The Evolution of the Horse Race

The feeling of the earth tremble as a mass of thundering hooves comes barreling down the stretch is one of horse racing’s greatest pleasures. For those who don’t have the money for private suites or reserved seating, a visit to a racetrack often means standing amongst the working-class masses in the bowels of the grandstand and listening to the curses, usually uttered in Spanish and Chinese, that rise with the roar of the horses.

In many ways, these people are the heart of racing. While a few cheats, dangerously doping their horses and endangering others, may be around, most horse race fans labor under the illusion that the sport is broadly fair and honest. This naiveté is partly why so many Americans have turned away from the sport. They don’t want to be associated with an industry that is rife with corruption, doping, and cruelty.

But racing is also a sport that has evolved with the onset of the Information Age, bringing with it advances in race-day security and medical technology for horses and jockeys. Equine health experts now have MRI scanners, x-ray machines and 3D printing that can produce casts and splints for injured horses, as well as medical devices for monitoring the horses’ condition during races. Thermal imaging cameras detect heat stress, a significant risk for the horses’ long-term health.

Horse race has long been a popular form of gambling, but the popularity of other forms of betting has reduced its overall revenue and led to declining audiences for live racing. This has been exacerbated by scandals related to the safety and doping of horses, turning off new would-be fans.

The earliest races were match races between two horses, often over several four-mile heats. These were followed by races in which horses carried a specific amount of weight (known as a purse) for each mile they ran, with winners awarded the money. The American Civil War helped bring the popularity of thoroughbred racing to new heights. Cavalrymen needed fast horses and Union officials encouraged breeding to this purpose.

But in the end, even though horse racing has changed a great deal, it remains a brutal sport. Even with the best of intentions and a huge investment in security, horses can be abused, doped, or badly hurt during races. A serious injury can cause permanent lameness and, if untreated, can lead to death. And despite the recent success of the Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Authority, which has been enforcing safety standards, a lot of horses are still dying to entertain fans. This needs to change. Unless it does, the sport will fade into irrelevancy. The stakes are too high for it not to.