Horse racing is the oldest of all sports and its basic concept has not changed much over the centuries. But it has grown from a primitive contest of speed and stamina to a spectacle with thousands of horses, sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, and enormous sums of money. It has also come to feature many unsavory practices, which have a profoundly negative impact on public opinion and the industry’s bottom line.
Among these are the crooks who dangerously drug or otherwise abuse their horses, and the dupes who labor under the fantasy that the sport is broadly fair and honest. Then there are the masses in the middle—honorable souls who know that the industry is more crooked than it ought to be but don’t do all they can to fix it. This is where the rot lies, and serious reform must come if horse racing wants to reclaim its rightful place as a mainstream sport.
The most basic form of horse racing is the flat race, in which a group of competitors compete over distances of between five and twelve furlongs (1.0 and 2.4 km). The length of the races may vary according to local tradition, but in general short sprints are seen as tests of speed, while longer races are more often regarded as tests of stamina. In some of the most prestigious flat races, horses are assigned weights to carry for fairness; this is known as handicapping, and allowances for age and gender (for example fillies run against males) may also be applied.
In the modern era, racing has expanded beyond the traditional turf course to include a wide variety of track surfaces—including dirt, gravel, and sand. Most American horses now run on asphalt, but grass continues to be a popular surface for European racers. In the United States, racing has also embraced the use of synthetic tracks, which are safer and more environmentally friendly than the natural grasses that have traditionally been used.
In addition to the technological advances, race day procedures have improved dramatically since the days of Seabiscuit and Secretariat. Trainers now have access to advanced imaging equipment and can monitor their equine charges with binoculars during morning workouts. Drugs are now tested for with more frequency, and the equine athletes are subject to constant physical examinations by veterinarians and veterinary students.
However, some of these changes are being offset by the escalating numbers of people who are turning away from the sport as a whole and its attendant perks. According to a recent report, horse racing is losing fans, wagering action, and race days at an alarming rate. Growing awareness of the industry’s dark side—which includes breeding for profit, abusive training practices, illegal doping, and the transport of countless American horses to foreign slaughterhouses—may play a crucial role in driving future reforms.