Horse racing has evolved over the centuries from a primitive contest of speed or stamina between two horses into a modern public-entertainment spectacle involving large fields of runners, sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment and immense sums of money. But its basic concept has not changed: whoever finishes first wins.
Although the sport is known for its high stakes and glamorous atmosphere, the reality is much different than the romanticized facade of a thoroughbred horse race. Behind the scenes is a world of drug abuse, gruesome breakdowns and slaughter. Often, horses are forced to run—often while being whipped and subjected to electric shock devices—at speeds that can cause severe injuries such as hemorrhages in the lungs.
In the early days of organized racing, the most popular races were those between horses of similar quality. But the Civil War and the expansion of the railroads encouraged a shift to racing fields that favored the more versatile crossbreds—the breeders’ answer to the Union army’s need for fast cavalrymen. The new races became the most prestigious, and they offered bigger prizes—known as purses—to attract more spectators and generate interest in betting.
The races were often divided into categories, with allowances for younger or female horses or those running against males based on the relative ability of each horse in its class. These are called handicap races. In the early days, prize money was winner-take-all; later, a second and third prize were added. Currently, the richest races offer purses of millions of dollars.
A horse’s performance in a race depends on its genetic makeup, age at the time of the race, training and the number and quality of other competitors. It is believed that a horse reaches its peak abilities at about age five. But because of the escalating size of the purses, horses are bred to race at an earlier age and then kept in training for longer than was traditional.
As with all sports, horse racing is a business. While some horse owners and jockeys are dedicated to improving the welfare of their animals, others simply view it as an entertainment option they can enjoy with friends and family while making a profit. The profit-driven mentality of the industry is the primary reason that animal advocates argue that it’s ill-equipped to protect its own horses from cruelty.
The best hope for the survival of horse racing as a respectable and viable business is for its leaders to decide that the horses matter enough to take sweeping, complicated and untraditional steps that will improve their welfare from breeding through retirement and beyond. This would require a full ideological reckoning at both the macro business and industry level, including changes in the minds of horsemen. It isn’t too late to start. The future of horse racing hinges on the fates of Eight Belles, Medina Spirit, Keepthename, Creative Plan and Laoban—and all the young running horses to come. And it depends on the donations of gamblers and industry folks who want to see this happen.