What is a Horse Race?

A horse race is a contest in which horses are trained to run against each other on a set distance, with the winner taking a certain amount of money (the prize pool) from the betting public. Horses have a long history in human culture, with evidence of racing in ancient Greece, Rome, Babylon, and Syria, and they play an important part in myth and legend, including the contest between the god Odin’s steeds and the giant Hrungnir. In the United States, racing started in the mid-18th century. The Civil War helped bring more interest, and the popularity of thoroughbreds led to a system in which the owner puts up money before the race begins, and the winner takes all of it, known as a purse. Then came the handicap races, which allow horses of all kinds to compete with each other.

A day at the track is a loud and chaotic affair. Spectators crowd into the grandstands and clamor around banks of TVs in the bowels of the stadium, cheering for their horses and shouting curses at competitors who aren’t performing well enough. Most of the horses are Thoroughbreds, the most expensive and elegant breed of horse. Some of the world’s most famous races are handicaps, such as the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in France, the Melbourne and Sydney cups in Australia, the Gran Premio Internacional Carlos Pellegrini in Argentina, and the Brooklyn and Metropolitan handicaps in the United States.

The eleven horses lined up at the starting gate in the sand-and-dirt track drenched with pinkish light. The smallest, a chestnut called Mongolian Groom, was at the back of the pack. War of Will, the year’s Preakness champion, took a early lead and held it around the clubhouse turn. Behind him were two other colts, McKinzie and Vino Rosso, each a few lengths behind.

Running fast comes naturally to thoroughbreds, but they need encouragement–whipping–to keep going when they’re tired. Their lower legs take a beating, straining ligaments, tendons, and joints. To help them, trainers use heavy blue padded bandages, and some horses wear a shadow roll across their noses to reduce the number of shadows they see.

After World War II, horse racing tried to compete with major professional and collegiate team sports for the attention of the public, but it missed an opportunity by refusing to embrace television, and interest has since waned. Today, only 1 to 2 percent of Americans list horse racing as their favorite sport.

The industry has improved its image, partly by instituting drug-control standards. But critics say that the new rules don’t go far enough, and that it will be impossible to stop doping without destroying the sport’s entire business model. In the meantime, a growing number of people are turning away from it, and many races have dwindled in size and attendance. Those who remain are mostly older, male, working-class whites. The sport struggles to attract younger patrons and compete with other gambling-related activities for their money.