The Risks of a Horse Race

A horse race is a contest of speed and stamina between one or more horses, ridden by jockeys or pulled by sulkies. It is one of the oldest sports, with roots in ancient Greek and Roman culture and an important part of mythology. It has become a global industry with many high-profile races attracting equestrian superstars and fans from around the world.

The sport has evolved from a primitive contest to a modern spectacle, with huge fields of runners and sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, but its essential feature has remained the same: whoever finishes first wins. Horse racing is also a sport of gambling and is an important source of revenue for many states.

Despite its popularity and profitability, horse racing is not without its risks for the animals that run. The equine athletes are bred to have massive torsos and spindly legs, and the sport is conducted on extremely hard surfaces, which can lead to serious injuries. Injuries include pulmonary hemorrhage, or bleeding out of the lungs, fractured necks and spines, ruptured ligaments and shattered legs — sometimes with skin as the only thing holding the bones together.

Most of these maladies are preventable by keeping the horses in good health and in optimal physical condition. Yet racehorses are subjected to intense training at an early age and pushed beyond their limits for the sake of winning. During a recent testimony before the New York state Senate, a New York State veterinary expert likened keeping a 1,000-pound animal confined in a 12-by-12-foot stall to locking a 100-pound child in a closet for 23 hours a day.

Horses may have to be injected with steroids and other drugs in order to maintain their performance on the track. The equine veterinarian who examined Havnameltdown after his death, for example, found the bone-cracking fracture of his left hind leg to be a result of chronic degenerative joint disease and multiple osteoarthritis in the lower legs. He also reported the presence of a painful condition called “bone cysts,” which are holes in the bone, often caused by stress.

Some horse races are graded, which means the racing secretary assigns weights designed to equalize the chances of entrants. These weights are based on a number of factors, including the quality of the horses, the amount of added money and the historical importance of the race.

The most prestigious flat races are graded as Grade I, Grade II or Grade III. The best horses carry heavier weights, which gives them a greater chance of winning than a less-premium horse with the same finishing time and record.

The race organizers are hoping to build on the Preakness’s tradition of excellence, but that effort is a gamble. It will cost taxpayers nearly $400 million to renovate the 19th-century Pimlico course, and the sport is a long way from breaking even in Maryland. Meanwhile, it is becoming increasingly difficult to subsidize the polling and other costs of a major horse race in a swing state.