Horse racing is a sport of speed and stamina in which horses compete to cross an artificial finish line first. It is one of the oldest and most popular spectator sports and has adapted with the times to become a global entertainment industry. From the exotic climes of the Melbourne Cup to the sophisticated elegance of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, the world’s biggest horse races have their own unique charms.
Behind the romanticized facade of Thoroughbred horse racing lies a world of injuries, drug abuse, gruesome breakdowns and slaughter. Pushed beyond their limits, most horses are subjected to cocktails of legal and illegal drugs designed to mask injuries and artificially enhance performance. Many horses, pushed to the extreme, will eventually bleed from their lungs, a condition known as exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. Those that don’t die from these injuries will go on to be sold for slaughter.
In the modern era, the sport has transformed into a spectacle involving large fields of runners, sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment and immense sums of money. But the essential feature of a horse race remains unchanged: Only the horse that crosses the finishing line first is declared the winner. While critics of the sport are quick to point out that horses aren’t capable of feeling pain, the reality is that the animals are running for their lives and they will often suffer greatly in the process.
While the equestrian event has evolved into a massive public-entertainment business, its roots lie in ancient hunting. In fact, the term “horse race” itself is derived from the Latin for a hunt – or “praesto” – in which hunters would ride through fields on the lookout for prey. The hunt was a dangerous and time-consuming endeavor, and in order to reduce the risk of injury, hunters gathered in groups, allowing them to keep an eye out for each other while running from their prey.
As the sport expanded, hunters and spectators developed a variety of traditions to make the experience more enjoyable for everyone involved. For instance, the tradition of placing a bet on the race is as old as the sport itself. In addition, fans of the game have been known to wear costumes and gather in groups in order to show their support for their favorite teams.
The greatest horse races always involve great horses. Whether it is Secretariat’s 31-length demolition job in the Belmont Stakes to win the Triple Crown or Arkle’s remarkable six-length routing of an international field in the 1965 Gold Cup, the finest examples of individual equine brilliance are etched in racing history. But there are other factors that elevate a race from simple greatness to immortality. The setting is important, as is the background and context.