Horse racing, the sport in which humans perch on their horses and compel them to run at breakneck speed while spectators sip mint juleps, has long been a subject of romance. Behind the romanticized facade, however, lies a world of injuries, drug abuse and even gruesome breakdowns. In this world, horses are pushed beyond their limits by humans wielding whips—and often into a painful death. Unlike their herd-mates in the wild, horses understand self-preservation and will not keep running once they have been injured.
Among the earliest forms of horse race was the match, in which one or more horses competed against one another on flat surfaces for a wager of money provided by the participants. These wagers were not a form of gambling but a legitimate business, and the agreements were recorded by disinterested third parties who came to be known as “keepers of the match book.”
In addition to match races, horse race developed to include handicap races in which a horse competed against horses of similar ability. Eligibility rules were established that took into account the age, sex and birthplace of the horses as well as their previous performance. The races were open to the public and were bet on with parimutuels (French system in which winning bettors receive all money wagered by all players after a deduction of a percentage by the track).
In these handicapped horse races, the weights that the horses carry are adjusted based on their age. Typically, two-year-olds, the youngest runners, carry less weight than older competitors, and the weights are further modified by such factors as a horse’s position in the starting gates and its tactics during the race. There are also races that are restricted to fillies or to horses of a specific age and race distance.
The modern era of technological advancements has also transformed horse racing, although some of these advances have been controversial. In particular, thermal imaging cameras detect the heat of a horse’s body post-race, and MRI scanners, endoscopes, and 3D printing can produce casts and splints to treat horses with minor or severe injuries.
There is a natural incentive for human athletes to win races as fast as possible; however, the horse does not possess such an innate drive. Consequently, the underlying time of a horse’s winning race is an amalgamation of its innate desire to run and the complex interaction of various human inputs such as its position in the starting gate, the tactics of the jockey, the “going” of the racetrack, etc.