Horse races have evolved from primitive contests of speed and stamina between horses into a spectacle that involves vast fields of entrants, sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, and immense sums of money. But the basic concept remains the same: The horse that crosses the finish line first is the winner.
The game’s rules and regulations are set by the governing body, usually the national horse racing authority. Those rules govern everything from how races should be run to the minimum age for participants. Some countries may have different rules, but by and large most racebooks are based on the same basic rule book established in England.
As the sport developed, betting on the outcome became a major part of its appeal, and some jockeys began to focus on winning wagers rather than simply finishing the race. This led to the development of specialized workouts designed to improve the chances of winning specific types of races. These workouts, which are generally known as “sprint” workouts, were designed to increase the chances of a horse winning in short distance races by improving its acceleration.
By the end of the 19th century, the sport had grown to such a size that there was an obvious need for increased oversight and better enforcement of the rules. Various organizations were created, including the Jockey Club, the breed registry, and the Thoroughbred Control Board, which established minimum age requirements and other rules to ensure that horses would be safe and healthy at the races.
After World War II, the popularity of horse racing continued to grow until it began to decline in the early 2000s. A series of missteps eroded the sport’s credibility, and by 2004 it was no longer among the top five spectator sports in America.
While racing officials have made great strides in ensuring the health and safety of horses, they still have some work to do in order to restore its popularity. Many of the problems stem from an overabundance of doping. Powerful painkillers and anti-inflammatories designed for humans bleed over into horse preparation, and racing’s officialdom doesn’t have the resources to keep up with all the drugs that can be used to enhance performance.
Adding to the frustration of fans is the fact that the industry cannot seem to agree on a comprehensive plan for what happens to horses once they leave the track. Instead, they are left with a patchwork of social media posts and “bailing” operations that charge arbitrary ransoms for horses’ freedom before sending them to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada. The result is a hellish life for these once-soaring creatures, and one that only a few nonprofit rescue groups and individuals can save with their tireless networking, fundraising, and labor.