Horse races are held on tracks and contested by horses that have been specially trained to compete with one another. Some people criticize the sport of horse racing, arguing that it is inhumane and corrupted by drug use and overbreeding. Others maintain that horse racing is a beautiful and thrilling sport that represents the pinnacle of achievement for the equine competitors.
Spectators wear fancy outfits, sip mint juleps and wager on their favorite horses. But behind the romanticized facade of horse racing is a world of injuries, drug abuse and gruesome breakdowns. Often, these horses are then sold at auction where they are destined to enter the slaughter pipeline.
While many people are concerned about the safety and health of racehorses, the horse racing industry is making a number of improvements. Thermal imaging cameras can detect when a horse is overheating after a race, MRI scanners and X-rays can pick up a number of minor or major health conditions and 3D printing is now able to provide custom casts, splints and prosthetics for injured horses. While some trainers and jockeys still employ whips, tongue-ties and spurs (all of which are illegal), the veterinary care available to horses on and off the track has improved significantly.
The first recorded horse race was held in France in 1651 as a result of a wager between two noblemen. During the reign of Louis XIV, King of France (1643-1715), a standardized racing format was developed for six-year-olds carrying 168 pounds in 4-mile heats. Eventually, five- and four-year-olds were allowed to participate in heat racing and the weight was reduced to 140 pounds for each age group.
Knowledge of organized racing in prehistory is not firmly established, but it is likely that the sport was well-established in ancient Greece with chariot and mounted (bareback) competitions during the period 700-40 bce. During the early years of the Roman Empire, horse racing was an important part of the Olympic Games and it was also a popular pastime in China, Persia and Arabia.
Today, the sport is dominated by thoroughbreds who have been specially bred to run very quickly. The majority of these horses are given a cocktail of legal and illegal drugs designed to mask pain and enhance performance.
Some of the most famous races are the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders’ Cup. In addition to these major races, there are hundreds of smaller races for various breeds and levels of competition.
In a typical race, the horses are placed in stalls in a starting gate and then paraded past spectators before being walked to the start of the race. The horse that starts the race is designated by its post position. A horse that accompanies the starter to the starting gate is known as a lead pony. During a race, the lead ponies are usually expected to be close to the front of the field and the fastest horses will try to get up to them as soon as possible.