is a glamorous spectacle, but the truth behind its romanticized facade is one of injuries, drugs, gruesome breakdowns and slaughter. Horses are forced to run—often under the threat of whips and illegal electric-shocking devices—at speeds so fast that they can suffer traumatic brain damage, muscle fatigue and a gruesome form of exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (bleeding from the lungs). The horses themselves are bred with massive torsos and spindly legs that can break or fall during a race.
Despite the soaring costs of breeding, training and sales fees, horse racing remains a relatively small industry in most countries. It is a sport that is increasingly being condemned by animal-rights activists and the public at large, with attendance at tracks dwindling even as purses have risen to millions of dollars. Grandstands that once seated thousands now hold dozens of people, and a movement is growing to end government subsidies for the racing industry.
There are many different types of races, but the most common is a flat horse race, which involves one heat in which all the runners compete. To be eligible to race, a horse must have both a sire and dam who are purebred members of the same breed. There are also harness races, which involve two heats and are dominated by the skill of the jockey to coax advantage from his or her mount.
The first recorded horse race took place in France as a result of a wager between two noblemen during the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715). Throughout the centuries, horse racing spread to other parts of the world, and in the 19th century, rules were established for the conduct of races. These rules governed everything from regulating the number of horses in a field to determining eligibility by age, sex, and birthplace.
A horse must be healthy to participate in a race, and so it is mandatory for every horse to undergo regular medical checks and have a veterinarian inspect the horse before its next race. Veterinary records are then entered into a database used by all race officials. A horse is also required to have a valid pedigree to be eligible for competition, and its owner must provide the race committee with the required information about its parents and grandparents.
Ownership turnover is high, and as a result, the majority of horses are bought and sold multiple times during their careers. In 2011, a single horse, Who’s Bluffing, was claimed 12 times in just two months. Because of this, the most prestigious races, such as the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in France, the Caulfield and Sydney cups in Australia, the Gran Premio Carlos Pellegrini in Argentina, and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes in England, limit how often a horse can be claimed. The advent of a computerized pari-mutuel betting system in 1984 and the introduction of color televised racing helped to increase the sport’s popularity. Until then, the public’s betting bets were tallied manually, and this inefficient method of managing the bets was a major obstacle to expanding the sport.