A horse race is a contest in which horses are matched against each other over a distance of one or more miles. The races are often organized by a central authority, such as a government or the sport’s governing body, with a specific goal to render all horses equal in chance of winning (by assigning a handicap). The race is then run over a fixed course according to set rules and bets placed on individual horses. In the earliest days of horse racing, match races were arranged between individual owners of two or at most three horses, with a simple wager on which horse would win. Agreements were recorded by disinterested third parties, who came to be known as keepers of the match book. When an owner withdrew from a race, he or she forfeited half of the purse, later the whole of it.
During the early nineteenth century, demand for more public races resulted in open events with larger fields of runners. Eligibility was determined based on age, sex, birthplace, and previous performance. In the late nineteenth century, new technology prompted further changes in horse racing, including the introduction of the “price handicap.” In this system a handicap is applied to a given number of horses in a race to adjust their chances of winning relative to other competitors and make it easier for spectators to place bets on them.
The plight of the modern racehorse is a topic of worldwide concern. Horses are often born with skeletal systems that are still developing, and even after extensive training their muscles and tendons cannot fully prepare them to handle the stress of running a long distance at high speeds on hard surfaces. Horses are frequently rushed into racing before they are ready, leading to chronic injuries and a high death rate. Improvements in medical treatment and technology have done little to solve these problems.
In addition to their physical challenges, racehorses are also subjected to the psychological stress of competition, and some do not enjoy the sport at all. This leads to a variety of behavioral disorders, including laminitis and other chronic conditions. Some racehorses also have difficulty adapting to confinement, and they are often neglected by their owners and trainers.
The word “horse race” is often used to refer to a political campaign, as in the phrase “the horse race is tight.” This practice has been criticized for encouraging journalists to frame campaigns as competitive games, emphasizing momentum and the size of the lead rather than candidates’ qualifications or issue positions.
Spectators at horse races may be entertained by the beautiful spectacle of the horses and their riders, but they are also witness to a unique form of cultural exchange. The audience is comprised of many people from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, but they share the common experience of watching horses and placing bets. The cheers and curses from the crowded grandstand, many of them in Spanish and Chinese, have the rhythm and sound of universal imprecations.