A horse race is a sporting event in which horses compete in a contest of speed and stamina. The sport evolved from ancient contests between two or more horses to today’s large fields of runners and sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, but its fundamental concept remains the same: The horse that crosses the finish line first is declared the winner. While some criticize the sport as inhumane or corrupted by doping and overbreeding, many others still embrace it as a popular pastime and an exciting spectacle to be watched from the grandstands or even from the comfort of their homes.
The earliest races were match races between two or at most three horses, with the owners providing the purse. As the sport developed, agreements on handicapping came into place. One such agreement was the “play or pay” rule, in which an owner who withdrew a horse forfeited a certain percentage of the purse, later increased to 100%. These arrangements were recorded by disinterested third parties, known as keepers of the match book. One of these was John Cheny at Newmarket in England, who began publishing An Historical List of All Horse-Matches Run (1729).
As demand for racing grew, a number of public events were created. Rules were established governing the eligibility of horses based on age, sex, and birthplace as well as the qualifications of riders (gentleman riders). In time, the resulting public races became a complex amalgam of rules that included weight allowances conditioned by age, distance, and previous purse earnings.
During the course of a race, it is customary for a jockey to mount his or her assigned horse and then ride it through the entire length of the race. A jockey’s job is to steer the horse around obstacles and into position to take advantage of favorable odds. In a straight race, the jockey must also be able to navigate the turns with precision and timing.
In a handicapped race, the race’s secretary sets a set weight allowance for each horse based on its performance and past earnings. The horses are then ranked in order of the lowest to highest weight. This allows the best horses to run in the top tier of the race while limiting the chances of the weaker ones winning.
The Melbourne Cup, commonly referred to as “The Race that Stops a Nation”, is the most prestigious event on Australia’s horse racing calendar. The cup is held on the first Tuesday of November at Melbourne’s Flemington Racecourse and is widely considered to be the premier horse race in the world, with a prize pool of over $8 million. It is also a major social event, with celebrity-filled Millionaires Row and 80,000 partygoers packing the infield to mix and mingle. Despite the huge numbers, however, growing awareness of animal cruelty within the industry has put a strain on the sport, leading to declining attendance and revenue. This has spurred some organizations, such as PETA, to investigate abusive training practices for young horses, drug use, and the transport of horses to slaughterhouses in foreign countries.