When humans watch horse races, they expect to see a thrilling spectacle of speed and power. But behind the romanticized facade of this popular sport is a dark reality of gruesome injuries, drug abuse, breakdowns, and slaughter. Growing awareness of racing’s darker side is fueling calls for reform.
In a race, horses compete against each other over distances ranging from 1/4 mile (1.2 kilometers) to 2 1/2 miles (4 km). The longest races are often considered tests of stamina rather than speed, and they require large, mature horses with considerable endurance. The sport has traditionally been dominated by Thoroughbreds, but races for other breeds of horse exist as well.
During a horse race, the horses are assigned weights to carry, which affect their chances of winning. The weights are based on the horse’s age and experience, with younger and less experienced horses carrying more weight than older or more experienced horses. In addition to the age and experience weights, a horse’s performance can also be affected by its starting position, sex (female horses are usually given a sex allowance), and training.
Before the modernization of horse racing, races were match contests between two or at most three horses. Later, pressure from the public prompted changes to the rules of racing, resulting in races with larger fields and shorter distances. Early races were four-mile (6.4-kilometer) heats, with a win requiring winning both. Eventually the races became dash, or one-heat, events, with a victory requiring a mere fraction of a second over the opponent.
The earliest races were open to all horse breeds, but eventually rules were developed that restricted racing to horses with pedigrees of the highest quality. In 1913, the Jersey Act was passed by the English Jockey Club to disqualify horses bred outside England and Ireland. The move was a response to a rash of victories in prestigious English races by horses with tainted American blood.
Although modern horse races are more regulated than their ancestors, there is still an enormous amount of illegal betting in the sport. This leads to many corruption scandals involving jockeys, owners, and other racing officials. Some of these scandals have involved the use of illegal drugs by jockeys.
In addition to the legal races, there are also many unsanctioned “bush” races where horses are run on secluded tracks away from the official race courses. Unlike the legal races, bush tracks typically are not fenced or maintained, and the horses may suffer injuries or even die from running at such dangerous speeds. In addition, bush races may be a breeding ground for diseases and parasites that can be transmitted to the horses and affect their health and racing abilities. Some organizations have called for a ban on these informal and often unsafe races. Others have advocated for educating the general public about the dangers of bush racing and providing law enforcement officials with the training and equipment needed to investigate and prosecute violations.