Horse races are competitive events in which horses run over a set distance and are bet on to win. The first horse to reach the finish line is declared the winner. The sport is a worldwide spectator and betting enterprise. Its global appeal has fueled its recent surge in popularity, bringing unprecedented financial gains to racetracks, owners, and trainers. Its escalating success has also resulted in an unprecedented boom in the number of racehorses raised and trained around the world.
The early races in England were match contests between two horses, but pressure from the public eventually produced events with larger fields of runners. The majority of races today are handicaps, in which the horses are assigned a starting price by a central agency or at individual tracks. These prices are determined in part by the horse’s speed, its performance in previous races, and the experience of its handlers. The horse’s age is also taken into account.
Despite its glamour and popularity, the racing industry is not without serious problems. Horses are whipped and forced to sprint over hard-packed dirt tracks at speeds that can cause horrific injuries. They are routinely subjected to drug abuse, gruesome breakdowns, and slaughter.
In America, most races are run on a standard five-furlong (3/4-mile) course, but longer races such as the Preakness and Belmont Stakes are contested over seven furlongs (1.2 miles). The distance of a race may vary, depending on custom in the country or region. In England, for example, the Royal Ascot Gold Cup is a 21/2-mile (4-kilometer) race.
The early American races reflected sectional issues, with horses from the North and South competing against each other. One of these rivalries — between the Northern champion Eclipse and the Southern Sir Henry at Union Course in 1823 — attracted an estimated seventy thousand spectators, many of them traveling great distances to see the event.
Horseracing is a sport that has its defenders, but it is difficult to defend the cruel treatment of these animals. Most horse lovers are genuinely concerned about the welfare of their animals and want to improve the sport. Nevertheless, their donations are no substitute for participation in an ongoing exploitation that has left thousands of racehorses with broken bones and broken hearts and led to the deaths of even more.
The sport’s legions of apologists can be forgiven for being suspicious of PETA, but they should not confuse hostility to the activist group with dismissal of its work. Virtually nobody outside the racing business cares how PETA gets its undercover video; they care only that it exists and shows horrific abuse and cruelty. Until the sport takes serious steps to address this issue, it is not sustainable. Sadly, the exploitation of racing’s horses is only increasing in intensity. The exploitation of these beautiful, intelligent creatures can be stopped if horsemen and women will give their all to make it right. Then the sport will truly deserve its acclaim and success.