The History of Horse Racing

horse race

Horse racing is a popular sport that has a long and illustrious history, but its critics often argue that it’s inhumane and corrupt. Others believe that the sport represents the pinnacle of achievement for the horses who compete in it, and that while it may need reform, it’s still a great tradition.

In the earliest times, race participants simply bet on the horse that they believed would finish first. Later, the purse money was standardized and owners who withdrew forfeited half or all of the prize. Private wagers were recorded by disinterested third parties, called ‘keepers of the match books.’ This led to the establishment in the 19th century of bookmaking, or pari-mutuel betting, a pool where those who bet on the top three finishers share the total amount bet, minus a small percentage for the management of the racetrack.

The earliest flat races were simple, one-horse affairs that were intended to test speed rather than stamina. In time, races were added that tested both speed and endurance. The most famous of these, which continue to be run to this day, are the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and the Melbourne Cup in Australia, the Caulfield and Sydney cups in the United Kingdom, and the Japan cup in Asia.

In many of these races, the horses are driven by jockeys, who sit on them and control the animal’s movements. Jockeys also have the responsibility to protect their riders from injury. Injuries are common, and sometimes fatal. The most serious injuries are from collisions with other horses, and a leading cause of death in the industry is exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. The lungs of the racehorses are particularly sensitive to exertion, and a horse that is pushed beyond its limits will bleed from the lungs and become weakened by loss of blood.

Whether in everyday races or the Triple Crown series — the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes — horses must undergo multiple, comprehensive vet exams and observations to ensure that they are fit to run. Researchers are working to identify a screening tool that might help prevent horses from entering the field when they are at high risk of injury.

Despite the best efforts of veterinarians, trainers, and jockeys, not every horse can be saved from an injury or illness that occurs during a race. When a horse is found to be suffering from a catastrophic injury, it is usually euthanized. The horseracing industry is working to improve safety standards, and Congress passed a law in 2021 that will give the sport uniform drug-testing and stewarding procedures that will begin this month. The new rules, dubbed the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, will provide more thorough post-race tests and out-of-competition inspections and will require the use of the same medication controls throughout all 38 U.S. racing states. Hopefully, this will reduce the number of fatalities in the sport.