Horse races are a popular spectator sport worldwide and have been since ancient times. The first chariot and horse racing competitions were held in the Olympic Games of Greece over the period 700-40 bce. Racing continued in the Roman Empire, where it was organized into a series of national and regional tournaments. In modern times, most of the major events take place on flat or sand tracks. Unlike most major sports leagues, the dozens of states that host horse racing have their own set of rules and standards that govern the industry. Horse trainers and owners who violate these rules face varying punishments from one jurisdiction to the next.
In addition to being a popular spectator sport, horse racing is also an important economic generator. It attracts tourists from across the country and globe and has a huge impact on local economy in areas that host a race. In addition, the sport provides jobs for a significant number of people. In the United States, it employs about 60,000 people in various roles, including track maintenance, veterinarians, and breeding employees. The sport generates about $4.6 billion in annual revenues.
The earliest racing was simple match races between two or three horses. Typically, the owner of each horse provided the purse, a small wager that was placed on the winning animal. If a horse withdrew from the race, it would forfeit half or all of the money bet on it. These agreements were recorded by disinterested third parties, who came to be known as keepers of the match book. One such keeper at Newmarket, England, published An Historical List of All Horse-Matches Run (1729).
After the advent of standardized races in the early 1600’s, breeders began crossbreeding hot-blooded Arabian and Barb horses with native cold-blooded British horses to develop a fast, lightweight breed that could outrun chariots. These new breeds of Thoroughbreds were soon used to win the most important equestrian contests, the King’s Plates. These races were originally for six-year-olds carrying 168 pounds in four-mile heats, and winners were declared after the second of the two heats.
A common feature of a horse race is a handicap, in which the weights that horses carry during a race are adjusted according to the age and other qualities of each individual competitor. The idea is to give all horses a fair chance of victory and to prevent the sport from being dominated by the best-bred and most expensive animals.
Despite the many advances that have been made in the race-horse industry, it still routinely exposes horses to exhilarating physical stress and sometimes deadly injury or breakdown. The deaths of Eight Belles and Medina Spirit sparked an industry reckoning about the dark side of horse racing that continues to this day. Donations from industry folk and gamblers are crucial to helping the sport improve its safety measures. But a deeper ideological reckoning on the macro business and industry level is needed to decide whether or not the best interests of the horse are being put first.