The Dark Side of Horse Racing

Horse racing is a popular spectator sport and contributes $15 billion to the economy annually. The most famous race is the Kentucky Derby, followed by the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes to complete the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred horse races. While many people attend these races to drink mint juleps and show off their fancy outfits, behind the romanticized facade of horse racing is a world of drug abuse, injuries, breakdowns, and slaughter. Growing awareness of the dark side of horse racing has fueled improvements in training practices, drug use, and animal cruelty.

Individual flat races are typically run over distances between 440 yards and four miles (although longer races are quite rare). Short races, known as sprints in the United States and “routes” in Europe, are seen as tests of fast acceleration, while long-distance races are considered tests of stamina. Each race includes a designated course and jumps (if present). Riders must follow the prescribed course and leap each obstacle in a safe manner to win the race. The first, second, and third finishers receive an award, known as a prize purse.

Throughout history, the most important horse races have been determined by the quality of the horses involved, the skill and judgment of the jockeys, and the crowd’s reaction to each performance. The greatest races evoke an aura of ineffable glory, as if there is something special about the moment before a winner becomes clear—the climax before the outcome is decided. Secretariat’s 31-length demolition job in the 1973 Belmont Stakes and Arkle’s six-length annihilation of a top-quality field at the 1965 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe are prime examples of such head-to-head showdowns.

Horses have been bred and trained for racing since antiquity. Archaeological records reveal the existence of horse races in ancient Greece, Egypt, and Rome. They are also an important part of myth and legend, like the contest between the steeds of Odin and the giant Hrungnir in Norse mythology.

The first organized race in America took place in 1664, when Colonel Richard Nicolls established the sport by laying out a 2-mile course on Long Island. The sport quickly became a national sensation. By the 1830s, horse racing roused more interest than a presidential election. The popularity of horse racing grew steadily as Americans began to breed better and faster thoroughbreds. By the Civil War, race-day attendance often surpassed the number of people who attended the annual presidential inaugurations.

The enduring appeal of horse racing is its ability to thrill the public and to unite diverse communities. This appeal is based on the fact that horse racing is more than just a sport; it is an art form and a cultural phenomenon. It is the defining sport of America, and it is home to a wide array of cultural icons, from historic tracks to major events and significant institutions, such as the American Stud Book. Unlike most sports, where ticket prices are sky-high, horse racing is affordable and accessible to the general public.