What is a Horse Race?

A horse race is a competition where humans bet on the success of horses in a track. Historically, bets were private, but in the 19th century betting became more widespread. A pari-mutuel system was established, in which bettors place money in a pool with the track management, who then divide it between winners, placers, and showers, taking a percentage for themselves. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, bets were also placed on individual races (win, place, show).

Behind the romanticized facade of Thoroughbred racing is a world of injuries, drug abuse, gruesome breakdowns, and slaughter. The sport, in which horses are forced to sprint, often under the threat of whips and illegal electric shock devices, is known for causing serious, sometimes fatal injuries to both horse and rider. Many of the horses who lose races are retired to pastures where they die or end up in slaughterhouses, where their flesh is turned into glue and dog food.

In the backstretch of the Preakness, eleven horses gathered to line up for their big day. The track was muddy, but the horses moved with immense speed and hypnotic smoothness. War of Will, that year’s Preakness winner, took an early lead. But as the pack reached the clubhouse turn, he was wearing down and began to fade. McKinzie, a small-framed bay colt, was on his heels.

The jockeys were sweating, but they had a lot to look forward to. The prize for winning was a purse—a monetary sum distributed after the race to the owners of the horses who finish in the top five or six places. For trainers, it meant an opportunity to earn millions of dollars.

While the horses ran, spectators sipped mint juleps and admired their fancy outfits. But underneath all that, the horses were running for their lives. In a race, they are forced to sprint—often under the threat of whips and even illegal electric shock devices—at speeds so high that they often suffer severe injuries and hemorrhage from their lungs.

The screams of the horses, the thundering hooves of their huge feet, and the throbbing of their bodies are a part of Kentucky tradition. But the race is not a perfect metaphor for America’s national addiction to gambling and our desire to see the bottom of the barrel. The sport has been transformed in recent years by a series of technological innovations. Thermal imaging cameras, MRI scanners, X-rays, and 3D printing have helped to improve safety on the track. The industry has also been reshaped by new rules, which are now centrally controlled. The Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Authority—which oversees these changes—began enforcing them last July. And the results have been encouraging: The rate of fatalities has dropped from a high of two per 1,000 starts to less than a quarter of that.