A horse race is a for-profit sport in which humans bet on horses to win. The equine athletes race around a fixed course, jumping hurdles (if present) and other obstacles on the way to the finish line. The first three horses over the line receive a certain amount of prize money, while those that place fourth and fifth are awarded less. In the United States, horse races are organized and regulated by the Jockey Club, which sets rules for each event and determines how much prize money will be distributed.
The earliest documented horse race was held in 1651 as the result of a wager between noblemen. By the 18th century racing had become a global business, with rules governing eligibility for races established based on age, sex, birthplace, and previous performance. Prizes were established as a way to attract and reward the best horses.
The sport’s reputation for cruelty and violence is well established, with stories of brutal training practices for young horses, drug use, injuries, breakdowns, and the deaths of many of the animals in a sport that has long claimed to be “humane.” Growing awareness and public pressure have fueled recent improvements, with more race days and better conditions for the animals.
But for the sport to truly survive, it will need to decide if the horses matter enough to take the complicated and expensive steps required to put them at the forefront of its decision making—from breeding shed to aftercare, from caps on the number of times horses can run, to integrating a more natural, equine-friendly lifestyle into their lives.
Horse racing’s entrenched culture of masculinity is a formidable obstacle to change, but the trend is encouraging: More female jockeys have joined the ranks of male jockeys, and more than half of Australia’s current trainers are women. And while the American Breeders’ Cup was marred by the death of Triple Crown winner Big Brown, the sport now has a national body to enforce safety standards.
As for the horses, they now compete under a system that prioritizes health and longevity, and requires an adherence to stricter feeding and veterinary standards. But even if these improvements were to continue, it would be impossible for racing to return to its glory days without significant reforms that prioritize the welfare of the animals.
In 2020 Congress decided it was unwilling to see horses die for the sake of betting, and passed laws requiring that the new safety standards be applied across the country. The new Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Authority began enforcing the new rules in July 2022, and it is already improving the industry. In the past, there were up to two fatalities per 1,000 starts; now there are fewer than one. But there are still problems, most notably in the handling of the equine drugs. The law doesn’t ban a specific drug, called Lasix, but trainers are still injecting their horses on race day with the steroid, claiming that it prevents the pulmonary bleeding that hard running can cause.