A horse race is a contest in which horses are compelled to sprint—often while being whipped by humans perched on their backs—at breakneck speeds. Behind this romanticized facade is a cruel reality of injuries, drug abuse, breakdowns and slaughter. While some feel that the sport is inherently unnatural, others argue that despite its flaws, racing remains an honorable and worthwhile endeavor for its competitors.
Those who take issue with the way horse racing is run generally fall into three categories: the crooks that dangerously drug and otherwise mistreat their horses, the dupes who labor under the false fantasy that the industry is broadly fair and honest, and the honorable masses in the middle, who know that horse racing is more crooked than it ought to be but still don’t give everything they have to make the sport better. It’s from this group that serious reform must ultimately come if the industry is to thrive.
The sport is also hampered by its economics, which provide incentives to horsemen to run a horse past its limits. Most racehorses cost less than a decent used car, and the enormous prize money jacked up by taxpayer subsidies in casinos gives gamblers an incentive to wager on horses who should not be running in the first place.
To address this, the racing secretary assigns weights designed to equalize a horse’s chances of winning in a given race (the handicap system). These weights are based on a number of factors, including age (a two-year-old competes with less weight than a five-year-old), and gender (female horses competing with male horses carry lighter weights). In addition, a jockey may be granted allowances or penalties for various aspects of his or her riding ability, such as speed, pacing, etc.
An important part of any horse’s preparation is a workout, in which the jockey uses his or her hands to urge the animal forward while sparing it with the whip. A jockey who can ride without the use of the whip is said to have a “hand ride.” In addition, a horse whose trainer has won a certain number of races or placed a certain amount of money in bets is considered to be in the money.
A racecourse features a circular dirt or grass track with a series of measured markings called pole(s) to designate distance from the finish line, usually in increments of one to four miles. The marker closest to the finish is known as the quarter pole, and the marker that is a mile from the finish is called the half pole. A horse attempting to run the entire course is said to be in a marathon. A horse that finishes in the top four or five entitles its owner to a portion of the purse, which is the total monetary award paid out to winners after a deduction of a percentage by the track.