Horse races are one of the oldest sports in the world, and while the sport has evolved from a primitive contest of speed or stamina to a spectacle with vast fields of runners, sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment, and enormous sums of money, its essential feature remains unchanged: the first horse to cross the finish line is the winner. Whether they are attending to place a bet, watch the race, or cheer on their favorite horse, many fans find horse racing is an exciting and fulfilling experience that has stood the test of time.
In the past, horse races were match races between two or at most three horses. Owners provided the horses and the purse for the race, and bettors placed wagers on each horse’s chances of winning. If an owner withdrew from the race, he or she forfeited half (later, all) of the purse. Agreements on betting came to be recorded by disinterested third parties, known as keepers of the match books.
The earliest match races were run on grass and dirt tracks in Europe. Later, turf and clay surfaces became the primary venues for racing. In the United States, organized horse racing began with the British occupation of New Amsterdam in 1664. The sport quickly grew to become a major diversion of leisure time and a huge public-entertainment business. The sport’s popularity declined rapidly after the Civil War, however, and by the first decades of the 21st century, its public-entertainment status had shrunk considerably.
During a horse race, horses must follow a specified course and jump any hurdles on the track if present. A race is considered complete when the first, second and sometimes third-place horses have crossed the finish line. For many attendees, this is the sole reason to attend a race, and bets are placed on the horse that will come in first or second. In addition to betting on individual horses, there are also accumulator bets, in which multiple bets are placed.
While the horse racing industry claims that horse races are humane and safe for their athletes, PETA estimates that ten thousand American thoroughbreds are slaughtered each year. The animals are drugged and whipped, trained too young and pushed to the limit of their physical capabilities, often suffering from painful injuries. In addition to these inhumane practices, a great number of the horses are also bled, a practice that can be dangerous or even fatal for them. Several technological advances have occurred in recent years that have improved the safety of horses and jockeys. MRI scanners and X-rays can detect minor and serious health problems, while thermal imaging cameras can help prevent overheating after a race. 3D printing technology is also used to make casts, splints and prosthetics for injured or ailing horses. This has greatly increased the life expectancy of these incredible athletes, and may also lead to a safer and more humane future for the horse racing industry.