Horse racing is a sport in which horses are harnessed to two-wheeled carts or chariots and compete over a distance. The sport originated in ancient Greece and was later adopted by the Romans and the Egyptians. It remained popular throughout the Middle East and Asia, where it was played by kings and emperors.
Modern horse races are usually held over a distance of one mile or more. The winners are determined by whoever crosses the finish line first. Prior to the 19th century, wagers were private and placed by individual racegoers. During the reign of Louis XIV, however, betting was regulated. This regulation included requiring certificates of origin for horses and imposing weight restrictions on foreign horses. In the modern era, horse races are operated by pari-mutuel systems in which all bettors share the pool’s total winnings minus a small percentage for the track management.
In addition to the physical and emotional strains of running, horses often suffer from a variety of health issues. Some of these include laminitis, a disease that causes painful degenerative changes in the hooves and lower limbs. The condition is also exacerbated by stress and the use of drugs to enhance performance. It’s estimated that up to 90 percent of all thoroughbreds have laminitis at some point in their lives.
Behind the romanticized facade of horse racing is a world of injuries, drug abuse, gruesome breakdowns, and slaughter. While spectators show off their fancy outfits and sip mint juleps, the horses are running for their lives. They are pushed to sprint—often under the threat of whips and even illegal electric-shocking devices—at speeds so fast that they sustain serious injuries. This has led to a high rate of breakdowns and deaths among Thoroughbreds.
The equine industry is undergoing major change in 2023. The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, a new regulatory agency established by Congress in 2020, has been working to increase transparency and set stricter standards for the sport. These changes are being met with resistance from the industry, but Congress appears committed to enforcing the regulations.
As the sport of horse racing evolves, so too must the humane treatment of animals involved. While some horse owners remain loth to see their horses treated with compassion, others are embracing the advancements that can benefit them and their horses. Whether it’s thermal imaging cameras that can detect overheating, MRI scanners to diagnose minor and major injuries, or 3D printing to create casts and splints for injured horses, horseracing is taking advantage of the onset of the Information Age. But despite the progress being made, it will take time to eliminate all of the pain and suffering that still occurs for these magnificent animals. Until then, the horse race will continue to be a dangerous and deadly sport for horses and humans.